Syria: Web 2.0 for Participation and Development
"[The Internet has] given Syrians free speech. It has expanded the range of topics people can read about. It has created a new, open atmosphere.”
-- Ayman Abdel Nour, prominent Syrian Internet journalist, quoted in an interview with Human Rights Watch.
"The Internet has changed public discourse in Syria. People are getting a much more sophisticated view of the world
." -- Joshua Landis, creator of Syriacomment.com.
Introduction: The Syrian Context
Syria is far from the most active country in the world when it comes to blogs, independent news sites and other interactive Internet applications. However, Internet use is growing in Syria, and the country is a good place to examine the possibilities of Web 2.0 in a development context, because it has the unique blend of a relatively educated population (with a higher than 80 percent literacy rate
), relatively high availability of computers, and a lack of dependable, traditional channels for public expression and participation.
A History of Conflict
Before drawing conclusions about what the Internet can and cannot accomplish in this context, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at how the context came to be. In particular, it is important to understand the reasons behind the restrictive environment for media and civic participation in Syria.
Syria’s Emergency Act – in place since the 1963 Ba’ath takeover of the government – strengthens the powers of security agencies and the executive branch of government. The emergency law helped the government end a decades-long cycle of coups and later to repel insurrections. Syrians accept the increased security the state of emergency entails in part because of fear of the very real threats emanating from both inside and outside the country -- there have been frequent wars with Israel, which still occupies the Golan Heights on Syria's southern border, and invasions, unrest and attacks in every neighboring country. [1,2] The government has frequently cited those threats as the reason for strict controls on speech. (Take a look at the OHCHR report on the emergency act
). Private Syrian media is hard to come by (though it is getting more common), and much news is produced by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) .
(Below: The Syrian flag with the slogan "God is protecting Syria." Patriotism runs high in Syria, as many people feel under siege. Above: The occupied Golan, symbol of Syria's emergency. Photo by Eamon Kircher-Allen)
An Information Revolution
The most profound disruption to the government information machine was the advent of satellite television in Syria in the 1990s. Alan George, author of the definitive book Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom
, writes that satellite and Internet technology have been a "nightmare" for Syria's regime. Satellites made comparatively low-budget state-run TV all but irrelevant. A second disruption came with the introduction of the Internet. The Syrian state has made an effort to control the Internet, both with technology and through example -- there have been high-profile incidents of repression in response to Internet use. As a result, self-censorship also plays a role in limiting the kinds of discussions that occur. (Read more in the section "Anecdotal Evaluations.")
But the Internet is still an important force in Syria. According to American blogger Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who runs Syriacomment.com, "The Internet has changed public discourse in Syria."
"In the 1980s, Syria was a dark and gloomy place in terms of public discourse. It was hard to find a happy conversation about politics," he said in a phone interview. Syrians' only source of news and information were the state-run newspapers. "The major revolution was satellite TV. Internet was the next wave. The elite are reading the Internet and refining their views.... People are getting a much more sophisticated view of the world. Now, you can have exciting conversations in Damascus about politics, and the Internet is a big part of that. The Syrian education system is broken, and there aren't libraries in Syria. But Syrians are now educating themselves."
So how are Syrians using the Internet?
The Interactive Internet in Syria
Following is a brief sampling of Internet news sites, blogs and other interactive web applications that either originate in Syria or are dedicated to matters concerning the country. These sites have been chosen because they are either directly or indirectly related to issues of participation in Syria, in both politics and human development. While the number of such sites in and about Syria may be modest compared to some other countries, it is increasing
. Even as new restrictions and obstacles to interactive Internet use arise in Syria, blogs' profiles and Internet literacy are on the rise.
(Right: a wall of graffiti in Damascus mimics the hodgepodge free-for-all of the interactive Internet, which stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere of control in other mediums. Photo by Eamon Kircher-Allen.)
This news site, whose title means "opposite direction" in Arabic, prints distinctly Syrian news that is nevertheless different from the standard fare of both Western and Syrian sources.
This is an Arabic-language site billing itself as an independent source of news from within Syria. Its creator, Ayman Abdel Nour, is a member of the ruling Baath party, which gives him a level of legitimacy as a Syrian patriot that he might have to struggle for otherwise. This is an example of the way change can be accomplished in Syria, on Syria's terms: from the inside and one step at a time. Here is an article about Aymen Abdel Nour in the Washington Post
and an interview with him in this report from Human Rights Watch
. Here is his profile
on creativesyria.com. His website has been intermittently blocked from within Syria.
This blog was created by Ammar Abdulhamid, an author who left Syria in 2005 after being "faced with harassment and threats," according to Human Rights Watch
Creativesyria.com hosts this thematic blog space
and solicits contributions about issues related to Syria. It appears that many of the contributors are Syrian emigrants
. Posts are in English, which means that the site has limited readership, at best, inside Syria. But Syrian emigrant -- who number about 15 million
, almost the population of Syria itself -- are a force to be reckoned with and a valuable resource for the country. A site like this one links them across borders. (The UNDP Syria project promoting coordination with emigrants
offers an idea of the importance with which the country views its emigrant community.) This site also has a list of blogs about Syria and the Middle East.
Even Syria's envoy to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has created his own blog. The subjects are decidedly non-political -- Moustapha writes about Syrian painters and his vacation to Turkey -- but as with anything having to do with Syria, even the apolitical is political. The blog looks tailored to project a modern, open-minded picture of Syria.
This site was created by Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst and professor at al-Kalamoun University in Syria. Moubayed writes on such provocative issues as the recent elections in Syria.
He is a frequent contributor to Syria Today
, which bills itself as the first independently-produced, English-language Syrian magazine dealing with politics, current affairs and culture. The issues Moubayed discusses in Mideastviews are a step beyond the news put forward by Syria Times
, the Syrian state-run newspapers. When Moubayed started the site in 2002, it had only 20 subscribers. "I now have over 1,000 [subscribers] from around the world," he wrote in an email interview. Moubayed is also launching a new magazine called "Forward" with publisher Haykal Media. The magazine's website is: http://www.fw-magazine.com/.
This site, which is connected to creativesyria.com
, includes user-generated and historical photo albums of Syrian cities. For a country that suffers from as much misinformation in the West as Syria does, a direct window on daily cultural life like this is important in projecting its human face.
This is a comprehensive link of blogs by Syrians and about Syria. The blogs are of varying quality, but do give an idea of the issues that are being debated in the blogosphere, and who is debating.
This is a blog created by Joshua Landis, the Co-director of the Centre of Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Landis's posts and news aggregation are valuable in themselves: he is an impartial Syria expert who has spent time in the country and shows concern for human development there. Just as valuable are the comments and posts from regional experts, in both English and Arabic. Contributors to the blog include Ibrahim Hamidi,
al-Hayat's bureau chief in Damascus. (Al-Hayat is a major Arabic-language newspaper.) Landis says his site gets about 2,000 hits a day.
This is a blog-style news site that is a popular independent source of news in Syria.
A creation of Sami Moubayed and his friend Sabhan Abd Rabbo, this is a collaborative "online museum" for historical photographs about Syria. This Internet initiative may provide a model for funding Web 2.0 initiatives. Moubayed described its inception in an email interview: "Syrianhistory started in October 2005. I had been collecting photos and data, for pleasure and research for my books on Syria, since 1995." Moubayed started the site to preserve these treasures. "We started off with 1,000 photos," he wrote. "The traffic and the acclaim were unbelievable; not in our wildest dreams did we expect such a response. A front page article was written about the site in al-Hayat, the mass circulation Arabic daily. Another followed in Tishreen, and a third in al-Ahram [the Egyptian newspaper]. Pretty soon people were calling us to place ads on the site, and others to send whatever material they had left from their parents and grandparents."
This site hosts a lively online debate about different Syrian issues, which include contributions from prominent Syrian writers.
Anecdotal Evaluations of the Impact of Web 2.0 Initiatives
Monitoring and Evaluation of the effects of Web 2.0 must be anecdotal. This should not stop us from seriously considering their possible uses in a development context. This is especially the case because blogs do not require a large investment of money.
Official Restrictions and Reactions
Much of the anecdotal evidence about the Internet in Syria has been negative. The country is often portrayed as a lone flouter of accepted Internet freedoms in much of the rest of the world. Reporters Without Borders
lists Syria as one of 13 "Internet enemies,"
and the OpenNet Initiative
lists Syria as one of several countries where Internet filtering is "pervasive."
The Syrian government has had a mixed reaction to Internet use, and appears to have clamped down in specific instances
, perhaps in order to encourage people to observe the same limits to their activities on the Internet that they adhere to in their speech or in print and broadcast media. (See a 2004 Amnesty International report on controls on Internet access in Syria here
(Right: Internet cafe, Damascus. Photo by "istanbul mike," flikr.com, some rights reserved. Click photo for license information.)
Official suspicion of blogs may be deepened in incidents such as one during the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, when the Israeli ambassador to the UN cited a young Lebanese blogger's thoughts on the war as support for Israel's position in the UN Security Council. (See Gal Beckerman's Columbia Journalism Review article.
Perhaps in response to this perceived danger, more controls on the Internet have been imposed more recently
. According to one writer, even urls containing the word "blog" are blocked in Syria. And in the time leading up to the Annapolis Mideast peace talks of November 2007, Syria blocked access to Facebook. (However, the block is apparently only effective when applied to dial-up connections. In the wake of criticism of this move, the Syrian Minister of Communications was replaced
, though it is not clear if the uproar over the blocking of Facebook was the reason.)
Despite all this, the government has not stopped Internet access in Syria. Syrian Internet users who are knowledgeable enough to use the web extensively have proven to be extremely resourceful (see this report from Human Rights Watch
). It seems that bloggers are consistently finding ways around obstacles
that authorities put in place. As Rhonda Roumani reported in the Columbia Journalism Review
in 2005, "Syrians are constantly finding ways around censored sites. Mirror sites sprout like weeds, but are jammed as soon as they are discovered. And for a dollar, Syrians can use a computer program—called a proxy blocker — that steers them around the censor and to the banned site."
Reasons for Optimism
Despite all the negative press about Internet restrictions in Syria, it is worthwhile to note the Internet did not create censorship, political prisoners or the Emergency Act. It is incomplete to view crackdowns on Internet users as an indication that the growth of interactive Internet sites is untenable in Syria.
It is much more useful to note that the web has opened up an indigenous dialogue on Syrian issues that did not previously exist. Even with its problems and limited scope, it is clear that blogging has incrementally increased the margins of participation and free discourse in Syria, which is no small thing. It has also given Syrians a voice and a face in the international scene, something that they have not been able to achieve through standard media channels, Syrian or otherwise.
Sami Moubayed, the Syrian political analyst, wrote in an email interview that the Internet's effect on public discourse has been "very important."
"The Internet has changed the face of Syrian society. True, some people go to porn sites. Others just use it to chat. A high number (myself included) now have Facebook accounts. But look at how 'connected' people are becoming. My students [in the Faculty of International Relations at al-Kalamoun University] cannot work--simply--with no Internet. There is no public library in Syria. They use it for information, for research, for notes, etc."
Moubayed added that Internet use is becoming pervasive. "From experience, every single person I know for example, goes to Syria News," he wrote. "Everybody knows Syrianhistory.com
. Even the older generation is currently 'wired.'"
Further, Moubayed sees people reaping unique benefits from the Internet. "[People who] have not studied beyong high school . . . now go to the Internet to read news about Syria. I know people with a mediocre education who are young, and who don't speak English. You cannot believe how hard they have worked to improve their language skills, only for the Internet."
Anecdotes such as these suggest that there is no reason to think that achieving free speech or governance reform are the most important development goals that blogs can help address. For instance, the expanded knowledge network that blogs have created among Syrian emigrants living in the Americas, Europe and elsewhere represents a tool with real potential. Like many developing countries, Syria has felt the strain
resulting from the emigration of many of its best-educated and wealthiest citizens. Interactive websites like creativesyria.com
represent a chance for this diaspora to reconnect, together, to the fate, finances and development of Syria. If contributions to these sites are any indicator, there is a strong demand for this reconnection.
The Road Ahead
Web 2.0 initiatives are low-budget, require a minimum amount of expertise to set up, and are probably easier to publish over a large area than any other kind of media. This makes them an exceptional tool for development. Given Syria's specific context -- especially its concerns about manipulation and destabilization instigated by foreign powers -- promoters of blogs in Syria should tread lightly on the issues the Syrian state finds most sensitive. Political discussion certainly has a place. But members of the online community who engage in the dialogue should be sensitive to the safety of the Syrians who must live with the threat of war and instability hanging over their heads.
Replicate Successful Models
The models for interactive Internet sites that are of proven utility in a development context include those promoted by creativesyria.com
. The former has subject-specific blogs that channel conversations to relevant topics. A development agency could use such a forum judiciously to for comments about and participation in its projects -- and set a standard for Syrian institutions to follow. Such a blog would need an editor to make sure posts stay on subject -- not a strictly Web 2.0 design, but the best way for an international organization to respect local norms. Like any initiative in an uneasy atmosphere, such a project would need to be started conservatively.
is appealing because its creator, Ayman Abdel Nour, has combined the golden possibility of the Internet - -the ability to self-publish to a large audience at minimal cost -- with the wisdom of someone who understands the Syrian context well.
Internet Education and Infrastructure
The foundation for all of this work -- and perhaps the place where international development agencies can play the biggest role -- is laying the ground for broader computer literacy. The UN Development Programme in Syria, for instance, has funded several communications centers in rural areas
. There is no explicit link to Web 2.0 in the project's description, but increasingly, any interaction with the web will be truly that -- interactive. It is hoped that this will mean less passivity for the beneficiaries of human development projects. Education about computers and the Internet must be targeted, not only at users, but also the officials responsible for the Internet in Syria.
Cited print works:
 Kircher-Allen, Eamon, "State of Emergency," California Lawyer Magazine,
June 2007, p. 64.
 Seale, Patrick, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East
, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
 George, Alan, Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom,
New York: Zed Books, 2003.