FEATURE-In Syria's parched farmlands, echoes of Egyptian woes

Thu Mar 10, 2011 8:54am GMT

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

TISIA, Syria, March 10 (Reuters) - Under rainless clouds covering Syria's strategic Hauran plateau, grave digger Khalil al-Meqdad toils for 12 hours a day to feed his eight children.

"I barely make enough money to buy bread. I keep sinking in debt," Meqdad said, as he stuck his shovel in the volcanic soil that made Hauran a Middle East bread basket when rain was plentiful during Ottoman times.

With its faded vineyards, pomegranate tree groves and historical sites, Hauran is hundreds of miles from the political upheaval shaking the Middle East, and Syrian officials say the unrest will not spread to their country.

But Meqdad's lot is similar to the masses who toppled Tunisia and Egypt's presidents and who are taking to streets in Yemen and elsewhere, driven by frustration with falling living standards and perpetuation of corrupt autocratic systems they consider an affront to their dignity.

Syria, a country of 20 million people, has been ruled by the Baath Party since it took power nearly 50 years ago, imposing emergency law still in force and banning any opposition.

Since the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the last three months, officials have insisted that the government, a self-declared champion of Arab rights and foe of what it describes as Islamic extremism, is "close to the people".

They say gradual economic liberalisation, since President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late father 11 years ago, has changed Syria, pointing to banks, insurance companies and private schools, in contrast to decades of nationalisation.

But parallels with Egypt, which failed to translate economic reform into rising living standards, are hard to ignore.   Continued...

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