The Syrian Virtual War

Muhanad Al-Hasani, a soft spoken lawyer and the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (SHRO) did not grow up surfing the internet. But the latest addiction among young Syrians may be the only thing that will allow him to breathe fresh air outside the prison cell where he currently languishes.  The imprisonment of Muhanad Al-Hasani, the latest Syrian activists thrown to jail, has triggered an internet campaign in the form of on-line petition that offers a withering critique of Syria’s human rights record. While in the west, petitions are an everyday occurrence; in Syria you can use your life for signing one. Still, signatures from Syria remained visible in the past few days.

Prior to his arrest, Al-Hassani had come under increasing pressure from the Syrian authorities due to  his work as a lawyer and human rights defender. In this capacity he also monitored the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which is a special court that tries those perceived as endangering the regime. On 23 July 2009, Muhanad Alhasani received a call from the Public Intelligence Directorate (PID), and was summoned to a few meetings at the PID. On the last of these meetings,  July 28 July at 7:00 pm, he was arrested and detained incommunicado. His arrest will apparently make it easier for this court to pursue those “dangerous activists”.

The internet is growing in Syria. According to Internet World Stats, Syria’s internet penetration is  approaching  18%  and growing at rapid pace (in 2005 the internet reached only 4% of Syrians). With  the growth of the internet, comes the growing  trend of internet dissent.

The country’s private mobile phone operators, Syriatel and MTN, were among the first  targets of this new Syrian-born on-line activism. Earlier this year, Hassan al-Zarki and four of his friends launched a campaign against expensive cell phone rates. Hasan   managed to gather 5,630 electronic signatures for a petition regarding the cost of calls, about 13 cents per minute. The mobile companies did not officially respond to the agitation but they did introduce new offers aimed at young people, which Hassan saw as a small victory.

Hasan is not the only activist. Other campaigns by young internet users have included pressure on the authorities to scrap a widely-condemned personal status draft law, raising awareness about sexual harassment and collecting funds for a four-year-old victim of rape.

Hundreds of Syrians  have also  rallied behind a campaign against the banning of the social networking website Facebook and one group addressed an online letter to President Bashar al-Assad urging him to unblock the site and protect Syrians’ right to free access to information.

Although the site is officially blocked, proxy and other circumventing technologies have resulted in a steady growth of Syrian facebook users and many have adopted a political route as well. “All for civil marriage in Syria”, a facebook group that calls for the liberalizations of marriage. More than 5,000 people joinED a group created by Zeina Arhim, a journalist who launched an online campaign against proposed discriminatory legislation related to marriage, inheritance and divorce law in Syria, with 1553 members. Three thousand others joined a  group that seeks  to ban a new law that allows girls aged 13 to be  married  and allows court to forcibly divorce any man and woman if they are accused by anti regime activity.

One prominent Syrian user that appears to bypass the censorship system is Asma Asad, Syrias’s first lady that has an elaborative Facebook page that carries dozens of pictures of her designer wardrobe.   When asked about the ban, Bouthaina Shaban, a former minister and a close advisor to Assad  said that the site was banned after we discovered that “Syrian youth are meeting with Israelis by using the facebook.”

The Syrian government is not idle to these developments.  The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression list more than 250 websites that are currently blocked but the authorities. Websites like Facebook Youtube, Free-Syria, Elaph as well as many “anonymiser” sites that allow users to circumvent filtering and detection.

Hussam Mulhim, Karim Arabji, Omar Alabdullah, Tareq al Ghorani and Diab Sarieh are currently in jail for material they posted online. In the past, officials have also imprisoned a group of young activists for creating an online discussion forum and publishing online articles.

Just last week, Syrian Blogger Karim Arbaji  was sentenced for three years by the Supreme  State Security.  Kareem  was the supervisor of Al Mabar Al Hur, a part within the www.akhawia.net youth forum dedicated to free ideas. He has been charged with, “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” Amnesty International has publicly stated that he has most likely been tortured.

But the blogging community in Syria refuse to stay quiet. Last month Almudawen, a Syrian blogging community, launched the first contest for the best Syrian blogs – an annual competition that will take place on  August 8 of each year to mark the anniversary of its establishment.

Zarki, the young man who helped launch the internet campaign against mobile phone charges, said that he and others will continue despite the fear of being arrested.

Syrian  ex-pats contribute their part  by launching other virtual campaigns. One such dissident is Ahed al-Hindi,  A Syrian blogger who spent time in a Syrian prison for raising his voice of dissent.   He is working hard on promoting the recent campaign for the release of Muhannad Al-Hasani. “A single petition will not be enough to bring down a dictatorial regime” he told me. “But a steady stream of grass-roots pressure may help Washington—and in turn Syria—realize that tyranny can not last forever.”

Nir Boms is a senior contributor to CyberDissidents.org and the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East

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