Blogging Syria's Uprising

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Syrian blogger Rami Nakhleh known under his pen name of "Malaath Aumran" works on his laptop at his house in the Lebanese capital Beirut on 25 April 2011. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

By: Shirin Hayek, Yasin al-Suwayha

Published Thursday, September 29, 2011

During a blogger’s forum held in Xavia, Spain last April, Egyptian writer and journalist Hani Darwish pointed out that in the past few years, Mubarak strongly encouraged Internet use in Egypt, perhaps as an attempt to polish his image internationally. The Egyptian regime did not recognize at the time that it handed the popular movement a very important tool. We now know that bloggers and Internet activists played a prominent role in the January 25 uprising. When the Egyptian authorities realized this, they shut down Internet and telephone access, believing that people needed them to speak out.

The Syrian regime didn’t make the same mistake as their Egyptian counterparts. Early on, the authorities in Damascus understood the threat of the Internet and used all means at their disposal to contain it. The rhetoric, however, changed when Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000. Prior to becoming president, Assad was head of the Syrian Scientific Society for Informatics; and in his first speech as president, he promised to develop the country’s digital network. Despite this, Internet infrastructure developed slowly in the past decade, and the quality and cost of services did not appeal to Syrian consumers. These shortcomings limited Internet use among Syrians, particularly as a form of expression by way of blogs and social networking sites, among others. The Syrian security services, worried about the use of the Internet for political ends, imposed widespread censorship, keeping a close eye on what was being communicated on the web.

Blocked Internet access — and circumventing such obstacles — is part of the daily routine in Syria. Many local, Arab, and international news websites have been blocked, along with the websites of opposition groups and parties, human rights organizations, and some blog servers. The regime even blocked the Arabic version of Wikipedia. Earlier this year, some websites like Facebook and YouTube were unblocked. The action was meant to communicate the regime’s confidence that it was somehow immune to the wave of popular uprisings sweeping across the region. Events soon proved their confidence was misplaced and the security forces reasserted their control, regularly cutting off Internet access in selected areas. When necessary, the Internet was shut down nationally, or Internet speeds were slowed to prevent video uploads.

These cyber-policing measures are a result of the prevailing security mentality among Syrian authorities. The surveillance, harassment, and arrest of bloggers and users of social forums and networks have become routine occurrences since the introduction of the Internet. Officials have charged online activists with “propagating false or exaggerated news that weakens the morale of the nation” (article 286 of the Syrian penal code), which can land them in prison. Some authors of online articles or commentary not to the regime’s liking can face a punishment of two-and-a-half to three years in prison. Tariq Bayyasi, a blogger, and Kareem Arabji, coordinator of the Syrian Brotherhood online forum “al-Akhwia,” were both handed such severe sentences.

Syrian bloggers have been actively involved in several issues including the campaign against honor crimes, in addition to a week of blogging dedicated to the occupied Golan Heights. These initiatives clearly shy away from any direct opposition to the regime. By contrast, many bloggers were reluctant to participate in an online campaign to free Bayyasi. The reason for this is they are unlikely to declare support for a colleague for fear that it may lead to a stiff prison sentence.

A large number of Syrian bloggers reacted to the Arab uprisings after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on January 17. The Syrian blogging community’s enthusiasm for the youthful Arab movement was more than just support for their fellow Arabs. They identified with the people carrying out these revolutions for the simple reason that Syrians live under similar circumstances. The problems and dilemmas Tunisians and Egyptians face are strikingly similar to circumstances in Syria, perhaps under a different guise or in a different form, but fundamentally the same.

The explosion of popular protest in Syria on March 15 virtually paralyzed the blogosphere for the first few days. Only a handful of bloggers followed the unfolding events on the ground. Few were willing to publicly criticize the regime, fearing arrest. This silence was, however, broken by a number of bloggers who simultaneously published a statement containing demands for liberty and change. The text, published as “An Open Letter to Syria,” received both praise and criticism from the public. Some saw the message as supporting a conspiracy against Syria, while others saw it as siding with the regime. Despite these opposing opinions, the statement helped to break the fear barrier for many Internet activists.

Over the course of the Syrian uprising, several new blogs have appeared, established exclusively to engage the unfolding events. Some are widely read, gaining popularity through social networking sites. Perhaps the most prominent is “al-Surriya al-Mundassa” (The Syrian Infiltrator), a website where individuals can anonymously post their thoughts. As with most new blogs dealing with the uprising, the site is overwhelmingly satirical, poking fun at the regime’s discourse, its symbols, and its media. Some are uncomfortable with the spread of this satirical style and consider it inappropriate, given the sobering events taking place in Syria. Such a view is unfortunate. Aiming for more than a laugh, satire deconstructs its target and is an effective way to oppose the regime’s discourse. Visual devices, such as cartoons and video clips, are often used to complement this commentary. But to get them online, Syrians must employ a great deal of technical expertise to bypass government-imposed restrictions on the Internet.

Politics in Syria remain foggy. The popular protests have held their ground in the face of government violence and repression, which has so far failed to quell the uprising. Public positions taken by both the regime and the protesters indicate that a resolution remains elusive. Nevertheless, the events of the last few months have deeply affected the Syrian people in a way not seen in decades. The discussion of domestic politics and matters of concern to the public have returned to Syrian daily life after many long years of absence.

Prior to the uprising, foreign policy monopolized what was considered politics. Everything else came under the rubric of ‘local affairs,’ which were considered to be technical issues related to provincial and municipal services. This impasse has broken, and it is impossible to return to the days before March 15, no matter how events progress and where they lead. Today, people want to discuss their affairs, express their opinions, and participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Most Syrians can no longer turn a blind eye to the crisis facing their country.

The fear of speaking publicly in Syria has finally been buried, even if other anxieties have emerged in the process. Blogs and social media facilitated this change, underscoring the Internet’s importance as a useful tool for free expression and popular participation. The recent turbulent events demonstrate the untamed desire of Syrians to express themselves and the consequent inevitability of change it brings with it.

Shirin Hayek is US-based Syrian blogger and painter (www.freesham.com and www.agra202.blogspot.com)

Yasin al-Suwayha is a Spanish-based Syrian blogger (www.syriagavroche.com) and www.yass1984.blogspot.com)

This article is an edited translation from the series “The Great Syrian Revolt” published in al-Adab Magazine (www.adabmag.com, Issue 7-9-2011). Al-Adab was founded by author, literary critic, and renowned linguist Suheil Idriss in 1953. Currently it is published by his son, Samah Idriss, who is also an author, critic, and activist. Al-Adab is a primary source and record of Arab cultural, social, and political debate and discourse.

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