DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) -On the surface, Syria looks starkly different than it did a few years ago: Cafes and restaurants, private universities and banks have sprung up, with large construction sites signaling even more development to come.
But as the country gears up to give President Bashar Assad another seven-year mandate in a national referendum Sunday — in which he is the sole candidate — critics say not much has changed politically. They point to rampant corruption, mass arrests and a series of foreign policy blunders that have served to vilify and further isolate Syria in the eyes of the world.
Assad has alienated Arab powerhouses like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and strengthened his alliance with America’s enemy Iran, while allowing Syria’s relationship with neighboring Lebanon to deteriorate to the lowest level in decades, critics say.
And while Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken small steps to loosen the totalitarian grip of his father’s rule and the state control over the economy, he has failed to make good on promised political reforms and continues to jail his critics.
“Yes, there are some changes, but they are mainly cosmetic. These are not the kind of changes that Syrians were hoping for when President Bashar came to power,” said Aktham Nuaisse, one of Syria’s leading human rights activists.
“Corruption is more widespread than ever. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. We thought there would be democratic legislative elections, or at least with a whiff of democracy, but our hopes have been dashed,” he said.
Syria’s ruling coalition took an overwhelming majority of seats in April parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the opposition as a farce. The national assembly’s first task was unanimously nominating Assad for a second term.
Massive rallies, organized by the ruling Baath party, have been held across the country ahead of Sunday’s vote, which, in keeping with his father’s style, will be a “yes” or “no” vote with no other candidates. Victory celebrations are already being held in government-sponsored tents on the streets of Damascus, where people distribute sweets and listen to speeches glorifying Assad.
When he first came to power, Assad allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings in a period that came to be known as the “Damascus Spring.” But in 2001, he began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, sending the regime’s secret police to raid their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists.
In the last two months, six government critics and human rights campaigners have been convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. They included one of Syria’s most respected writers, Michel Kilo, and prominent lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.
“They are still arresting and sentencing people who I believe should be given a place in the political spectrum. … I believe these arrests are very damaging to the image of the country,” said British writer Patrick Seale, an expert on Syria.
Seale said there have been “tentative” reforms under Assad’s reign. The government has moved away from the country’s socialist past, and there are several new, semiprivate publications.
“There’s a different mood and much greater access to information for young people through the Internet. But the change is by no means big enough,” he said.
And critics say the level of tolerance is once again shrinking. The government routinely strips activists of their civil rights, often barring them from traveling abroad. Opposition groups are still denied permits to operate legally.
“The line is constantly shifting,” says Nadim Houry, a Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch. “What we’re seeing with Bashar Assad is, there’s an opening up but then you suddenly see the wave kind of coming back and there’s an increased crackdown and you’re back to square zero.”
Some analysts say the government has imposed stricter controls because of its many troubles with the international community in recent years.
Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, came to power a year before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, which were followed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Syria’s neighbor Iraq, posing a threat to the Assad regime.
His troops were forced out of Lebanon following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. His political troubles are likely to be compounded once the U.N. establishes an international tribunal to try Hariri’s killers, which the Syrian government resists. Syria’s opponents in Lebanon believe the tribunal will prove Syria was behind the killing, an allegation Damascus denies.
“It’s been one crisis after the other, so I would say that his main achievements in a way has been to survive these crises,” said Seale.
Naisse, the human rights activist, said Assad derives confidence from the knowledge that there seems to be no viable alternative to his regime.
“He is not popular, but for the Syrian people, he represents stability. The Iraqi experience was very discouraging. No Syrian wants to go down that road,” he said.