DAMASCUS, Syria — On a sunny autumn day a tall young man saunters into a shop and orders a soft drink, taking out change to pay for it.

The owner waves away the money. "I won't charge you," he says. "You look exactly like our new president."

The customer laughs. "But I am your president."

In a country where the head of state has traditionally been an awesome figure of authority, surrounded by gun-toting bodyguards and hidden behind the tinted windows of an armored limousine, Bashar al-Assad has fanned the winds of change since his inauguration five months ago.

His personal penchant for driving around the country without a protective posse of gunmen — the incident in the shop, reported by witnesses, occurred in the city of Aleppo — is matched by a desire for political and economic change.

Bashar has shut Mazeh prison, long a byword for repression in the Levant. Just the whispered mention of the word could chill a diplomatic reception and silence a crowded coffee shop.

The former army officer and British-educated eye doctor has also ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

He has allowed, possibly even welcomed, open criticism of the country's security and intelligence apparatus.

"Such a freedom, permitting people to break taboos to talk and criticize the security bodies, has not been witnessed in the country in nearly four decades," one political analyst said.

The 35-year-old has forged ahead with laws to establish private banks and to allow market forces to determine the level of the local currency.

His government wants to create a climate attractive to private investment so the state can reap the benefits of higher tax revenues to help modernize infrastructure.

"I think Bashar is showing a different personality than that of his late father. His actions on the ground, the decisions he has made and the changes in the country reflect that," the analyst said.

Bashar has decided to allow political parties of the ruling coalition to publish their own newspapers.

Chief editors of official papers have been replaced, and the result has been the flowering of debate on political, economic and social issues of the day.

In an unprecedented move, 99 leading writers, artists and intellectuals issued a statement in October calling for the cancellation of martial law, which has been in force since 1963 when the Baath Party took power in Syria.

Unusually, none of those who signed the petition was questioned afterward by the security forces.

The changes extend to popular entertainment. Earlier this week, the government ended its monopoly on the import of movies and it eased restrictions on local cinemas.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, one parliamentary deputy openly criticized some of the country's intelligence and security chiefs.

Mamoun Homsi's views were not confined to his statement in parliament, but they were also published in a government newspaper.

Homsi called for the merger of various security agencies into a single authority in each governorate. He suggested the large buildings these bodies have occupied should be used instead to teach information technology.

"Our security bodies have given a lot to this nation," Homsi said. "There are individuals who sacrificed their lives, time and efforts for the sake of the country, but there are some who committed bad deeds and became frightening," Homsi said.

"We hope that clear directives would be issued to these bodies to limit their responsibilities to the security of the state and not to interfere in other issues concerning the daily lives of the citizens."

Other deputies criticized corruption and urged greater efforts to combat the drain on national resources.

"The talk about corruption has been much louder than the actual measures taken on the ground. We are still waiting for a clear and a transparent plan," deputy Ahmed Ghuzayel said.

Bashar personally took charge of the anti-corruption campaign himself nearly a month before the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. The campaign has led to the arrest or sacking of several high-ranking officials including former Prime Minister Mahmoud Zu'bi who committed suicide in May after being referred to a criminal economic court.