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By Mónica G. Prieto (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García

  • After Bashar Asad’s reactionary speech in which he avoided talking about reforms, the protest campaigns become consolidated through Internet.
  • The regime’s promises of not shooting at demonstrators haven’t stopped the repression.

A Syrian citizen accesses Facebook from a Internet Café in Febreuary, shortly after the regime lifted a blockade over the social network, frecuently avoided by users. (Muzaffar Salman /AP)

There are countries in which free access to the Internet is not a right. It is rather a tool feared by regimes, which they try to block, restrict or limit, in a vain attempt to keep Internet surfers to see beyond the limitations. It happened in Sadam Husein’s Iraq, in Ben Ali ´s Tunisia and in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, it happens in Iran, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates, in almost all of the Arabic world- with the exceptions of Lebanon and Palestine-. And, of course, in Bashar Asad’s Syria.

Last weekend, Syrian web access suffered a blackout for six hours. It wasn’t the first time since the Arab spring began, but it is very meaningful. In the context of revolutions, the mix of hopelessness, education, a fit of dignity and communication skills, every blackout seems to show the desperation of a regime which sees itself against the ropes. So it isn’t a good sign for Damascus that Syrian internet users, who are used to dealing with all kind of difficulties, were disconnected last Sunday.

Useless, on the other hand: in social networks like Twitter or Facebook there are all kinds of open manuals and software made to get around  the regime’s obstacles, to prevent IP addresses from being detected and even to stay online when the Internet has been disconnected. Everything is useless. In Syria, where many web sites- media considered hostile, sites seen as revolutionary- are blocked by the regime but there are a lot of Internet Cafes whose owners, well versed in computers, can solve the access difficulties in a couple of clicks. That´s why it was surprising that the first calls to demonstration, which were announced through Facebook, didn’t work.

Dozens of muhabarat agents showed up at the protests, willing to break up marches that nobody attended. It was explained that these first calls came from outside of Syria in an external attempt to mobilize the dissidence. The regime became over-confident and even unblocked access to Facebook for the first time in  History- until then, Internet surfers overcame with wit and tunnels the block on the social network, imposed as soon as it became popular- and that’s where it all started,  Ahed al Hendi, Syirian dissident responsible for the Arabian section in, platform dedicated to giving an online voice to dissidents around the world, explains to Human Journalism.

Stickers supporting Bashar Asad (Hussein Malla / AP)

“Without the Internet, we wouldn’t have been able to see videos or pictures of the crimes of Asad’s regime. The Internet activated the first movement when members of anti-Asad groups marched along Damasco on March 15th. When the media showed the videos of the protests that were posted on line, many more Syrians  watched it, and it helped to break the wall of fear” Hendi remembers through an email exchange.
Adel left Syria four years ago, after being released from prison: he tells that for 40 days he was incarcerated because of his involvement in pro-democratic activities, being an student. Nowadays, he is an active regime opponent who uses any forum to call for insurrection, as he recently did in a Wall Street Journal article, where he analyzed the role of the Internet in the protests. “The first calls to protest started on Facebook”, he wrote. Organizers have preferred to stay anonymous, but one thing is clear: they aren’t Islamic. In the group Syrian Revolution against Bashar Asad, with 60000 member so far, Fadi Edlbi has written “national unity, everyone for freedom, Christian and Muslim”. Another member, Shadi Deeb, “ we are not Sunnis, we are not Alaouites , all of us sing for freedom”. And while he is saying this, he puts a picture with the cross and half moon as a sign of unity. The page in question has today 104.000 fans.
It seems ironic that it was Bashar Asad who introduced the Internet into Syrian houses when he came to power, 11 years ago. He promised to generalize its use, but the figures speak for themselves: of a 23 million people population, there were just 3.935.000 users in June of 2010, 17’7 % of the population. And until last February, it was officially forbidden to access Facebook. However, this hasn’t prevented that, from outside and inside the country, Syrian have used social networks as an instrument of mobilization. Or rather, that the facts spread on social networks, overcoming state censorship,are mobilizing consciences.

The brother of a man seriously injured in Latakia cries in helplessness (Hussein Malla / AP)

What would have happened if the Internet had existed in 1982, when Hafez Asad, father of the current president of Syria -actually, Bashar inhereted the office- ordered the massacre of between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians in Hama to suffocate an islamist revolt? “The truth is that without social networks, we would have never known about what happened two weeks ago in Daraa: it would have been exaclty the same as with the Hama massacre”, explains #daraanow, an active twitter. The person hiding behind this user calls himself Fash (something like annoyance in slang), was born and raised in the city of Daraa, the same one that originated the protests after the arrests of 15 students by Syrian agents: they were accused of painting a revolutionary slogan on a wall. “Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the uploaded videos it took me less than five minutes to know the story of those kids. I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if we had had them 30 years ago. A lot of people still have no idea about what happened in Hama”.

Fash has been living outside of Syria for ten years: his last visit was five years ago, when he went to Daraa to visit his family, that still lives in his home city. He keeps in contact with his relatives, friends and neighbors on the phone but also throught the Internet. “The ¿? has been down for weeks in Daraa, but thanks to its geographical location, close to the Jordan border, we can communicate using other countries’ networks”, he explained on a chat conversation.?¿

So understandable has been the eagerness to tell what was happening as the eagerness to know. “I had more than 200 followers (on Twitter) in the first hour, I imagine because people had a lot of curiosity for what was happening in Syria, a country in which no one has been able to stick their nose in in the last 30 years”. And the more followers he has (more than 1,200 right now), the more he wants to carry on with what he has called e-jihad, a cybernetic and secular war with the only goal of taking down the dictatorship and obtaining freedom. “There are many more people promoting initiatives like mine inside the country at a larger scale”.

An internet café in Damascus (Muzaffar Salman / AP)

Because the difficulties imposed by the regime are relative. “There are many ways to avoid censorship, such as proxy servers that work from the outside of Syria”, continues Ahed. “The people of Syria are beginning to understand the crucial role the internet and social networks play. In spite of the fact that the government does everything in its hand to stop being connected to the world, the examples of Tunisia and Egypt prove that this instrument has been underestimated. The Syrian regime still has the idea of the Hama massacres: Kill and no one will know. That is over, the Syrians know it”. For those who don’t have computer knowledge or a computer with which to tell the outside world about what is happening, there are cell phones. Almost half the population owns a cellular phone and recordings and pictures taken with them fly, as prove several Facebook groups such as the Syrian Uprising Information Centre, brother to its arabian site, which live off the civilian contributions to illustrate what is happening in Syria.

Basically Twitter is used more to spread information to the world than to mobilize people”, stresses Hendi. “It’s Facebook what is mobilizing the people. And I fear that if this hadn’t started in Tunisia, it would have in any other place. Tyrannies cannot last forever”, concludes the ciberactivist.