Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Entretanto, na Síria

The Syrians are watching (Al-Jazeera):

In the tea shops and internet cafes of Damascus, Syrians are asking what events in Egypt may mean for them.

In one of Old Damascus' new cafes, text messages buzzed between mobiles in quick succession, drawing woops of joy and thumbs up from astonished Syrians.

Suzan Mubarak, the wife of the Egyptian president, had flown into exile with her son - so the rumours went - driven out of the country by days of unprecedented protest against the 30-year rule of her husband.

The news from Cairo brought a flutter of excitement to this country, founded on principles so similar to Egypt that the two nations were once joined as one.


In a smoky tea shop in central Damascus, the usual babble of conversation was subdued as customers sat quietly but intently watching the TV broadcasting images of flames pouring from Egypt's ruling party's head office, a Soviet-era building much like many of those that house the state institutions in their own capital.

The young waiter, though, was sceptical that real change would come to Egypt. "Mubarak won't go. Why did the Egyptian people wait until now? It's only because of Tunisia. I'd like him to go, but he won't."

Others, though, said the genie was already out of the bottle.

"The most important message is that people can make the change. Before it was always army officers that lead a coup," said Mazen Darwich, whose Syrian Centre for Media, which campaigns for press freedoms in Syria, was closed by authorities soon after opening.

"It may not be tomorrow or a few months but I'm sure it is like dominoes. Before there was always an ideology - pan-Arabism or being an enemy of Israel. But now people are simply looking for their personal freedom, for food, education, a good life. The days of ideology are over."

On Friday evening, as protests in Cairo reached a crescendo, the streets of Damascus were unusually quiet, with many people staying at home to watch the news. Syria's state-run media quoted some news reports from Cairo, but offered no comment or analysis on the situation.

Online, however, it was a different story. Internet users reported a significant slowdown in the web, with searches for news on Egypt often crashing browsers.

Heavy user traffic could be an explanation but in Syria, where thousands of websites deemed opposed to state interests are blocked and where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media are banned, authorities denied accusations they had restricted the service to prevent citizens hearing about events in Cairo.

Earlier this week, though, authorities banned programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat from mobile phones, a cheap and easy means of staying in touch that had exploded in popularity among young Syrians.

"People here are suffering much more than Egypt or Tunisia but you don't see it. They keep their mouths shut because they don't want to be locked up for 10 years," said a graduate medical student, surfing the web at an internet cafe.

Sitting next to him, a young lady finished updating her Facebook page and chatting with friends online - one of thousands of young Syrians adept at using proxy servers to get around the official ban on Facebook.

Although internet users must register their names with the cafe on a list that can be collected by the police, when asked if she had any concerns over breaking the ban on Facebook the young woman said all her friends do the same thing.

Indeed, President Bashar al-Assad, who opened Syria up to the internet when he succeeded his late father in 2000, has his own Facebook page.

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