Bashar Assad Inspires Younger, Tech-Hungry Generation in Syria

Twenty-four-year-old civil engineer Nada Mallas dreams that the man most likely to be her country's next president will open a new world for her and other young Syrians.

With his professed interest in modern technology, Bashar Assad can be counted on to bring the Internet to more Syrians, and with it "information about all the world, in all fields," Mallas said Monday. Stylish in slim black jeans and a black T-shirt, she prepared to join a mourning procession for Bashar Assad's autocratic father, President Hafez Assad.

The near certainty that 34-year-old Bashar Assad will replace his father has galvanized his generation in Syria. Since the 69-year-old Assad died Saturday, men and women Mallas' age and younger have formed a significant section of crowds marching not only to mourn the father, but express their faith in the son.

"You feel like you lost your father," Mallas said. She said Bashar would follow in his footsteps — but when pressed, she expressed hopes for a new kind of president.

Mallas said the Ministry of Transportation, for which she works, provided no Internet access to its employees. Though she's never surfed the Web herself, she's read enough to know it "is so important, so important."

A Western-educated eye doctor, fluent in English and French as well as Arabic, Bashar Assad has championed weeding the lingering vestiges of socialism from the economy and creating jobs for young people. As patron of the Syrian Computer Society, he has worked to spread computer use in the country.

He wants to move Syria from a Middle East backwater, where Internet access is available only to the elite and cell phones operate in only a few urban centers, to the fast lane of the information highway.

"Bashar has an open, liberal mentality," said Imad Shuaibi, a political analyst at Damascus University. "He's very convinced of the importance of the economy. There will be some big changes."

But Shuaibi acknowledged those changes would be gradual, as Bashar Assad moves carefully to "reconcile the new generation and their aspirations and the older generation, which is more conservative."

Aref Hanano, an independent member of the Syrian parliament and a businessman, said Syria under Bashar Assad would be "more open, more educated, more in contact with technology."

At 41, Hanano faced the prospect of a president younger than himself. He saw that as part of change sweeping the region.

"Now we are in the year 2000. In another five years, most of those leaders (in neighboring countries) will go away, either die or retire. It is the law of nature," Hanano said. Bashar Assad, he said, "will be the most experienced among the future presidents."

In fact, Bashar Assad is the latest of a string of younger men taking over in the Middle East, many of them royal sons of hereditary rulers.

King Abdullah of Jordan is 38, and a friend of Bashar Assad. King Mohammed VI, 36, took power in Morocco in 1999, the same year Abdullah succeeded to the throne.

Only slightly older are Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, 50, of Bahrain; and Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, 47, both known in their homelands as reformers.

Across the region, there is hope the new crop of leaders will bring social, political and economic change.

"We all want from him that he makes everything right," Mallas, the young engineer, said of Bashar Assad.