LONDON — With Egypt in the midst of a revolution and Tunisia coming to terms with life after dictatorship, Syria’s government has surprised the region by taking a potentially significant step to soften its grip on power: it has removed many of its internet restrictions.
The web was widely used by protestors in Tunisia as they waged a month-long campaign to oust their longtime president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With the media shut out of the country, citizen journalists used the web to broadcast the escalating protests to the world. Ben Ali eventually fled to Saudi Arabia a month ago. Egyptian protestors followed soon after, staging unprecedented demonstrations across the country calling for President Hosni Mubarak to quit. As those protests continue, Egypt has moved to shut down the internet — and even mobile phone networks — for days at a time.
Syria has always had one of the region's most restrictive web policies, even before the wave of revolutionary protests started to sweep the region. Reporters Without Borders repeatedly called Syria one of the world's enemies of the internet. Facebook, YouTube and Arabic Wikipedia were banned, and many blogs were inaccessible.
Although most internet cafes installed proxies to circumvent the restrictions, Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh, who has campaigned for internet freedom, said accessing the net was becoming unbearable.
“It's a daily frustration,” he said. “[Proxies] aren't 100 percent reliable and end up slowing down an already well-below-standard internet connection. This makes media heavy websites practically unusable with circumvention tools for the majority of Syrian users who still go online using dial-up connections.”
While many had been expecting the Syrian government to tighten its grip on information sharing, it did the exact opposite.
"This is a clear in-your-face to critics of the Syrian government," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and founder of SyriaComment.com.
But if this is part of Syria's public relations battle, it's a risky one. It comes just days after Facebook users attempted, but failed, to organize an Egypt-style protest outside the parliament in Damascus.
"There is some indication that the policy decision to allow Facebook was taken before the protests in Egypt began," Landis said. "Some Facebookers noticed that it was permitted for a few days but then the decision seemed to be rescinded. Perhaps this happened because of anxiety produced by disturbances in Tunisia and Egypt, but then when no-one turned up to the 'Day of Rage' on Friday, perhaps the government decided to move ahead with its original decision to permit Facebook."
Although often portrayed as one of the region's most closed countries, Syria is religiously and socially liberal. It is a secular state with a relatively popular leader. President Bashar Al-Assad took office after his father died in 2000, becoming one of the region's youngest heads of state, at just 34. In 2009, a poll by America's Pew Research Center named Al-Assad as the Middle East's most popular head of state.
"The President's delight in impromptu dinners in Damascus, walking without security in Paris, or driving his own car around town are all attempts to show that he does not fear his people and is liked," Landis said.
In a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal just after the start of the Egyptian uprising, Al-Assad admitted his country needed to change.
"If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform," he said. "Of course, if you want to talk about the changes internally, there must be different kind of changes: political, economic and administrative. These are the changes that we need. But at the same time you have to upgrade the society and this does not mean to upgrade it technically by upgrading qualifications. It means to open up the minds."
While Syrians' minds might feel a little more open today, with access to Facebook and YouTube now unrestricted, they still face handicaps that even proxies cannot circumvent. Sanctions imposed by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush mean Syrians are prohibited from using U.S.-based sites like Amazon or PayPal. They are also banned from downloading software from American companies like Google.
Jillian C. York, project coordinator at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, which monitors internet filtering, said the web changes initiated by Damascus could have a knock-on effect on Washington's embargo.
"It appears to me that this is part of Syria's strategy to appear more open," she said. "It's a symbolic change that could mean a lot, including in Washington.”
Sakhr Al-Makhadhi is a Damascus-based journalist.