Middle East

Is Assad getting nervous too?

Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen seem to be making the Syrian regime nervous, Reuters reports:

Syrian authorities have banned programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat from cellphones, tightening already severe restrictions on the Internet in the wake of the unrest in Tunisia, users said on Wednesday.

Nimbuzz and eBuddy, two programmes that allow access to Facebook Chat and other messaging programmes through a single interface, no longer work in Syria, thety said.

The Baath Party has ruled Syria since 1963, when it outlawed all opposition and imposed emergency law, which is still in force.

The main Facebook page is also banned, but servers known as proxies allow Syrians to bypass the controls, with the chat function through cellphones gaining popularity, especially among the young, according to users.

“All indicators point downhill after the revolution in Tunisia. The policy of iron censorship has not changed,” said Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Media and Freedom of Expression Centre, which the authorities closed three years ago.

Syrian media, which is controlled by the government, barely reported the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A Damascus newspaper attributed his fall to his closeness to the West.

But the Syrian authorities, in a policy reversal, increased a key subsidy for government workers after Ben Ali was driven from power by unrest over prices, unemployment and state repression.

U.S. officials said Tunisian authorities may have tried to interfere with Facebook, which was used by opposition activists, during Ben Ali’s rule.

In Egypt activists said the government blocked Facebook this week as thousands took to the streets to try to bring down President Hosni Mubarak. The government denied this, saying it respected freedom of expression and sought to protect it.
There was no comment from the Syrian authorities. Officials have previously said Facebook is banned to prevent Israel from “penetrating Syrian youth”.

President Bashar al-Assad, who helped spread use of the Internet in Syria, has a Facebook page. The only official title Assad held before succeeding his late father 11 years ago was head of the nation’s computer society.

So Facebook is banned in Syria to prevent Israeli penetration of Syrian youth (although the ban has been widely circumvented). And yet young Dr. al-Assad has a Facebook page? Go figure.

Strangely, Israel hasn’t blocked Facebook in an effort to prevent Bashar from penetrating Israeli youth.