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Syrian president's old friend appeals for reform

By Steven Jiang, CNN
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Assad's old friend now his foe
  • Dissenter now fears for his life, despite relationship
  • Man believes president getting bad advice, but it's not too late
  • "Listen to the people," he says

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Ayman Abdel Nour still remembers Bashar al-Assad fondly as a friend with whom he went to dinners and hung out on the campus of Damascus University in the 1980s.

"I studied engineering and he wanted to be a doctor," recalled Abdel Nour, founder of Syria's leading independent online news bulletin, All4Syria. "He was very modest and humble."

Now, Abdel Nour lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates. In 2007, he fled what he considered the increasingly intolerant reign of President Assad, who was elected to a second term that year with 97% of the vote.

As a presidential confidant turned voice of dissent, Abdel Nour fears for his life.

"We are the most targeted," he said.

Amid news of violent anti-government protests and the state's ruthless crackdown in Syria in recent days, Abdel Nour says his fellow countrymen are suffering the consequences of Assad's decision to expand the power of security forces.

Alleged plot against Syria
Violent protests continue in Syria
  • Bashar Assad
  • Syria
  • Damascus

"Under the law, they are immune," he said of the security forces. "This was decreed by the president in 2008."

In 2000, Assad succeeded his late father, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly three decades. When he first took office, Assad loosened some state restrictions on the Syrian people, but observers say that he has since slowed -- even reversed -- that move toward political reform.

Abdel Nour says many Westerners held unrealistic expectations of Assad because of his personal background. The 45-year-old Assad studied to be an ophthalmologist in London, but became Syria's heir apparent after the death of his older brother.

"This is a problem of the Western media that portray him as a Westerner using iPad, married to a British national and speaks English," he said. "But as he said many times, it doesn't mean I am a Westerner in my thinking -- for sure I'm Syrian!"

Despite their shattered friendship, Abdel Nour remains somewhat torn about Bashar the man -- "he was great, really" -- and Assad the president.

"It depends on the room he is in and who he is with," he said. "If he is the president, he has no heart."

Recent clashes in Syria only reinforced Abdel Nour's notion that Assad squandered an opportunity to launch political reform. He says most protesters -- including the dozens killed by security forces -- likely voted for the president's re-election only four years ago.

Abdel Nour says Assad has been receiving wrong advice from his inner circle to blame the protests on foreign interference, instead of addressing root causes like social injustice.

Reminiscing about their college days when the two constantly talked about Syria's future -- "politics was our drug" -- Abdel Nour has a simple suggestion for Assad.

"Listen to the people," he said, "And you will enter history."

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