DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The other evening a spillover crowd of about 300 people packed into a private apartment in a suburb of Damascus to hear an amateur political theorist - his day job is dentistry - read quickly through a quietly revolutionary speech.
Following the hour-long discourse, Wejdan, a 30-something Damascene with reddish hair and a communist past, stood up to stretch her legs after sitting in the apartment's chilly stairwell. "For a very short time," she explained with a smile, "we have begun to feel free."
How long this feeling will last or where it will lead, no one is certain. But in recent months it has grown clear that Syria's new president, Bashar al-Assad, is intent on modernizing his country's cold-war-era economy. He is also allowing political discussions that his late father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with autocratic certainty for 30 years, would have found intolerable.
Western-style democracy and the rule of law are pretty much strangers to the Middle East, but there are signs of change. This week the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Bahrain will vote on a new charter that promises citizens equal rights. Iranians have been agitating for years against the authoritarian powers wielded by the country's religious leaders.
Since the death of the elder Assad last June, Syrians have breathed a new atmosphere of openness, but this country's history of political repression gives many people pause.
Wejdan, who was jailed for four years in the 1980s for political activity, says she has faith in Bashar, but not so much that she would allow her full name to be published. She is pregnant and says she doesn't want to have her baby in prison.
"All this is words; nothing will change," says one Damascus trading-company executive who attended the same meeting as Wejdan and declined to be named. The government is only allowing the political talk to flourish in order to see who is against them, he adds. "Then they are going to arrest everybody."
Syria's toe in the water of political freedom isn't a public debate in the conventional sense. Because the Syrian media are state-owned and meeting in a public hall requires the permission of the security establishment, those who want to talk about reform do so in private homes.
Since late last year, informal groups have formed in the capital and other cities to discuss the economy, human rights, politics, and other topics. The pinnacle of this living-room movement is the suburban Damascus apartment of Riad Seif, a businessman and member of parliament who has become the most prominent proponent of reform.
Wejdan and the trading-company executive joined hundreds of others at Mr. Seif's apartment last Wednesday to hear dentist Radwan Ziadeh analyze Syria's failure to achieve democracy and how it might do so in the future.
Seif, an energetic man, isn't terribly optimistic. "They refuse any move toward real democracy, because they say it is too early," he says of the government. Syria has some trappings of democratic rule - such as an elected parliament and plebiscite to confirm popular support for the president - but the overpowering dominance of the ruling Ba'ath party leaves little room for dissent.
In a plebiscite that christened him president, the younger Assad received 97 percent of the vote, slightly less than the 99 percent his father routinely received.
The country remains in a state of martial law imposed in 1963, during the days of frequent Arab-Israeli warfare, which gives the government a free hand to do just about whatever it wants to in the name of security. Abolishing martial law and legislation to allow new political parties are the reformers' top two demands. A free press and an independent judiciary are close behind.
Exactly what President Assad thinks about the political discussions is a matter of intense speculation and queasy uncertainty. There are clues, but little solid ground.
In an interview with London's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that appeared last Thursday, Assad indicated that there should be no foreign interference in the Syrian discussions and that the "security and stability of the homeland" had to be maintained. "Within these limits, everything is permissible, while any attempt to overstep them would be met with a stern response," Assad added.
Other government officials have said that talk about political reform and efforts to promote "civil society" were permissible as long as they benefited the country. The problem is, of course, in knowing where these lines are drawn. "Who will decide what benefits Syria?" asks Seif, "Who is the judge?"
In the interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Assad sounded a good deal more enthusiastic about people getting together to talk about the economy. "Economic reform," he said, "is the main subject of discussion in Syria today. Within this sphere, there are no limits."
Syria's economy remains a relic of the socialist era. Despite modest oil revenues and a well-educated population of about 17 million, Syria trails neighboring countries more in tune with free-market global economics.
In 1998, Syria's per capita gross domestic product was a little more than $1,000; in Lebanon it was $4,500, and Turkey, $6,600. There are no privately owned banks, no private universities, no stock exchanges. The good news is that the government has announced plans to allow or establish all three. Diplomats in Damascus are skeptical about how well actions will match words, but credit the government for legal changes that make it easier for Syrians to engage in foreign trade.
One reason Assad is allowing the political discussions, suggests one Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, is the difficulties he faces in pursuing his economic agenda. "If you can't produce on the economy," he says, "it's a way to convince people that there is movement."
An ophthalmologist who became his father's heir apparent after his elder brother Basil died in a 1994 car crash, Bashar is said to have a more outward vision, in part because of a nine-month stint he spent in London for medical training.
"These nine months made him more liberal than others," says Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a University of Damascus professor and political analyst. "He wants all the people to be involved in glasnost [and] do what they can to build the state."
His father mainly concerned himself with internal stability and with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The latter is by no means over, and it remains an impediment to regional development. The younger Assad is keeping the door open to peace talks with Israel, but has said he will not deviate from his father's negotiating positions.
Those who have met the young president say he is congenial, bright, and impressive in personal encounters. But he remains unproven, the dynastic heir of a ruler who schemed and fought his way into power and then used sometimes brutal means to stay there.
Given an economic elite that has vested interests in the status quo and parts of the political and security establishment that may not find reform appealing, there is reason to wonder whether the president can pull off his agenda. As one Syrian intellectual who declined to be named says bluntly: "People have doubts about Bashar's ability to lead the country."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society