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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Syrian dissidents find a voice on Facebook

    DAMASCUS, Syria — A Syrian pro-democracy forum that was shut down by authorities in 2005 has found a new life in cyberspace, where discussion is thriving.

    The Atassi forum has attracted more than 250 members to its Facebook site, where they share views on civic issues otherwise not discussed in the state-controlled and state-monitored media.

    The police state bars intellectuals and dissidents from holding that kind of discussion face to face.

    Now pro-democracy groups are hoping that social networks like Facebook will give vigor to their cause and connect opponents inside and outside the country, despite official attempts to block them.

    The Atassi forum, once a thriving social gathering of eminent Syrian intellectuals and political dissidents, launched its Facebook group in December in order to hold discussions about democracy-related issues, like the future of peaceful civil-society movements.

    “”Our goal is simple,”” saidSuheir al-Atassi, the forum’s president. “”We want to pursue the dialogue, which had been interrupted, in order to reach a deeper understanding of our causes and find solutions together.””

    The original Atassi National Dialogue Forum was named in memory ofJamal Atassi, Suheir’s father and a leading Syrian thinker and staunch supporter of Arab nationalism who died in 2000. The forums began in 2001, along with more than 70 other intellectual forums conducted during the period that came to be known as “”the Damascus Spring.”” Political discussion groups mushroomed in this period, following the death of Syrian PresidentHafez al-Assad, when dissidents saw an opportunity to press for democratic reforms.

    But the movement was quickly crushed by the regime’s hardliners, who, against a backdrop of external threats, argued that reformers were jeopardizing Syria’s domestic unity and stability.

    The forums were forcibly shut and civil society activists were jailed. The Atassi salon underSuheir Atassiwas the last to survive, remaining active until 2005. It was then abruptly closed down after one member read a statement from the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization that was brutally crushed by the Baath regime in the 1980s.

    Eight of the group’s leading members were arrested.

    Suheir Atassisaid the forum has spent the last five years trying to regain its place in the public arena.

    At first, small-scale discussions were held on Facebook until an official virtual version of the Atassi forum was launched on Dec. 26 last year.

    The group members vote on the site to choose a topic of discussion, Atassi explained.

    After that, a member drafts a paper on the selected topic, which becomes the subject of an open debate for two weeks. A comprehensive report is then put together encompassing the main recommendations and opinions and then posted on various websites.

    Although Syrian authorities have officially barred access to Facebook since November 2007, the site has become one of the most popular in the country, especially among young people. Other social networking services, such as Twitter and MySpace, as also used, but to a lesser extent.

    Still, there are dangers associated with being an online dissident. In September, Karim Arabji was sentenced to three years in jail for “”spreading false news,”” one of nearly a dozen individuals identified as bloggers who are believed to be in prison.

    Many are willing to run the risk, however, because such forums are the only means dissidents inside and outside the country have to communicate.

    “”The Internet is today my only window into Syria,”” saidSamir al-Dakhil, a Syrian living in Beirut. He said he could not meet or call his colleagues because most of them were banned from traveling outside the country and their telephones are tapped by the security services.

    Suheir Atassiremains confident that the online forum will be able to circumvent whatever obstacles the government tried to erect.

    “”This time they won’t be able to block access to the forum because we have the means to break any siege,”” she said.

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    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Malath Aumranan is a reporter in Syria who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: www.iwpr.net. For information about IWPR’s funding, please go to http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?top—supporters.html.

    This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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    (c) 2010, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting

    Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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