By Hala Droubi
The Syrian government lifted its three-year old ban on Facebook and other websites, including Youtube and the internet feed of the Al-Arabiya news network. Starting Wednesday, hundreds of Facebook users in Syria were able to update their status without using a foreign proxy server and many thousands more will be able to create Facebook accounts for the first time.
The ecstatic response of jazz singer Lena Chamamian was typical of the enthusiasm on newly liberated Facebook pages updated from inside Syria today. “OH MY GODDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD
Sami Arnaout, 31, of Damascus, said he went immediately to Youtube and watched a segment about The Simpsons. Other Syrians created a Facebook page that thanks Syria for unblocking Facebook and YouTube. The page already had 2,078 fans by the end of the day.
The move is in stark contrast to what many would expect the Syrian regime to do in times of political instability in neighboring Arab countries. Rather than impose further restrictions, the government has gone in the opposite direction, allowing Syria’s nearly 4 million internet users unencumbered access to social networking tools that played a major role in fueling uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Syrian government did not announce the change, but the monthly Forward Magazine broke the news on Tuesday and the news spread rapidly on line.
Forward's chief editor, Sami Moubayed, explained what he said were “numerous factors” behind the surprising decision.
"One,” he said, “Syria feels strong and confident, unlike Egypt and Tunisia.”
Second, he said, pro-government forces realize “how powerful of a tool Facebook can be in favor of getting Syria's message across to the outside world.”
Facebook has been quite popular among Syrians who know how to navigate the various proxy servers and other techniques used to defeat firewalls put in place by the government to enforce the ban. One Facebook group regularly posted new foreign proxy addresses to bypass the firewalls.
It is unclear how many Facebook users have been able to evade the ban, but one reputable international monitoring site placed the number at 30,000—far fewer than in other Arab countries.
Moubayed, in response to an email query, claimed that Facebook was used successfully to help organize a pro-government rally last week, after a call by opposition forces—also using Facebook—for a “Day of Rage” emulating anti-Mubarak demonstrations failed to draw a crowd.
“This move clearly took place as a result of the worldwide news talking about this issue in Syria in light of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the role of social networks in coordinating the movements,” said 27 year-old Ibrahim Farah, a Damascus-based web developer who founded several Syrian e-commerce websites. The decision, he said, is the government’s way to show the world that “it's not afraid of social networks being used to organize such revolutions in Syria, because the Syrian people do not do that.”
An opposition spokesperson in Damascus, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who was once a political prisoner during the reign of former president Hafez Al Assad, called the loosening of restrictions “insignificant.”
“If someone steps on your neck for years,” he said, “ and then they suddenly loosen up, for reasons that serve their own agendas… should you thank them?”
One user commented sarcastically that a secret agent would be assigned for each Facebook account to follow all comments and activities. Another, somewhat more philosophically, mused that “the journey of a thousand miles in Syria starts with making a space for non-smokers in restaurants and unblocking Facebook and Youtube.”
Muwafa Ghazala of Damascus, who had turned 31 a few days earlier, updated his status on Wednesday, thanking his friends for their birthday wishes. “Now that Facebook is unblocked in Syria; WOOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOO!, I will try to be a lot more active in returning the gestures!”
Zein Al Atassi, 31, noting that she can now access Facebook “anywhere anytime,” wrote: “Aaah freedom :).”
But a friend of hers commented: “ I think it is boring now. I won't check it anymore :).”
According to The Internet World Stats, a website monitoring internet usage, Syria, with over 22 million people, has 3.93 million Internet users. The site estimated there were only 30,000 Facebook users, an extremely small number compared to neighboring countries. Lebanon, with a much smaller population, has more than one million people on Facebook. Saudi Arabia, with a population similar to Syria, has 2.75 million on Facebook. The accuracy of the Syrian estimate would be difficult to assess, however, since Facebook users might have tried to conceal their accounts because of the Syrian government ban.
Hala Droubi, from Syria, is a student in the International Newsroom course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, for which this story was written.
[Image courtest of Flickr user ruifipieggio.]