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Syrians talk of a country held back by fear

By Lauren E. Bohn, Special to CNN
  • Lauren E. Bohn: Syrians seeking more freedom say they see speech, business growth stifled
  • Bohn: Ubiquitous photos show that Syrian leader's "eyes are always on us," student says
  • Many still back president, saying he inherited his father's dysfunctional regime, she says
  • Critics: "Syria is run like family business," regime isn't likely to cede power willingly, Bohn says

Editor's note: Lauren E. Bohn has spent the last two weeks in Syria. She is based in Cairo, where she is studying Arabic and is the associate editor of American University in Cairo's new foreign policy journal "The Cairo Review." She contributed this commentary to CNN.

(CNN) -- Yazan, 23, shuffles into a cafe in the Old City of Damascus. "Sorry I'm late," he says, quickly ordering a Smirnoff and a toshka, a sandwich of meat and cheese. "But I was arguing with all my friends who've joined pro-Bashar [al-Assad] Facebook groups. They always tell me to be quiet. I'm the crazy old man in the corner that no one listens to."

The University of Damascus student calls himself Jason Bourne, a play on the enigmatic David Webb character in the "Bourne" movie trilogy. He carries his data in his pocket on a USB stick, and when he talks with a friend on the phone about anything remotely political, they speak in Spanish.

I met Yazan and many other Syrians -- insiders and opponents of the regime, as well as those who say they are conflicted and stuck in the middle -- over a period of two weeks in the country. I left Damascus three days before President al-Assad's speech to the nation -- a speech that has left many of my contacts underwhelmed, deflated and anxious.

Yazan says he's one of many Syrians who have internalized the paranoia that has been the hallmark of Syria's Baathist regime. The vast network of Syria's security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, have turned the state into a kingdom of silence, says Yazan, where George Orwell's "1984" seems all too real.

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Phone conversations and text messages are usually camouflaged by code. Journalists say they're "busy studying" when they're filing, most often anonymously. Western diplomats speak in hushed tones and refer to hot spots, like the southern city of Daraa -- the nexus of protests over the past two weeks -- as "the place." Many even go so far as to remove the batteries from their mobile phones during conversations for fear that GPS tracking devices have been installed in their SIM cards. Despite the recent lifting of bans on Facebook and YouTube, many still use proxies to ensure some level of security online.

Can Syrians break the fear barrier?

In the streets, photographs of al-Assad -- Bashar in military regalia, Bashar with children, Bashar with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar surrounded by Clipart-produced hearts, flowers, and stars -- hang in almost every shop and on every car window.

"His eyes are always on us. It's like North Korea in the Middle East, except we have better food," Yazan laughs.

But humor, he says, even with the prospect of al-Assad's concessions to the opposition, is starting to lose its balm.

Human rights groups say two weeks of pro-democracy protests demanding political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption have left more than 60 people dead. The turmoil started after the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa, and has since spread.

"God willing, it's the beginning of the end," says a 28-year-old journalist from Daraa. He recently quit his job at a state newspaper because he was forced to "spread lies."

"That day was the first day I said 'no,' " he says. "We've been taught to fear all our lives ... fear the government, fear wars, fear factions, but Daraa will hopefully be the country's wake-up call to the real Bashar."

A family affair

The Syrian government resigned Tuesday, and in a speech Wednesday to the Syrian parliament (a rubber-stamp body for the Baath Party's omnipotence), al-Assad offered promises of reform and spoke of a "huge conspiracy" against Syria.

"What Bashar gives with his right hand today, he'll gladly take with his left hand tomorrow while he's still in power," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist who fled the country in 2005. "The moment people relax and drop their guard, that's when they'll strike again."

When al-Assad inherited the presidency in 2000, there were expectations that the Western-trained ophthalmologist would initiate drastic change. People began to speak of the Damascus spring, but it never blossomed. Many still stand by the president, saying he inherited his father's dysfunctional regime and must still fight a strident old guard. Others are less sympathetic.

"Can you really be a member of the new guard if you've been in power for 11 years?" says Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Syrian leadership has promoted a false image of "we're reformers under hard conditions.' "

Protesters rush Syrian leader's car
  • Bashar Assad
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"Compare his story to Michael Corleone's, initially the good son," one Syrian suggests, referring to the "Godfather" movie trilogy. "If you want to understand anything in this country, realize this: Syria is run like family business."

One insider who deems himself a reformer says: "If you had asked me months ago, I'd say Bashar is fighting everyone he could fight, but post-Daraa, I'm not so sure. Even if he is fault-free and genuinely wants reform, at the end of the day, he's sitting on a chair that has four legs."

Those legs, critics say, support a regime not likely to cede power willingly. Maher al-Assad, the president's younger brother and leader of the elite Republican Guard, has been the object of the protesters' scorn -- and fear. Asaf Shawkat, Bashar's brother-in-law, is the army's deputy chief of staff. Rami Makhlouf, Bashar's cousin, is arguably the most powerful economic figure in Syria, controlling the mobile phone network SyriaTel.

A prominent businessman in Damascus who consults young entrepreneurs says people wanting to start a small business are fearful of figures like Makhlouf stifling their growth. "It could be something as small as their wanting to open a candy shop, but the corruption sets them back. We can't ever advance with conditions as they are."

Bashar's "popularity"

Some Syrians have been willing to give al-Assad time to tackle the crisis, and they ask what alternative there is to the current regime. They point to the sectarian bloodshed in neighboring Iraq, and they fear that democracy would quickly give way to Islamic fundamentalism -- a fear the government has ably exploited.

"Syria is the end of the line for the Arab revolution movement," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "I have a feeling Syrians will get up to the ledge, look over the cliff and see civil war and other things, and step back. The regime will be shaken up, but Bashar will survive."

While the main entrance to Daraa has been surrounded by military camps, thousands of activists supporting al-Assad have paraded through Damascus, declaring "God, Syria and Bashar only."

"No Israel, no America, we want Bashar," 18-year-old Mohammed Rashad said. His friend held up the national flag, yelling "this is our Tahrir Square," while a group of men stood on the roof of a black BMW, kissing life-size photos of the president.

In the nearby neighborhood of Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian community in Syria, 19-year-old Ibrahim works in a store surrounded by pictures of Che Guevara. "We are guests here, and Bashar has treated us like Syrians. We trust him."

Kholoud Monsour, 36, says, "I am not pro or anti; I want practical, applicable and gradual reforms and alternatives that can that grant democracy, freedom, pluralism and prosperity."

"I call for an initiative for national dialogue that brings all parties together," she says. "But the media doesn't listen to moderates because we don't have [an] appealing voice."

Joshua Landis detects an air of disillusion. "The scales have fallen from the eyes of many Syrians about Bashar the reformer and his pretty wife, but they still feel like he's the good king surrounded by the bad warriors," he says.

Yazan tries to explain his own predicament. "I'm caught between two fires: I respect Bashar in many ways, but I still feel like I'm in a prison," he says.

The fear barrier

While many desktops in Damascus internet cafes are set to photos of al-Assad with ubiquitous slogans like "We will not kneel [to the world] as long as you're our president," youths have gathered around cubicles the past week to watch graphic YouTube videos of the clashes in Daraa and sign on to Facebook to check updates on the "Syrian Revolution 2011" page.

Televisions in hotel lobbies and establishments are set to state TV, while staff members watch graphic footage from Daraa on their phones or mini-televisions. Expressions are exchanged, but words are rarely shared.

"Syria has consistently used psychological warfare to keep people tied down," says Abdulhamid, the human rights activist who fled Syria. "The best way to control someone is to have them police themselves."

A Syrian youth activist and blogger who wished to retract even his pen-name after Bashar's speech says that the political space is finally opening up, noting that many Syrians have recently joined Twitter. "But there's no unified and established opposition in Syria. If I weren't alone, if there were more publicly talking and tweeting, then I'd reveal myself. But in the meantime, we're gaining a foothold."

Slouching toward reform

"There's always a sense of the regime's talking a good game of reform but not following up with concrete actions," says Houry, the Human Rights Watch researcher.

Whether it's Vogue Magazine's feature on first lady Asma al-Assad in February, criticized by some as an insensitive "valentine" to the regime, or international conferences hosted under her patronage, Houry says the regime has launched a concerted public relations effort to show the world that the state is opening up.

Just one day before the first Friday of mass dissent in Syria, the Harvard Alumni Association hosted an "Arab Youth of Today" conference in the Four Seasons Hotel under Asma al-Assad's patronage. She was introduced as a force that has "unleashed civil society in Syria."

"The uprisings in other countries in the region are specific to those countries," she explained to me. "We didn't need an uprising to happen to realize we aren't where we need to be. We started reform years ago."

But with nongovernmental organizations facing severe restrictions and no human rights groups licensed in Syria, Houry says her platform of "civil society" is a farce.

One insider and business owner who says he has desperately tried to initiate dialogue with the president over the past couple of weeks explains: "You have to understand, he is a very institutional guy, not very creative. If you tell him to change something, he goes through a hundred channels. That's why reforms have taken so long."

Another initiative that is nongovernmental, but approved by the government like all establishments in Syria, is the Syrian Youth Parliament, whose colorful advertisements line the streets of downtown Daraa.

"More than before, young people need the youth parliament, and the government must accept the reality that we are in 2011, when young people should have their say," says project director Melhem Mansour, labeling the parliament a "soft revolution" through which youths' voices can be channeled.

Before President al-Assad's speech and following Tuesday's resignation of the government, one popular youth activist and blogger told me: "We're getting a lot of candy right now, but things will get interesting when they [the regime] get stuck to a wall and can't do what they say."

After the speech, widely seen as a disappointment by activists and opposition figures, he sent me a message via Skype: "That wall. We just hit it. Take me to Egypt," adding that "Syria just showed the Arab world that we're 15 years behind everyone else. We're now in denial."

Yazan remains downbeat about the future.

"The fear barrier is still here," he said softly, preferring to jot down some details on paper. "I'm still removing the battery from my phone, aren't I? Syria has always been a complicated place. It's our charm."

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