January 30, 2011 / 1:15 PM / in 7 years

ANALYSIS-Syrians silently gripped by Arab upheaval

* No sign Nile Revolution will nudge Syria to reform

* Syria’s agricultural heartland in crisis

* Not all in favour of change in complex Syrian society

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

DAMASCUS, Jan 30 (Reuters) - On the surface all is calm in Syria, tightly ruled by the same authoritarian party for half a century, despite the upheaval in several of its Arab neighbours. Below, ordinary Syrians are quietly captivated by the tumult.

The government has barely commented on the six days of unprecedented protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and its control over the media has stifled public reaction in a country struggling with similar poverty and unemployment.

“People are afraid to express an opinion, but between themselves they’re saying: ‘Mubarak be damned’,” said a man waiting for a haircut at a Damascus barber.

“What are the authorities waiting for? Are they waiting for instability to hit Syria before they act? Open the country up,” another man said. But there is no sign that the upheaval in Egypt will spark reform in Syria. Syria’s ruling hierarchy has moved swiftly to neutralise dissent since Tunisia’s uprising earlier this month which overthrew strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired Egyptian protests against Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

The government raised a key fuel subsidy and tightened Internet controls, while a special security court jailed a 69-year-old leftist for seven years this month for discussing alternatives to the Baath Party’s monopoly on power.

Although Syria and Egypt have been at odds politically, backing different Palestinian and Lebanese factions, the two countries are ruled through emergency law and suffer an acute gap between rich and poor, widespread corruption and 10 percent unemployment estimated independently at least double that.

CRISIS IN THE EAST

They have similar Gross Domestic Product per capita at around $2,500 and two great rivers -- Egypt the Nile and Syria the Euphrates. But water mismanagement has turned Syria’s eastern region that borders Iraq and Turkey into a dustbowl.

The water crisis in the east, Syria’s agricultural heartland, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people over the past five years. Violent demonstrations by the ethnic Kurdish minority swept the east in 2004, resulting in scores of deaths.

A United Nations report last year said 800,000 people in the region were severely affected by lack of water and living in extreme poverty and “should be benefiting from much higher level of support than is now provided by the Syrian government”.

In a stark reminder of Syria’s wealth gap, the region produces all of the country’s output of 380,000 barrels of oil per day, down from a peak of 590,000 bpd in 2006.

“You have a lot of discontent, and many people of the east have found themselves dispossessed refugees and are now around major Syrian cities,” an unemployed Syrian engineer said.

A lawyer educated in Europe said the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt shows that corruption is a difficult habit to stop, although “the billions of dollars officials and their cronies amass will not help them one single iota when their end comes”.

“Stop the corruption. Stop the thefts. When is enough enough? There seems never to be a limit,” he said.

But change is not favoured by all, with ordinary Syrians living in a complex society of myriad sects and ethnicities. Members of the professional class worry that shattering the current system could result in mob rule, due to low education standards and the erosion of the middle class in recent decades.

“At least we know who is ruling Syria now. If change comes it may not be the middle classes and people with Facebook accounts leading it,” a Syrian doctor with a practice in an upscale area of Damascus said.

“Our rulers have to rebuild the education system and clean up the judiciary, fast,” he said. “Syria is running out of time.”

Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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