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COLUMN ONE

Arabs Take Byte at Regimes

Activists of all hues are using the Internet to get around restrictions in a battle of wits against authorities bent on silencing cyber-critics.

September 12, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — 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 selfcensorship. "So you go 'backspace, backspace, backspace.' "

Around him in an airy, wood-paneled cafe in downtown Damascus, voices clattered off the ceiling. Students mingled over roast beef sandwiches and chocolate 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, often with a Luddite's bewilderment, 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.

Online forums have been embraced by Islamists and the Arab world's underground gay communities alike. The Internet has turned into a virtual debate hall crammed with lengthy screeds, cutting language and calls for rebellion. A colorful repository for the angst of the bulging Arab youth population, the Web is impolite, anonymous and raw -- in short, a revelation.

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, all4syria.org, 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, the Syrian capital. "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.

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