Syrian Activist Dodges Authorities On Streets, Online

Originally published on June 17, 2011 10:52 am

Mohammed Feezo, 32, unpacks his laptop in the windswept Turkish village of Guvecci, just a few miles from the hills of northern Syria, and looks for a network to connect to. Another 12-hour day online has begun.

A former worker at an iron factory in the coastal city of Latakia, Syria, Feezo seems an unlikely cyber-activist. But his Facebook page and online activities provide information and a sense of purpose and hope to Syrians desperate for change.

Born to a Sunni Muslim family in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, Feezo moved with his family to Latakia in the 1980s. There he encountered the discrimination that favors Syrian Allawites, who dominated the government of President Hafez al-Assad and continue to do so under his son Bashar.

Brutal Intimidation Tactics Backfire

He also got a taste of the power and reach of the dreaded mukhabarat, or secret police. After criticizing Syria's involvement in Lebanon one day in a coffee shop, he found himself under arrest.

"I was 24 when I was first arrested; it was horrible," he says. "They put me in a basement interrogation room. But they didn't even want information, their way is just to humiliate you.

"That's why I now use my real name," he added. "It's a kind of revenge, just to show them I'm not intimidated."

After being detained several times, Feezo decided that if the regime was determined to consider him an adversary, he might as well join the opposition.

Internet Offers A Measure Of Virtual Freedom

At first Feezo had the same problem other opposition figures faced — how to communicate in the face of a highly evolved domestic spying apparatus that caused Syrians to adopt the saying, "Don't even talk to yourself. They'll hear you."

But then about five years ago he discovered the Internet, and a new world of possibilities began to open.

"I started using the Internet and I discovered it wasn't really on their radar. For instance, when they would detain me they would never ask me about anything I had written on the Internet," he says.

He says gradually more and more Syrians came to realize that the Internet offered a measure of virtual freedom.

"In the beginning, any discussion I had, I felt like people on the other end were still afraid, afraid to speak out," he says. "But then we began to realize that the government can't really monitor 6 million Internet users, so people began to get more brave. And I turned my Facebook page into a page with opposition comments."

Feezo says nonetheless, when he and his friends began calling for the initial demonstrations on March 15, they were terrified. They had no idea who would respond, since protests are so rare in Syria.

But when the Facebook page attracted 70,000 people in the first the week and grew to 150,000 soon after, they realized that Syrians were ready to follow Tunisians and Egyptians onto the streets, whatever the consequences.

Internet Has Its Limits

Three months and more than 1,000 deaths later — he believes the true number is much higher — Feezo is grappling with the downsides of Internet freedom, including the danger of forged documents being planted by the regime or sites being infiltrated or hacked.

He knows the government is adapting to the new reality of Internet-driven protest, just as the demonstrators are.

But he believes the movement has reached a critical mass that cannot be stopped.

"Yes, I think it's unstoppable," he says. "The government can affect it, by cutting the Internet. But in the end, the Internet is just a networking tool. It's the people in the streets who make the difference.

"Even if they cut the Internet in the whole country," he predicts, "the protests will continue."

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This morning, we'll hear the story of one man who's worked to galvanize opposition in Syria. He recently fled to Turkey with his family, where he met NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON: Feezo was born to a Sunni Muslim family in the northern town of Jisr al- Shughour, the scene of last week's military crackdown by loyalist forces. In the 1980s his family relocated to the coastal city of Latakia, where he came face to face with the discrimination that favored the Allawite regime and its supporters. He also came to know the reach and power of Syria's dreaded Mukhabarat, the secret police. He says he criticized Syria's involvement in Lebanon in a discussion in a coffee shop one day, and soon found himself under arrest.

MOHAMMED FEEZO: (Through translator) I was 24 when I was first arrested. It was horrible. They put me in a basement interrogation room. But they didn't even want information. Their way is just to humiliate you. That's why now I use my real name. It's a kind of revenge, just to show that I'm not intimidated.

KENYON: After being detained several times, Feezo decided that since the regime was determined to treat him as an adversary, he might as well get involved in the opposition. At first he came up against the same problem all critics of the regime faced - how to communicate in the face of a highly-evolved domestic spying apparatus that caused Syrians to adopt the saying, don't even talk to yourself, they'll hear you. But then about five years ago, he discovered the Internet and it opened a new world of possibilities.

FEEZO: (Through translator) I started using the Internet, and I discovered it wasn't really on their radar. For instance, when they would detain me they would never ask me about anything I had written on the Internet.

KENYON: He says gradually other Syrians began to realize that there was a certain measure of virtual freedom to be had online.

FEEZO: (Through translator) In the beginning, any discussion I had felt like people on the other end were still afraid, afraid to speak out. But then we began to realize the government can't really monitor six million Internet users, so people began to get more brave, and I turned my Facebook page into a page with opposition comments.

KENYON: Three months and more than a thousand dead later, he believes the true number is much higher, Feezo is grappling with the downsides of Internet freedom, the danger of forged documents being planted by the regime or their sites being infiltrated or hacked. He knows the government is adapting to the new reality of Internet-driven protest, just as the demonstrations are. But he believes the movement has reached a critical mass that can't be stopped.

FEEZO: (Through translator) Yes, I think it's unstoppable. The government can affect it by cutting the Internet. But at the end, the Internet is just a networking tool. It's the people in the streets who make the difference. Even if they cut the Internet in the whole country, the protests will continue.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the Turkish-Syrian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.