Syrian unrest: The exiles keeping the uprising online

By Mishal Husain
BBC News, Beirut

Media caption,
Hidden cameras led the way - and satphones followed

Social networking and internet-based communication has been crucial to all the Arab Spring uprisings, including the ongoing struggle in Syria - and Syrian exiles in Lebanon are helping to make it possible.

In cramped, smoke-filled apartments in Beirut, I came to know the two men who, for me, now embody the Syrian uprising.

Both are exiles, escaping from President Bashar Assad's Syria at different times, but now with very similar lives undercover in Lebanon.

It is a strange existence - understandably secretive - for these are the people trying to do everything in their power to end Mr Assad's grip on their country.

Image caption,
Rami seemed to need only his laptop and cigarettes to exist

One is Rami Nakhle, known in the Twittersphere by the pseudonym Malath Aumran. He was forced to flee Syria in January as the security services began to suspect he was responsible for a Facebook page fiercely critical of the regime.

Rami is an intense young man who seems to live and breathe through his laptop, constantly connected to the protests in his country and relentless in his zeal to spread the word about them.

We first met in Beirut just a few weeks into the Syrian uprising.

Unlike many other dissidents, Rami was prepared to be seen on camera and explain the process of gathering the news of Syria and disseminating it to the mass media.

It was a Friday, the day of prayer, and his network of cyberactivists was braced both for protests and for a tough response from the authorities.

The atmosphere in the apartment was heavy with expectation.

Red-rimmed eyes

Within moments of our introduction, I felt as if I had been transported to Damascus.

Rami's whole existence seemed to be devoted to what he called "the Syrian struggle".

He looked as though he had not slept in weeks - his pale, red-rimmed eyes staring at his computer, leaving it only to go live on air when foreign TV and radio asked for interviews.

As I sat with him, watching him monitor Facebook and Twitter, a video clip arrived via email. It was labelled "a martyr from the city of Hama".

Rami said: "I don't usually watch these," but clicked on it nevertheless.

I was prepared to see a body, but the footage showed a man who had just been shot, slumped to the ground as a deep red stain seeped across his clothing. Some of those around him were trying to keep him alive. Others were filming the scenes on their phones.

Both Rami and I were shocked into silence and after a moment he abruptly left the room.

I remained, watching the last, frozen frame.

In any other context, it would be grotesque to think of a scene like this being filmed by onlookers. Here, though, it was if everyone had their task - some to try to save a life, others to capture the evidence.

Later that day, I saw reports that one person had been killed in Hama. This time I could visualise that person as never before.

'So heartfelt'

The other dissident, Omar Edlibi, is a very different but equally compelling character.

Image caption,
Omar Edlibi: "I am a poet, not a politician"

The father of a young son, he is strongly motivated by his desire to create a better Syria for the next generation.

Unlike Rami, he was still in Syria when the uprising began in March, and began agitating and getting people out on to the streets.

He explained how the first gatherings in Damascus began, in solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia. The authorities even encouraged them, ignoring the irony of supporting democracy elsewhere while repressing it at home.

Omar, like Rami, battles with guilt. Some of those he has encouraged and persuaded to join him on the streets have been killed in front of him.

It is clear that he feels their loss - and his responsibility for it - acutely.

What sustains him are his ideals - a Syria that he can be proud of, that can live in peace with its neighbours.

He was so eloquent, so heartfelt, that when the cameras stopped rolling I said he could run for office in a future Syria.

He laughed and shook his head. "No," he said, "I am a poet, not a politician."

Changing passwords

As the protests have continued, wealthy Syrian exiles have begun to play a part, buying satellite phones, that are packaged in Beirut and smuggled across the border.

It is a very risky journey to make, but the phones are a lifeline for activists as they struggle against the regime's efforts to cut them off from each other and the outside world.

The activists share online passwords, so that if one of them is arrested and drops out of contact, the relevant password can be immediately changed - preventing data falling into the hands of President Assad's dreaded security services.

In one of my meetings with Rami, he acknowledged that he had already changed 17 passwords out of the 20 he held - meaning that 17 out of 20 had been arrested.

In the secretive world of Syrian dissidents in Lebanon, I was never sure whether Rami and Omar knew one another.

Neither ever showed any doubts about the outcome of the uprising in Syria. They are perhaps at present no closer to their goal, but both insisted that in the end they would prevail.