Divisions Stymie Reform in Syria


It was broad daylight on a crowded Damascus street, Nizar Nayyouf says, when police yanked him out of a car, threw a sack over his head and whisked him away.

Even in a country where thousands have been imprisoned and tortured for their political views, the recent charges of a prominent human rights activist have caused problems for the Syrian regime.

The government insists that the abduction never took place. But the allegation that security forces acted on their own--and released Nayyouf only after a belated order from the top--has gained widespread credibility here, fueling a perception that fledgling President Bashar Assad is not yet firmly in control.

"Syria now is a decapitated state," said Dr. A. Samir Altaqi, a former member of parliament and an outspoken critic of the regime. "We have no leader. The old is dying, but the new is not yet born."

A year after the death of ironfisted President Hafez Assad, Syria remains very much in transition as the late leader's 35-year-old son tries to consolidate power.

Despite great expectations that the new president would move quickly to advance social, political and economic reforms, the kind of change he first talked about has been stymied by powerful people who became rich and privileged under the existing system. In fact, many Syrians say endemic corruption has gotten worse since the younger Assad became president.

Various Powers Pursue Their Own Agendas

Many analysts here say the reports of Nayyouf's June abduction have reinforced the belief that Dr. Bashar--as he is called here--is struggling to control independent elements of the political system his father created.

And so while all parties here acknowledge a desperate need for economic reform--if nothing else--no single force is leading the way. Instead, divided centers of power are pursuing individual interests, exacerbating the country's problems with corruption.

"The president now is equal among others--he is no longer the center of the system, no longer the person who holds the power," said Michel Kilo, a prominent civil rights activist and scholar. "Now we have centers of power."

The president's supporters say he is taking a measured approach, trying to reform the country without disturbing the entrenched institutions, including the security services. They say he fears that a quick move could spur a political or fiscal crisis similar to the one that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that he is eager to preserve the best elements of the old system while moving the country toward prosperity.

"We want to modernize and become part of the global economy," said Walid Tish, a member of the ruling Baath Party and a strong supporter of the regime. "The president is our great hope in dealing with all the challenges that Syria is facing."

Bashar Assad is the accidental president. His older brother, Basil, a swashbuckling military officer, was supposed to succeed their father. But Basil died in 1994 in a car accident, and Bashar, an ophthalmologist, found himself next in line.

Upon taking power, Assad did not lay out a Western vision of reform. He adopted his father's foreign policy wholesale and has tried to preserve the tightly controlled political system. But he did speak of the need to overhaul a moribund economy and allow opposition forces some room to speak without fear of imprisonment.

Most of all, he recognized the need to combat corruption, which has infiltrated every aspect of public and private life. By one estimate, the price of each retail product sold here is inflated by 18% to cover corruption-related costs.

"Inefficient administration is today the greatest impediment standing in the way of our march toward improved development," Assad has said. "There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evildoers to justice."

Even before taking office, Assad headed a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that sent a deputy prime minister and a transport minister to prison. After his ascension, he released hundreds of political prisoners and closed one of the country's most infamous prisons. He allowed a newspaper not aligned with the ruling party to open. He even permitted public gatherings of the politically minded, something unheard of under his father.

Now people aren't sure if those actions were part of a sincere effort at reform or cosmetic changes intended to relieve pressure in a frustrated society. In either case, most of the public gatherings have since been stopped, the independent newspaper reportedly has ties to the intelligence community, and the secret police are everywhere.

Assad did succeed in allowing greater freedom of speech, but people remain so afraid of arrest that they routinely stick their mobile phones under pillows or leave them in other rooms out of fear the devices are being used for eavesdropping.

"I believe the guy is sincere himself," said Nabil Samman, an economist and political observer. "But he has to face mountains of problems, pyramids of people with influence, centers of power which will lose their interests or which feel threatened that they may be prosecuted if reforms move ahead."

Looking the Other Way on Currency Exchange

Even loyal members of the Baath Party acknowledge the situation.

"Yes, of course corruption is a problem," said Omran Alzoabi, an attorney and party loyalist. "But the campaign against corruption continues at every single level. It is not only a government campaign but a popular one."

Economists and businesspeople cite the issue of currency exchange as one example of how Assad's desire to open the economy has run up against someone else's vested interest. It is illegal to exchange Syrian pounds for foreign currency. If that law were enforced, it would be impossible for anyone to do any kind of import-export business, because hard currency is necessary to pay for goods manufactured abroad.

But with a wink and a nod, the government does allow currency exchange--as long as it gets a cut of the action, according to merchants, economists and political analysts. To legalize the transaction would cut into someone's profit.

"The government turns a blind eye to what we do," said one merchant who spoke on the condition he not be identified and who makes a living buying and selling foreign currencies. "All the government cares about is that it gets its percentage."

On a busy street in downtown Damascus, the capital, customers file in and out of a shop set up to look like a shoe store. But the boxes are empty and covered with a thick layer of dust. Customers walk up to a small desk, where they buy and sell dollars.

The culture of corruption was institutionalized by Assad's father, who maintained his power in part by allowing his lieutenants and certain groups to profit from their positions. As a result, the younger Assad inherited a system that extends from cabdrivers to large businesses to the government itself.

Corruption 'Is Like Breathing to Us'

Mohammed--who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal--works nights driving a taxi; by day he is an officer in an intelligence unit. One recent evening, he handed a police officer 100 Syrian pounds, about $2, so he could park his cab at the airport and wait for a passenger, which would otherwise have been prohibited.

"It's an arrangement between the two of us," said the cabdriver. "It's all right; I'm one of them."

A physician, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said corruption is so pervasive that "it is like breathing to us." He said patients at his medical center--where health care is supposed to be free--routinely bribe doctors to move up on the long waiting list for surgery. The doctors in turn pay off the hospital director, who in turn hands money to someone in the government, he said.

"More than 70% to 80% of all operations are paid for," the doctor said, "though they are not supposed to be."

The charges of corruption go to the top of the government. In February, the government awarded a 15-year contract to a vendor to bring much wider mobile phone service to Syria. Riad Seif, a member of parliament and a proponent of reform, alleges that the contract was steered to a powerful local businessman with strong ties to the government. His allegations have led parliament to launch an investigation.

"Any monopoly in politics brings a monopoly in business," Seif said. "Corruption in Syria has paralyzed Syria. In the last year, corruption has become much worse."

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