Arabs Take Byte at Regimes

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Times Staff Writer

In the world of Syrian bloggers, one computer key is essential.


“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,, 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.

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 U.S. 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, who runs the website Damascene Blog.


Still, the Internet has come slowly to Syria. Subscription rates are out of most people’s reach. Censorship is rife, and broadband services are highly restricted.

Even so, the Web is lively with Syrian bloggers -- only about 40, but that’s up from three at the beginning of the year. Syrians are also finding their way, anonymously, to online forums.

Some Syrians believe that may explain a speech Assad made in June at the Baath Party congress. He didn’t mention the instability in Iraq, the crisis in Lebanon or the festering cold war with Israel. Instead, he issued dire warnings about the revolution in news and technology. The information influx had “overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity, which has increased the doubts and skepticism in the mind of young Arabs,” he told delegates.

It was a startling argument coming from Syria’s most famous Internet advocate. Technology had numbed and subtly made war against Arab society, Assad said.

“This leads in the end to the cultural, political and moral collapse of the Arab individual and his ultimate defeat even without a fight,” he said. “The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of Arab identity.”

Opposition figures and bloggers were aghast.

“Will we just suddenly forget the language we are still using?” wrote a Syrian blogger who was interviewed by e-mail on condition of anonymity. “Lose our memory like if we been in an accident? Just because we saw some technology? Are we too primitive to handle the shock?”


Of course not, says prominent human rights lawyer Anwar Bounni. Arab governments may complain about the Web as a dangerous home for pornography and terrorists, but in practice, he argues, Assad dislikes the Internet because it’s a potent political threat.

“They’ve lost hard authority, because anybody can speak about them on the Internet,” said Bounni, who has defended Syrians jailed for Internet use. Assad “doesn’t know what he wants to do about it. He wants to return to his father’s time, when nobody could speak.”


Disenchanted young women in capri pants, battle-weary human rights veterans in baggy polos, young bloggers with pouches under their eyes and unkempt manes of hair. They had come from all over Cairo to a clammy walk-up for a semi-underground seminar on Internet privacy.

The small group was gathered to learn how to evade security agents -- how to send coded e-mail, use proxy servers to cover their tracks and visit banned websites. They were told that Egyptians arrested for their online activities had been traced by their Internet Protocol addresses, and that they could have foiled the government by using proxy servers, which mask identifiying information.

“A very simple proxy, even if it’s not secure, you can get away with it,” said Ahmed Gharbeia, a skinny, serious computer consultant, who peered at his audience over his glasses. “The government isn’t that sophisticated yet.”

They were urged to encrypt all of their writings and to pass on the skills they learned here -- discreetly.


“We don’t want to provoke the security services,” said Eid, the lawyer. “We should spread the knowledge, but don’t announce it publicly. Go out and teach others about encryption.”

Across town a few nights later, several Egyptians huddled in a circle around microphones. They were just getting warmed up as the inky darkness of midnight draped itself over Cairo.

“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, labeled by his followers as a ploy to silence him, is scheduled to begin late this month.

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 program was flowing live, but not onto the airwaves -- it was headed for cyberspace.


When Nour’s application for an FM radio license was rejected this year, he turned to the Internet. “AL GHAD [the Tomorrow Party] BREAKS MEDIA MONOPOLY AND LAUNCHES INTERNET RADIO,” read the message that flashed across cellphones in Cairo. “Today, Al Ghad has broken the regime’s monopoly on radio transmission in Egypt.”

Internet radio has its skeptics. It’s not portable and it’s not cheap. Some critics argue that the Arab world is still too technologically undernourished for online radio to take root.

But that hasn’t stopped Nour. Trying to build a reputation as the smart choice of the young, educated middle class, his party has exploited satellite TV, text messaging and the Web for all they’re worth. In the first month, the radio station drew 2 million listeners, said Ahmed Abdel Moneim, its 30-year-old technical director.

“We try to broadcast what the government tries to hide,” he said.

Mubarak’s government, a crucial ally of the United States, has been strongly criticized by rights groups for cracking down on civil liberties and freedom of expression.

In Egypt, as in most Arab states, the government’s attempts to monitor the Internet is both shadowy and fluctuating. The online sting operations launched against gay men by Egyptian security agents still make some in the Internet community shudder.

The trend has been well documented by local and foreign human rights groups: Undercover agents trolled gay chat rooms in recent years on the pretense of cruising for sex. Agents arranged meetings with the unsuspecting men, then arrested them. Some of the men reported being tortured.


These days, security agents have been ordering Internet cafe managers to keep detailed lists of national identity cards, users’ names and serial numbers of computers. The managers and human rights researchers say the government wants to be able to track the Web activity of some Egyptians.

“They want to make it easy on themselves,” said Ahmed Biso, the 25-year-old manager of a chain of Internet cafes in Cairo. “They just call you up and say: ‘Somebody has been using your computer. If you can’t find him, you’re responsible before state security.’ ”


The letter from the Bahraini Information Ministry was curt. Control your website, it warned the founder of Bahrain Online.

It was a chilling message for 27-year-old Ali Abdul Imam. Since he launched the website six years ago, it has become Bahrain’s most controversial. The articles are mostly tame pieces about politics and culture, but the site is home to a raucous comments section, where readers can post opinions anonymously. “Death to the government,” says one. “We say ‘enough’ to the Khalifa family,” reads another, referring to Bahrain’s ruling family. “This is our land and we won’t give it up.”

Along with two of the site’s technicians, Abdul Imam spent two weeks this year mingling with murderers and thieves in jail. Charges of insulting the royal family and inciting hatred of the government still hang over his head.

Abdul Imam is one of dozens of cyber-dissidents who have tangled with Arab governments in recent years. Some are being held incommunicado. Others have been forced to flee their homelands. An online Libyan journalist disappeared without a trace. Tunisia’s most brazen Internet commentator fell dead of a heart attack at age 36. He had spent months in prison, where he reportedly was tortured.


Typing away in countries where legal ground can collapse underneath them, many of the Arab world’s bloggers are painfully aware that they could be shut down or arrested with little notice.

Abdul Imam’s trial could begin tomorrow, next week or never -- he doesn’t know what’s coming. In the meantime, his passport has been seized, his website blocked.

“We spread the word, because that could have been any one of us,” said Mahmood Youssef, a 43-year-old computer worker who runs a blog known as Mahmood’s Den. “And we just cannot accept that.”

Recent years have been restive in the palm-fringed archipelago of Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim minority rules over a Shiite Muslim majority. Tensions have been stirred by instability in Iran and in Iraq. Street protests over politics and economics have become fairly common, and the government has responded by cracking down brutally on the demonstrations.

Abdul Imam’s arrest sent Bahrain’s bloggers into battle. They made “Free Ali” buttons. They staged small but effective demonstrations, mouths sealed with masking tape and banners reading “Death or Liberty” and “Internet Unlimited.” But most of all they blogged, drawing the attention of foreign journalists and rights groups.

The fight hit a new pitch in April, when the Information Ministry ordered all website owners to register with the government or face prosecution.


No way, the bloggers retorted. The standoff continues.

“Just because they don’t understand the Internet is not our problem,” Youssef said. “They think it’s like a newspaper or magazine, that they can go and switch it down. But it’s a living, amorphous thing.”