Arab cyber-activists rapidly gain traction as crises continue


BEIRUT—In his March 30 speech in the Syrian capital of Damascus, President Bashar El-Assad blamed unrest in his country on a plot by foreign powers that he said began with incitement on the Internet, and specifically on the social-media site, Facebook.

Within seconds, Syrian users of social media, saying they were indeed plotting—but against Mr. Assad’s regime and not their nation— were sending hundreds of messages.

“Freedom, freedom, this is what we want,” said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian cyber-activist who, despite a very low level of expectations, was disappointed by the speech.

“They will not give us freedom because they know we will overthrow them. It is impossible for a dictator to give his people freedom and liberty,” he said.

Better known as Malath Aumran, his “virtual” identity on Facebook, Mr. Nakhle moved to Beirut from Damascus few months ago following more than 40 rounds of investigations by different security apparatuses in less than six months.

He had been placed under close supervision by Syrian authorities because of his activism, among other groups, with Human Rights groups.

All the personal information on his popular Facebook account are bogus: the name Malath Aumran, which in Arabic translates as “in the refuge of Aumran,” was adopted when his mother accused him of being the defender of his younger brother Aumran, who was being scolded.

The profile picture is the mix of 32 different images.

“We are very real, but we act in a virtual world, and if they get one of us, there is no way the can uncover everyone,” he said.

They will not give us freedom because they know we will overthrow them

Rami Nakhle, a Syrian cyberactivist

Syrian intelligence was recently able to uncover his real identity when officials recognized his voice from a television interview he was giving as Malath Aumran. He started receiving threats on his Facebook account.

Despite his increased concern about his family, Mr. Nakhle is confident there is no turning back.

“For sure I am afraid, but you know what? They are already killing us, if not on the street they are killing us in the basements of intelligence, in jails and through torture,” he said.

According to Mr. Nakhle, the impact of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was a key element in breaking the barrier of fear among Syrian activists. However, he acknowledges that despite its success in mobilizing so far, cyber activism generally is proving to be more challenging in Syria.

Imad Bazzi, a Lebanese blogger, better known as Trella, who has been working closely with Syrian cyber-activists agrees with Mr. Nakhle’s assessment. He mentions a smaller number of experts.

But he also reported occasional misuse by some who spread fake footage, hence compromising sources’ credibility.

Add to that the following: increased oppression by better-prepared and less surprised Syrian authorities.

Still, despite the crackdown by them on the Internet and telephone lines, hundreds of people are adding their names daily on the Facebook pages supporting both the regime and the revolution.

Some 1,269 people became members of the “Syrian revolution against Bashar al Assad” page, in a 24-hour period that this reporter monitored.

Cross-nationality cooperation between activists isn’t new.

Before his involvement with Syrian activists, Mr. Bazzi associated himself with Egyptian counterparts: he was a member of “Stop 404” group, which according to him, was formed in the initial days of the Egyptian revolution to break the censorship that Egyptian authorities had tried to impose.

According to him, the group started with two people and ended up with 33 highly skilled activists.

“Stop 404” and similar groups made it possible to transmit videos out of Egypt even when the Internet was down. Those videos—taken by amateurs and shared on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook—influenced the mainstream media. The amateurs thus mobilized local communities and caught the attention of international audiences, in turn influencing world leaders to put pressure on local regimes.

Like Mr. Nakhle, Mr. Bazzi had his share of problems with security apparatuses. He was a university student when he started working as a freelance journalist for a local newspaper in Beirut. He was arrested twice before he left for Canada—where he finished college. Since his return he poured most of his time and energy into social activism and blogging.

Over the years he became part of what he calls a community of skilled social “mobilizers.” They are ordinary citizens who have the skill to transmit information, and are connected to one another; they know one another from seminars and regular media platforms, where they chat about common causes.

“It’s only normal that someone in Syria wants to help someone in Egypt, and that someone in Tunisia wants to help someone in Yemen,” Mr. Bazzi said. “We share the same problems, we all suffer from local corruption, from the absence of the rule of law and the lack of democracy. This is what connects these people together, the common causes they work on.”

Mr. Nakhle agrees.

“My children will not live in this situation. This is what I believe, this is what my friends believe, and this is what we will continue to do.”

(Alia Ibrahim is a senior correspondent for Al Arabiya based in Beirut. She can be reached via email at: [email protected])