DAMASCUS, Syria -- In one of Old Damascus’ new cafes the text messages buzzed between mobile phones in quick succession, drawing woops of joy and thumbs up from the astonished Syrians.
Suzan Mubarak, wife of the reviled Egyptian president, had flown into exile with her son, so the rumours went, driven out of the country by days of unprecedented protest against the 30-year rule of her husband, President Hosni Mubarak.
The news from Cairo has brought with it a flutter of excitement to this country, founded on principles so similar to Egypt that the two nations were once joined as one.
Like Egypt, Syria has been ruled for decades by a single party, with a security service that maintains an iron grip on its citizens. Both countries have been struggling to reform economies, stifled for generations by central control, in an effort to curb unemployment among a ballooning youth demographic.
Could the domino effect that spread from the streets of Tunis to Cairo soon hit Damascus?
“Perhaps the Saudis will have to build a whole village for Arab presidents once they run out of villas," joked a taxi driver, wondering if Mubarak would go the same way as Tunisia’s President Zene el Abadeen Ben Ali, who flew into exile in Saudi Arabia after street protests brought down his regime earlier this month.
In a smoky tea shop in central Damascus the usual babble of conversation was subdued as customers sat quietly but intently watching the TV broadcasting images of flames pouring from Egypt’s ruling party’s head office, a Soviet-era building much like many of those that house the state institutions in their own capital.
The young waiter, though, was skeptical that real change would come to Egypt. “Mubarak won't go. Why did the Egyptian people wait until now? It's only because of Tunisia. I'd like him to go, but he won't.”
Others, though, said the genie was already out of the bottle.
“The most important message is that people can make the change. Before it was always army officers that lead a coup," said Mazen Darwich, director of the Syrian Centre for Media, which campaigns for press freedoms in Syria, but was shuttered by authorities soon after opening.
“It may not be tomorrow or a few months but I'm sure it is like dominoes. Before there was always an ideology -- pan Arabism, or being an enemy of Israel. But now people are simply looking for their personal freedom, for food, education, a good life. The days of ideology are over.”
Internet users reported a significant slowdown in the web, with searches for news on Egypt often crashing browsers.
Heavy user traffic could be an explanation but in Syria, where thousands of websites deemed opposed to state interests are blocked and where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media are banned, authorities denied accusations they had restricted the service to prevent citizens hearing about events in Cairo.
Earlier this week, though, authorities banned programs that allow access to Facebook Chat from mobile phones, a cheap and easy means of staying in touch that has exploded in popularity among young Syrians.
Despite the restrictions, few in Syria saw events in Cairo as posing an immediate or serious challenge to the authority of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who has weathered five years of intense U.S.-led pressure against his regime only to emerge strengthened by the collapse of the Western-backed government in Lebanon earlier this month.
“What happened in Tunisia and Egypt was not just about hunger, it was about national pride,” said Mazen Bilal, editor of Suria al-Ghad, a political news website.
“Syria is another story. Through all the problems it maintained its national stances and its sovereignty and so people are proud of their nation.”
Crucially, as well, the government’s reform of the economy is maintaining a system of support to alleviate the worst effects of poverty.
“Egypt and Tunisia applied the free market principles, but Syria has not. The government still controls the strategic keys to the economy,” Bilal said.
Abdullah Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said five years of reforms had increased incomes above the increase in inflation, with the relative spending power of the poor growing faster than the rich.
Poverty though remains stubbornly high, with one in ten Syrians living in poverty, figures far below the rate of some 40 percent in Egypt. Official figures in Syria show unemployment fell from more than 12 percent in 2005 to 8.1 percent in 2009, one percent lower than the official rate in Egypt, where some analysts put it as high as 25 percent. Average salaries in Syria have risen to $200 over the past few years, more than double the rate in Egypt.
The government has promised increased spending on social security and training for the out of work and aims to curb rapid population growth of 2.45 percent by raising the minimum age of marriage.
All across Damascus, symbols of a burgeoning middle class are spreading, from a sleek sandstone shopping mall, home to Costa coffee and a bright new art gallery, to the Lebanese banks opening sparkling new branches for the first time.
But as a young doctor put it, looking up at the cameras inside an internet cafe: “Everything here is under control, even if it looks open.”
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