BBC News

Syria's spontaneously organised protests

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

image captionRami Nakhle has created an online avatar for himself

While the Syrian army deployed overnight to the restive city of Homs, preparations were under way in dozens of towns and cities across Syria to make this Friday's protests the biggest yet.

Small committees in neighbourhoods and mosques - formed over the last few weeks - came together discreetly to plan when and where to protest.

Meanwhile, an informal army of cyber activists swung into action - sharing information between the towns to keep the momentum going.

On Twitter, the account of @SyRevoSlogans, created on 18 April, offered a flood of slogans for people to use during demonstrations across the country - many suggested by fellow Twitter users.

User @syrianjasmine spread news of "thugs'' being bussed into the town of Daraya, while @wissamtarif kept track of student protests and arbitrary detentions in the capital Damascus.

The Facebook page of 'Syrian Revolution 2011', with its 120,000 followers, called on people to take to the streets for Friday protests. It said they have no excuse not to join now that the barrier of fear has fallen.

With almost no foreign reporters allowed into Syria, it called on anyone with pictures or videos to send them to International media can contact the page to confirm details or talk to eyewitnesses, it adds.

These are the two layers of the movement - the people on the ground who organise day-to-day events at a local level; and the online community which helps give the protests a sense of cohesion on a national level.

"Those of us online are not actually organising the demonstrations, but helping people on the ground to stay connected," said one cyber activist in Damascus, speaking to the BBC on Skype. He asked to not to be named for safety reasons.

"We help the people in Deraa, for example, to know that they're not alone in their demonstrations," he added.

'Cyberspace most-wanted'

image captionThe 'Syrian Revolution 2011' Facebook page has over 120,000 fans

Just like the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests in Syria are a grassroots movement, with no real leaders but with a number of prominent activists who keep things going.

Rami Nakhle, a 28-year-old political science student, operated under the pseudonym Malath Aumran until his cover was blown late last year and he had to flee to Beirut.

He became politically active in 2006, when his attempts to protest against so-called honour killings were blocked.

With a group of friends, he launched an online newspaper and started to raise awareness about corruption in Syria. He met some of Syria's prominent intellectual dissidents.

He created his online pseudonym Malath Aumran and launched an e-mail campaign to distribute information around Syria on how to circumvent internet censorship with the use of proxies.

In 2010, he was interrogated 40 times and often asked whether he knew Malath Aumran, who was fast becoming the most-wanted cyber dissident in Syria.

"[The protest movement] started online and on Facebook, but now Facebook is really just 1% of the movement," said Mr Nakhle, chain smoking in a Beirut cafe, his blue eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

In December 2010, Syrian security services made the connection between Malath Aumran and the unassuming Mr Nakhle.

He arranged to be smuggled to Lebanon and settled in a Christian neighbourhood - the safest area, in his view, in a country where Syrian influence and reach is still considerable.

Mr Nakhle's journey - from his hometown of Suweida on the border with Jordan to his life in a Beirut safehouse - exemplifies the slow political and intellectual journey made by scores of young people across the region over the last few years, until the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December spurred them into action.

Today, Mr Nakhle helps to keep the Syrian protest movement alive online from Beirut. He speaks of a large network of cyber activists who hold Skype conference calls and spend their days confirming events on the ground - arrests, deaths, protests - and e-mailing information around and out of Syria.


image captionPeople took to the streets in March, even before online calls for protest

Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, who lives in exile in Washington, says some opposition members and cyber activists wanted to wait until the summer to launch the protests to allow for better preparation and co-ordination.

In the end, ordinary people spontaneously took over and took to the streets in March.

Mr Abdulhamid says members of the network of dissidents are mostly secular, intellectual liberals.

A group of 10, mostly inside Syria, slowly connected with more and more people across the country, through regional networks including in mosques.

Several of the dissidents - who requested anonymity - agreed that while connecting with religious networks was important, their movement was secular.

They reject the traditional opposition groups and figures, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad's uncle.

No-one in Syria is calling today's protests decisive - it's unclear whether big crowds will manage to take to the streets in Damascus or take over a square in another Syrian city.

The Syrian government's response, whether it uses excessive violence or announces further more meaningful concessions, will also determine the course of events.

But the persistence of the protests shows that Syria has fully joined the wider regional call for more freedom, despite President Assad's recent assertions that Syria was different from Egypt and Tunisia.

"We can't stop now or we will go back 10 years," said Mr Nakhle. "Every single person who filmed the protests or who showed his face will be picked up."