Syria’s internet generation comes of age

By Megan K. Stack

DAMASCUS: In the world of Syrian bloggers, one computer key is essential. Backspace. “You start writing something, and then you think about it: Maybe I’ll be misunderstood,” said Ayman Haykal, a 25-year-old medical student and head of Syria’s fledgling bloggers association, sipping an espresso and pondering a culture of self-censorship.

“So you go ‘backspace, backspace, backspace.’”

Around him in an airy, wood-panelled cafe in downtown Damascus, voices clattered off the ceiling. Students mingled over sandwiches and milkshakes; boys and girls sent come-hither pouts over polished tables. Syria’s internet generation was on display, vanguards in a long-stagnant landscape.

The internet hasn’t dawned easily here — not in Syria and not across the Arab world, where a virtual war is raging in nearly every country. In Egypt, opposition movements have used the internet against President Hosni Mubarak, posting street maps to guide people to anti-government demonstrations. Bahraini bloggers are battling the information ministry to keep their freewheeling debates alive, and to keep themselves out of prison. In Libya, Tunisia and Syria, too, online politicking has landed people in prison.

For autocrats such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, technology presents a troubling blend of possibility and danger. They eagerly court its economic and educational benefits but struggle to crack down on its use as a mighty political tool.

Arab governments appear determined to censor cyber-critics and silence unwelcome online voices. They’ve jailed bloggers, blocked websites and asked internet cafe owners to spy on their customers.

But it’s not working.

The internet has turned into a virtual debate hall crammed with lengthy screeds, cutting language and calls for rebellion. A colourful repository for the angst of the bulging Arab youth population, the web is impolite, anonymous and raw.

The new Arab computer devotees have little in common, but they band together for their internet freedom. They dodge government eyes with encryption and proxy servers. They organize online campaigns against media law and revolt against restrictions on internet cafes.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Gamal Eid, an Egyptian lawyer who specializes in internet restrictions in the Arab world. “You try to use the back roads, and the regime tries to do the same.”

Ayman Abdel Nour knows a thing or two about cat-and-mouse.

The Syrian government has been trying to silence him for more than a year, ever since he wrote a particularly acidic piece on ruling Baath Party officials and posted it on his website. It wasn’t long before the tart-tongued economist awoke to find the site smothered by a white screen and a warning: “Forbidden.”

“The government gives herself the right that she’s more mature than you,” an indignant Abdel Nour said on a recent morning as sunlight flooded his apartment in Damascus. “She will decide for you which site you can see and which is forbidden.”

A 40-year-old gadfly and childhood friend of President Assad, Abdel Nour had been courting trouble for months. His writings call for the dismissal of officials, citing them by name and listing their shortcomings. He castigates Syrian intelligence and scoffs at the Baath Party, even though he is a member. By his count, his vitriol reaches 15,200 readers every day.

“They (government officials) are very much angry because they don’t have any qualified people or intellectual people to respond or explain or defend,” Abdel Nour said. “So they just stand there taking bullets, with nothing to respond. They’ve never had this situation before.”

Abdel Nour fought the crackdown. When his website was blocked, he copied his daily bulletin and e-mailed it to every reader registered on his site. He sat down at his computer to do the same thing the next day, only to discover that his e-mail address had been blocked.

Undaunted, Abdel Nour gave himself a fresh address, and the bulletin went whizzing off. Come the next day, that address, too, had been disabled. So he created another.

The cyber-jousting went on, day after day, for a month and a half. At last, the security services gave up.

“Finally,” Abdel Nour said, “they surrendered because they realized they can’t control it.”

Keystroke by keystroke, Syria’s online voices are awakening from the slumber imposed by the late President Hafez Assad, who severely restricted both the internet and satellite dishes. Things began to loosen when his son Bashar took over in 2000. He joined the Syrian Computer Society, encouraged citizens to explore the internet and trumpeted technology as a hallmark of the new era he promised to usher in.

Until the recent technological revolution, the Syrian government was notorious for swathing the land in a thick fog of disinformation, or no information. Until the 1990s, there was nothing but government-run television, radio and newspapers.

Bashar Assad’s government has clung to some of the old habits. In April 2003, as Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq collapsed and US troops overran Baghdad, not a word was mentioned in Syria’s state media.

But Syrians had seen the fall of Baghdad live on Arab satellite TV. Satellite dishes, cheap and easy to jury-rig with a tangle of chicken wire and a smuggled scrambler, have ended Arab governments’ ability to keep information at bay.

The internet has pushed even further. The satellite dish imports information, but the internet sends ideas and experiences back out again.

“Internet is more interesting, because it gives people the chance to participate; they can say something,” said Haykal, the bloggers’ association leader.

In Cairo, several Egyptians huddled in a circle around microphones. They were just getting warmed up as the inky darkness of midnight draped itself outside.

“Please don’t smoke inside the studio; there’s no ventilation,” a sign on a wall begged. But everybody in the tiny studio was puffing away. Opposition newspapers littered the table like fallen leaves, the ashy air electric with defiance.

This is the radio studio of Ayman Nour, the most prominent opposition figure to stand against Hosni Mubarak in the presidential election last week. Nour’s trial on corruption charges, labelled by his followers as a ploy to silence him, is to begin soon.

The radio studio had the feel of a war room. “There are revolutions happening in the soul of every Egyptian, and we’re just waiting for the revolution to move to the street,” Ayman Barakat, a husky lawyer, said into the microphone.

“The time is now, not tomorrow.”

On a monitor, Barakat’s voice rose and fell in pulsing strips of light. A technician hovered over the computers, fiddling with the volume. The debate programme was flowing live, but not onto the airwaves — it was headed for cyberspace. —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005

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