Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights Watch has just issued its report on Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa. The Report dedicates a section for the situation in Syria in which I make a brief appearance revealing the identity of General Dashing to the World. Unfortunately, like so many others, obsessed with phonetic accuracy, they spell my name in a manner that few would recognize! Oh well…  

Others, faced with threats against their families, choose to leave Syria if they can. Over the course of 2005, reformist and blogger `Ammar `Abd al-Hamid was “invited” to visit Political Security interrogators three times and Military Intelligence five times because of his blog, http://amarji.blogspot.com, which featured mordant criticism of the president and Ba`ath Party rule. `Abd al-Hamid told Human Rights Watch that the interrogations focused on his writings for Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, his time as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, in 2004, and on the activities of the Thawra Project he founded “to provide a free platform for the discussion and dissemination of ideas that can contribute to raising standards of civic awareness in the broader Middle East and North African region.”[264]

“The man I speak to is very upfront in saying that he doesn’t have confidence in what I do but at the same time he respects my sense of patriotism,” `Abd al-Hamid told a journalist in early September 2005. “He basically says ‘Big Brother is watching you.'”[265]

He elaborated on what happened in the interrogations in an email to Human Rights Watch:

“I think they really wanted to smack me, but they did not have the authority to do it. I made quite certain to tell them that my activities and views were known to the president, and they were. The president did not approve of or like my activities, I admitted, but he knows not to bother me.

So, my strategy was to push the matter upward, because I knew, or hoped, that the people above would be better at estimating the political risk involved in harassing someone in my position. The strategy worked. I got called in by [Gen.] Assef Chawkat (General Dashing in my blog) in mid-March [Chawkat is head of Military Intelligence and the husband of the president’s only sister]. He had earlier attempted to send me a message through my mom (a known actress), which I ignored.

So, we met at his office. My wife insisted on showing up with me, and this took him by surprise, but he received us both. This was the first of two meetings. Threats and attempts at bribery and cooptation were the main features throughout. The second meeting in particular was a bit sharp. He threatened me with 15-to-life in prison, he then suggested that I could become a minister or an ambassador. I scoffed at both attempts and offered to stop writing for a while, and suggested that I might even leave the country for the time being, and that was that.”[266]

In 2005, faced with harassment and threats, `Abd al-Hamid chose to leave Syria and continue blogging. On September 8, 2005, he began what he has called his “exile” in the United States.