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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

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.’

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.

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.”

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