Writing individual websites – or blogging as it is better known – is helping young Syrians re-engage with politics, users say, with dozens of web logs or “blogs” coming on line in the last year, promoting freedom of speech.
Although the Syrian government controls all the country's printed media, it has not exerted the same grip on the internet and the country's freest speech is now to be found online, according to observors.
Many of the bloggers are using their websites to push for change – be it political reform, more freedom for women or a better image for Syria abroad.
"Blogging is the freest means of expression in Syria," said Professor Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma's Department of International Studies, who is living in Syria and whose blog, SyriaComment.com, attracts up to 2,000 readers a day.
"The authorities do not take it seriously because it is mostly in English and read by a limited number of people. Syria now has something like 50 bloggers, but they have almost all come online since January of this year,” he explained. “There are a few Arabic blogs that are very frank and discuss politics openly."
The Syrian government has blocked access to some news websites as well as all access to Israeli sites ending in the “.il” suffix, but has given up trying to force all Syrians to go through its own Syrian Computer Society webmail service by blocking sites such as Hotmail and Yahoo.
But Syria lags behind most of the Arab world in blogging terms, where Egypt leads the way, and is even further behind Iran, which boasts thousands of blogs.
According to market research website Internetstats.com, 610,000 Syrians are connected to the internet – about 3.3 per cent of the population, compared to 7.5 percent of people in the Middle East as a whole.
But more and more Syrians have access to the net via the growing number of internet cafes.
THE BIRTH OF BLOGGING
One of the first Syrian bloggers was medical school graduate Ayman Haykel, 25, who in December 2004 launched Damascene.blogspot.com, aimed at changing Syria's image as a terrorist haven, he said.
Haykel has since encouraged others to blog and organised meetings for Syrian bloggers.
"Many Syrian bloggers write about cultural stuff – we feel the country is always portrayed unfairly in the outside world,” Haykel said.
“Many write in English rather than Arabic for this reason. People imagine we are bloodthirsty terrorists and that we have a bloodthirsty religion and oppress women – it's simply not true."
Haykel said blogging has also helped reawaken an interest in politics among ordinary Syrians who have simply stopped thinking politically, after years of authoritarian Ba'ath party rule.
"There is now a wider margin for freedom of expression. Most of the political blogs are in Arabic by anonymous bloggers. Some have two blogs – a cultural one in English and a political one in Arabic under a fake name,” Haykel said. “The power of blogging also lies in the possibility of being anonymous.”
He predicted a continuing growth in the number of blogs, even suggesting the eventual appearance of Kurdish-Syrian web logs.
Amr Faham, a civil engineering student, whose blog Syrianhiking.blogspot.com is about talking in Syria, said blogging is encouraging young people to take the internet more seriously, than simply using it to meet the opposite sex.
"Before blogging we had been wasting our time in chat rooms to try and meet girls. But now it's time to change – our parents talked about politics but Syrian youth don’t talk about anything,” he said. “We've been banned for 30 years. We have to start again.”
"However, many people are still afraid. They are worried that it's a trick – let people talk and then get them,” he added.
In her blog, a young Damascene woman writing under the name Fille de Damas (fillededamas.nomadlife.org) – one of several female Syrian bloggers – challenges the conservative society that restricts relations between young men and women.
In a recent post she described being followed by poor young men on the city streets, men who have little chance of getting married because of their economic situation. Being effectively barred from being with girls, they suffer a "psychological sexual crisis and get mad as though they had never seen a girl before".
"Blogging gives me a chance to express and share my thoughts, and even have discussions about them,” she said. “I have a lot of thoughts on how women live here."
AUTHORITIES KEEP A CLOSE EYE
But the Syrian government does have its eye on some bloggers.
Syrian reformist dissident Ammar Abdel-Hamid is occasionally called in to visit the Syrian security forces because of his outspoken web log (Amarji.blogpsot.com), which rails against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"The man I speak to is very upfront in saying that he doesn't have confidence in what I do but at the same time he respects my sense of patriotism,” he explained. “He basically says 'Big Brother is watching you.’"
The son of famous Syrian actress Muna Wassef, Abdel-Hamid launched his blog after spending six months at the The Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington DC.
He set up the Tharwa Project organisation (tharwa is Arabic for wealth) in Syria, which supports reform and democratisation in the Middle East and writes in English.
"I prefer to write in English now but I will have to start blogging in Arabic so more people can read it," he said.