On Facebook and Twitter, spreading revolution in Syria

Social networks are playing a central role in fueling protests in Syria, where demonstrations Friday were the largest since anti-Assad activists took to the street last month.

Amateur Video via Reuters TV/Reuters
Protesters gather in a square in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, on April 8, in this still image taken from video. Social media has played a central role in protests in Syria with protesters posting videos and photos, often documenting government abuses, when traditional media has been shut out.

Five years ago, Malath Aumran was a normal young Syrian man with little interest in politics and, like millions of his fellow countrymen, a passive supporter of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

But a brutal act of violence set him on a path of political activism that today has turned him into an exile hiding in Beirut. Now, surrounded by laptop computers and Internet cables, the young, technologically savvy activist is using social networking tools to help build and sustain the popular uprising that has convulsed Syria and shaken the regime in the past three weeks.

Mr. Aumran has joined the growing ranks of Internet activists playing a critical role in the Middle East uprising. Not only have they organized protests via Twitter and Facebook, they are using YouTube and Flickr to post videos and photos, often documenting government abuses, when traditional media has been shut out. While many factors gave rise to this new Arab spring, the Internet and social media helped it spread quickly.

“The regime is ready to do anything against us, including committing massacres,” he says. “But we are telling the regime that if you shoot and kill people the pictures will be online and on television five minutes later.”

Although the Syrian government has offered some concessions in recent days, including a promise to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds and end the draconian state of emergency law by April 25, protestors gathered Friday for the largest demonstrations since unrest began last month. At least 10 protesters were reportedly killed by government forces, which have been responsible for shooting more than 100 people in a bid to quell the uprising.

An online revolution

From his cramped apartment tucked into a narrow street in east Beirut, Mr. Aumran, lean with a chiseled face and intense gaze, monitors the protests closely using Facebook, Twitter, and Skype as his eyes and ears, allowing him to track developments and disseminate information.

Foreign journalists presently are banned from reporting in Syria, meaning the dozens of Facebook pages that have sprung up since the uprising began March 18 and the daily Twitter feeds from activists have become vital sources of information that provide a glimpse of conditions in the country.

“We are using Skype to communicate because the authorities often block the cellphone lines and then we tweet the information,” Aumran says. “We have to be the journalists.”

Malath Aumran is not his real name but a pseudonym he adopted when he began his activism to avoid being identified by the Syrian authorities (Malath means “shelter” in Arabic, and Aumran was the name of his younger brother). Even the profile picture he uses on his Facebook page is artificial, a composite of 32 male faces.

“It looks like everyone but it is no one,” he says.

The catalyst that drove him to pursue the potentially hazardous path of civil rights campaigning in Syria began five years ago when a female friend was victim of an “honor crime,” beaten to death by a relative for an alleged sexual misdemeanor that brought “dishonor” upon her family.

When the killer received a prison sentence of only six months, an appalled Aumran joined an illegal organization called the Syrian Women’s Observatory that campaigns against “honor crimes.” He bought a computer, went online, discovered the power of the Internet and then established with some friends a web magazine called Syria News, which included an open forum for civil rights issues.

The next step was to launch a campaign against the Syrian cellular phone network. Syriatel, one of two cellphone companies in Syria, is owned by Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad who controls much of the Syrian economy and is regarded by many Syrians as the personification of the endemic corruption blighting the country. Using proxy servers to avoid detection and to access banned websites, Aumran and his friends set up Facebook pages and launched an e-mail campaign calling for cellphone boycotts.

“It was the beginning of nonviolent youth activism in cyberspace,” Aumran says.

On the run

By 2010, Aumran, under his real name, was attracting the attention of Syria’s pervasive security agencies. He was called in for questioning more than 40 times last year. When he was told that he could no longer travel and that he must report to a security office within 30 minutes of being summoned, Aumran knew that he would soon be arrested. He slipped out of the country in January, paying smugglers $500 to cross the border into Lebanon. Even then he was nearly caught by Syrian border police who mounted an ambush and fired shots in the air, forcing him to flee on foot into the mountains of north Lebanon.

Although he is no longer in Syria, Beirut is not entirely safe as Damascus wields great influence in its tiny neighbor. In February, Lebanese police arrested three Syrian brothers in Beirut after they distributed flyers demanding democratic changes in Syria. They subsequently vanished. The Lebanese police say an investigation has been launched, but human rights activists suspect the three brothers were forcibly transferred to Syria.

Aumran’s identity has been uncovered by the Syrian security authorities and he has received threats via his Facebook page. He claimed that fake e-mails have been circulating in his name carrying criticisms of his opposition colleagues, or linking him to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

On Wednesday, a Facebook message warned that his sister would be arrested unless he publicly ended his activism.

“It was the worst day of my life,” he says. “But how can I encourage friends and other people to take the risk of going out on the streets and then stop when my family is on the line?”

'A revolution without leaders'

With protests spreading across the country Friday, Aumran was glued to his computer screens, uploading the latest cellphone footage of demonstrations and communicating with his sources on the ground.

“What’s great about this revolution is that there are no leaders. It’s hundreds of small groups doing their own thing,” he says.

Tips on how to hold demonstrations and protect oneself from tear gas and batons are posted on the Internet. Mosques have become crucial rallying points, especially on the Muslim holy day of Friday, when it is acceptable for men to gather in one place.

“The people going to the mosques are not Islamists. Many of them are not even religious. They are hip hop guys who only go to the mosque so that they can demonstrate when the prayers are over,” he says.

The Syrian authorities have confronted the unprecedented protests with a mix of promised reform and violent suppression in which dozens of people have died. But Aumran says that the reform promises are empty and only a change of regime is acceptable. Despite the obstacles ahead, he remains confident.

“The people saw what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and they knew they could do the same,” he says. "The real change here is that for the first time people are no longer accepting fate as it comes, but making their own fate.”

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