AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Cyberactivists from Egypt and throughout the Middle East said their dreams of freedom of expression and democracy are unrealized.
They are caught in a vise of surveillance and censorship, no matter if the military or Muslim Brotherhood hold the reins of power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that saw longtime rulers toppled three years ago.
“I’m wanted by three different branches by the security forces, mainly because they have their own propaganda about the revolution,” said Marcell Shehwaro, a young Syrian Christian blogger. “I work against it. I was forced to flee my house, my family and my friends” to live in an area under opposition control.
But Muslim extremists also have it in for her and other Syrians who do not want the revolution hijacked by Islamist ideology.
Shehwaro, the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest, has written outspoken Internet posts on deteriorating humanitarian conditions and civilian detentions from war-ravaged Aleppo.
At a recent cyberactivist conference in Jordan, Shehwaro described a dark period last autumn when the militants were on the streets looking for anyone who challenged their strict version of Islam, forcing her and others to stay as prisoners inside apartments or donning the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, if they dared venture out. Shehwaro and other Syrian cyberactivists depend on secular rebels for support.
“There are not a lot of women activists now in the liberated area. It’s a tough life there for a woman. I am a person who used to think that love will heal the world,” said the young woman, her voice quavering.
“Right now, I have a weapon in my house because my life is important to me. I will protect myself. I am afraid if the Free Syrian Army goes away, what will happen to the people,” she added.
For Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian-born expert on Islam who teaches in Beirut, there was no real Arab Spring in the sense of democratic ideals blossoming.
Rather, there has been a “very strong political and military reaction from both sides, with the Islamic radical tendency emerging forcibly” in the aftermath of change, he said.
“There is a terrible military and aggressive movement from both sides of the conflict in Syria,” Father Samir told Catholic News Service.
“The population is being used by the government on the one side and on the other by the opposition which, too, is not a democratic body but is exercising military might. The only hope is a breakthrough in Geneva,” he said of talks between the Syrian government and some members of the opposition. The talks aim to establish a cease-fire so humanitarian aid can enter the war-torn country; the ultimate goal is to end the civil war.
“The situation is terrible for all: for those inside Syria who are dying because they have nothing to eat as well as for the 2 million or so outside in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey facing the harsh conditions of winter,” he said. “This is why we need international help to come to a solution.”
Egyptians remembered the third anniversary of their own revolution in late January as violent attacks in the capital, Cairo, killed 49 people.
Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Ezzat of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression in Cairo said most people still feel suppressed, just as they were in the decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
That is happening despite social media activists playing a major role, first in helping to usher in the revolution, then in unseating Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in July.
Speaking at the Amman conference, he said his blogger and activist clients are arrested for criticizing authorities, whether Egypt’s current military rulers or the Muslim Brotherhood is in control.
“The Internet, especially digital media, (is) very important to mobilize people. But there is no progressive organization in Egypt, just Islamists and the state,” he said. “These two parties took power and both have failed to give the people their rights and freedoms.”
Meanwhile, blogger Mohammed al-Maskati said that although media attention has moved off of his native Bahrain, protests in the Persian Gulf state still continue, and freedom of expression and assembly are under fire.
“We believe we need to establish more coalitions between bloggers, especially Arab bloggers, and start campaigning to support the bloggers behind bars,” said al-Maskati, whose father-in-law is jailed in Bahrain. Al-Maskati also faces trial in his homeland for his outspoken posts.
He and other cyberactivists said Arab governments are introducing oppressive laws on social media, imposing censorship and restricting access to certain sites in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in a bid to curb dissent.
But they have vowed to fight back because it is necessary that their message be heard.
“It is also very important to get more training for bloggers about digital rights, digital security and in the end, to push the governments in the Arab region to listen to us,” al-Maskati said.
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