Syria leaks: Anonymous vs Syrian Electronic Army

On Friday 24th Feb. Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar published an article called “Syria`s eletronic warriors hit Al Jazeera“. The article deals with allegedly leaked email conversations happening among Al Jazeera staffers over the station`s Syria coverage. In the allegedly leaked email exchange two Al Jazeera employees, anchorwoman Rula Ibrahim and Beirut-based reporter Ali Hashem, are reported to be complaining about the channel`s seemingly unbalanced reporting of the Syria crisis in favor of the opposition. These emails were allegedly hacked by  pro-regime activist group Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) which was interviewed by Syrian TV channel Dunyia here. In the interview, activists from SEA claim to have hacked into Al Jazeera`s email accounts. But there is no link to the original source, and no files were posted on the Internet with the original content of the leaked emails. All we have is this Dunyia`s interview, were people who declare themselves to be part of SEA claim the hacking attack to have taken place and show some screenshots with the allegedly leaked emails. But this is no evidence of the leak, as these screenshots could have been easily made up for TV`s sake. So far, I was not able to find any website where the leaked files were posted and exposed to the public. I`ve asked Syrian tweeps , and got only the link to the Duniya interview as an answer. I said this was no evidence and a tweep answered “well I dont think it`s easy to reach those hackers”. So, yeah, basically this is the only so-called “evidence” that we have for the hacking attack.

More than just this, nobody at Al Jazeera has officially confirmed or denied the leaks. They simply haven`t commented on it, which makes the thing even more complicate.

So far, this media -or propaganda- war becomes more and more aggressive day by day. Few weeks ago, Anonymous announced to have hacked into some 78 mailboxes at Syrian Presidential Palace, including Bashar al Assad`s media and political advisor, Butheina Shaaban. The contents of her inbox were published here.

This below is my take on the Anonymous` leaks, published by Jadaliyya on Feburary 22nd.

Burj Baramke, Damascus, April 2011

picture by @donatelladr licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

The Syria Leaks 

“The American psyche can be easily manipulated,” writes Sheherazad Jaafari, press attaché of Syria’s mission to the United Nations (UN), in a brief sent to Syrian presidential media aide and former Al Jazeera employee Luna Chebel. The brief suggested how to handle Barbara Walters’ interview of Bashar al-Assad, which was later aired on 7 December 2011. The brief comes from email correspondence hacked by the online activist movement known as Anonymous, who on 7 February announced its penetration of some seventy-eight mailboxes belonging to Syrian Presidential Palace staff and media aides—many merely protected by a “12345” password.

The Western media’s reactions to the Barbara Walters’ interview planning email have been a mixture of surprise (“astonishing office emails” according to the Telegraph), disappointment, and even outrage over the fact that a “New York spin doctor coached Syrian dictator”, the Daily Mail suggested.

Yet the reason for discontent apparently only comes from the naïve way Americans are portrayed in the leaked conversation—as people whose views on Syria are not grounded in facts as much as in perceptions that can be easily adjusted through media brainwashing.

American and Western media in general are very familiar with spin-doctoring tactics to manipulate public opinion. Moreover, planning and briefing before high-profile interviews to public figures is not an exceptional practice reserved for authoritarian regimes, but instead a routine practice widely adopted by Western democratic institutions, from media to governments. The most “disturbing” aspect of Jaafari’s leaked email is precisely that it sheds light on similarities rather than differences, and places authoritarian regimes and Western democracies in a continuum rather than at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

More disturbing similarities come from other leaked emails published by Anonymous here, which allegedly originate from Butheina Shaaban’s inbox. Shaaban is media and political advisor to President Assad and a prominent member of his seemingly reform-minded inner circle. She is fluent in English and holds a PhD in English literature from Warwick University. She is the woman who delivered the first public speech after the uprising started in Syria last March 2011, promising reforms and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

A look at Shaaban’s leaked correspondence sheds light on the symbolic and material appeal that the Assad regime has exercised over a wide spectrum of professionals and personalities, including Western journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, and even leftist activists. The presidential advisor’s hacked inbox draws attention to the elective affinities betwen Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle and Western elites.

People like George Galloway—the former British Labour Party member of parliament, who co-founded the Viva Palestina! Organization to bring humanitarian aid and relief to Gaza’s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack—is one of Shaaban’s pen pals. In writing to Shaaban and asking for Assad’s support for a Viva Palestina! mission to Gaza, Galloway salutes Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”—apparently the only Arab country committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. It is probably in this commitment to the Palestinian cause that Galloway and many other leftist activists have found a common ground with Assad’s rhetoric that claims Syria as the champion of Panarabism and only country defending Arab interests against Western imperialism (a recurring discourse in his recent January 10th TV address).

Yet this shared language is not only to be found on pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist ideological grounds. Assad’s inner circle has also proven itself to be a suitable business partner for Western public relations (PR) firms who offer public diplomacy services that reduce relationships between two states or between a state and its citizens to a PR matter to be regulated through the media. Email leaks reveal an ongoing conversation between Shaaban and the Washington, DC-based Capital Communications whose services cover “crisis communications and reputation management” and “how to pitch a story to the US media.”

In another leaked email, even an academic, David Lesch—a Trinity University History Professor who specializes on Syria— proposes Shaaban use an American PR company “to improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation.” And his website states that he has met with President Assad and his aides, presumably including Shaaban, “on a regular basis since 2004.”

Shabaan’s circle of global friends also includes Billy Sager, an American billionaire who expresses his gratitude for the “first-hand perspective” he got from visiting the “Ummayyad mosque, souk, coffee shops, and even a hammam (Turkish bath).” In a leaked email, Sager writes that his visit helped him see the country without the “distorting filters of the media,” referring to numerous international articles describing the unrest provoked in Syria by a popular movement seeking dignity and freedom whose existence Syrian government media have never officially acknowledged.

Shaaban`s leaked emails display a gallery of Western professionals from different fields, including a few journalists who were officially invited to the country after the uprising started. All were bound to Assad’s seemingly reform-minded circle through a system of mutual favors and exchanges, personal friendships, and business interests. These relationships have been and continue to be forged by mutual complaisance, indulgence, material comfort, and pleasure. They reveal how deeply the Syrian regime was intertwined with Western elites and to what extent the latter were enmeshed with what the West now largely labels as “the dictatorship.”

Anonymous-leaked emails also shed light on the ability of seeming reformists in Syria to master the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism and globalization through their use of words like “empowerment”, “entrepreneurship,” and “self-initiative”—terms that Westerners’ ears pretend to interpret as a guarantee that a more democratic system would somehow match the opening up of the Syrian market.

As a Western diplomat told me in Damascus a few weeks after the uprising started, “They fooled us. We thought they were like us, ’cause they were speaking the same language as us.” This sentence reveals a dangerous but very common assumption in the West: “us” is good. The fact that Assad’s entourage was speaking the same language “as us” has led to the misleading interpretation that they were going to comply with “our” values—those supposedly on the right side of history.

However, Butheina Shaaban’s inbox and the network of relationships disclosed by the Anonymous leaks prove that the situation is indeed a bit more complex than simply an “us” versus “them” scenario.

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Keep an eye on Algeria: tomorrow it might be the day

Many have wondered why Algeria has not moved yet or has failed to move.

I`m not an expert in this country and I`ll promise to post more stuff from researchers and people who know the topic much better than me.

But I just want to draw your attention on the #Wakeupcall #Algeria the day of mobilization which activists have organized for today, February 21st.

The main points of the mobilization –named “Mission n1”, so maybe there will be more to follow —  are summed up by activists :

1
send a message to the President starting from 10 am to launch the campaign

2
message should be the same and should be sent by email or fax : “We, the Algerian youth, ask the President of the Republic to make people under 35 years old part of the political process and to make this official before the end of 2012”

More info here on Facebook and on the Wakeupcall website, which is actually a global website (in English) including similar mobilizations scheduled in countries like India or Iraq.

Whether just an Internet call, we should keep an eye on Algeria and see if/how these mobilization campaigns eventually turns into something else.

 

Damascus` Mezzeh funeral “stages” biggest anti-regime protest

Today, it was the first time we could actually see the “huge numbers” –those that, according international, being s missing in Damascus make the revolution`s fate very uncertain- finally hitting the capital`s streets.

But, just to be clear: it was not for anti-regime protest. A huge crowd -thousands and thousands- gathered in Mezzeh Sharqyyia -an area of town were Damascus university is situated, alongside with the Iranian Embassy, Saudi Consulate, many companies` offices, upper-scale restaurants etc-  to mourn three people that were killed yesterday.

http://www.ustream.tv/embed/recorded/20523808

This video which was broadcast live through a mobile shows how the mourners gather very close to the Iranian embassy (one of the first building we can see in the footage, just opposite the telephone company MTN building) and then start marching alongside the Otostrad al Mezzeh (Mezzeh Highway), a wide highway. The crowd should be huge if we are not able to see the highway where they are marching  (later on in the video, they will abandon the main route and go inside the tiny alleys of the Mezzeh area).

Still, this is a funeral. People are only chanting religious slogans to mourn the dead, the only reference to the revolution is when they (rarely) chant “Syrian people are one” (a popular revolutionary slogan since the beginning of the uprising). For more than an hour, the only thing we can see is an amazing crowd that marches in huge numbers few kilometers away from the Presidential Palace, while snow starts to come down. It is truly an breathtaking scene.

It is not to diminish its importance that I feel I need to underline that this is mostly a funeral.

It turns openly into an anti-regime protest only towards the end of the video (around 1 hour and 14 minutes) when a smaller group of people starts to shout “May God protect the Free Syrian army!”, a clear signal that it`s an anti-regime crowd. A minute later, another revolutionary slogan follows that chants “the Syrian raises his hand”, then many people start shouting against Abu Hafez (this is how they call Bashar al Assad, in reference to his first son, Hafez).

But it is only when the crowd makes a clear reference to the shabbiha (a pro-regime militia) that the fire is opened (around 1 hour 1minutes) and the crowd is dispersed. Then, they start cursing Abu Hafez and, few minutes afterwards, the broadcast is interrupted.

Reuters reports that 3 people at least were shot dead today after the fire was opened.

Over the Internet and all across social media, this funeral march resonated as the biggest anti-regime protests happening in the capital so far. It was mostly a funeral, true. And, because of it being a funeral, the slogans we could hear were religious more than political, although a part have changed towards the end.

Although we cannot classify it as truly an anti-regime protest (we have seen funerals all across Syria being much more explicit in their political nature) it marks a very important phase in this 11 months-old revolution. People have  rehearsed, probably, for a much bigger thing. Cleverly enough, they have not chanted anti-regime slogans in the beginning of the march in order not to be dispersed immediately or killed. But they have proved that they can take, little by little, the streets of the capital. Knowing Damascus, this is a slow process which cannot happen all of a sudden.

But the crowd`s power and energy was palpable today, even under cold snow.

For more live broadcast, this is a good Ustream channel from Damascus here and here an amazing compilation of live stream feeds from all across Syria.

There is also a Storyful of the day here.

 

SNC and FSA are media proxies: Syria revolution is elsewhere…

As Syrian revolution almost growing one year old, we hear more and more media talking about the alleged role that armed opposition -namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – would play -or not play- in fueling the revolt. Other media like to speculate whether the Syrian National Council (SNC)`s political role would be decreasing as a consequence of the rise of an armed opposition.

The emphasis on both the FSA and SNC -whether over or under estimating their role on the ground- is simply misleading.

And I`m glad I`ve found two good articles that explain why, and they come from two good sources. One was posted on Syria Comment Joshua Landis` blog and forum specialized on Syrian issues- last 12 February. It`s published under the nickname of Idaf who allegedly left Syria recently after working with activists on the ground. Judging from his/her writing, I do believe he/she is a reliable source as he/she describes in a pretty accurate way the situation on the ground, putting an emphasis on the fact that there is real, ongoing revolution storming Syrian society and it`s happening elsewhere rather than in SNC and FSA. Certainly not in Paris, where the SNC has its head; nor in Turkey, where the FSA`s headquarters are based. But on the ground, in Damascus, Idlib, Daraa, Homs, Kafer Nbel, etc etc.

Reading this article together with the recently published Al Jazeera English`s interview with Nir Rosen -a journalist who has been covering crisis and conflicts in places like Iraq, and had the privilege to have access to Syria for a couple of months- will be a very useful exercise. Rosen sheds light on the fact that there is no such a thing as the FSA on the ground: rather, there are hundreds of small resistance cells, each of them fighting the regime with their own means and ideology, but loosely interconnected and without a central leadership. A decentralized network of people sometimes connected one to each other, but in a loose way –certainly not through a central command or authority which gives them the legitimacy to operate- .

This description given by Rosen really resembles the way the activists are acting on the ground: small, decentralized groups loosely interconnected. Most of the time, they dont need to be connected or to be aware of what the other group is doing. They prefer to operate in secrecy, in small numbers, without sharing the information with too many others or revealing their activities in public in order not to be prosecuted -but especially to  be able to continue doing their daily work-.

This daily work has been ongoing for months. It is silent and doesnt get reported on media cause there is “nothing” to report, at least in the fast-food of information that media have become nowadays. There are no killings, there is no “action” in media terms, and these people prefer to work instead of releasing TV interviews, press statements, or twitting about what they do. Indeed, there are bravely doing their work on a daily basis, risking their life trying to build a better Syria.

Let the SNC, FSA (and Internet activists) do the media work. But, at the end of the day, it`s on these smaller, locally-grounded leaderless groups that the Syria revolution is grounded, both militarily and activism-wise.    

RIP Anthony Shadid

Anthony Shadid, a brave professional journalist, died yesterday in Syria. It`s another important voice who fades out in the superabundance of information and a scary lack of analysis.

I`d like to republish here what MERIP posted about him. RIP.

 

We at MERIP are shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of Anthony Shadid, an extraordinary reporter, wondrously talented writer, judicious analyst of Middle East affairs, warm, generous person and good friend.

In between sojourns in the Middle East, Anthony served on our editorial committee from 2000-2002. A fuller tribute will appear in the upcoming issue of Middle East Report. For now, we reproduce below the list of his writings for the magazine, including this dispatch from Iraq under UN sanctions, which demonstrates some of the reasons why his later work on that country would be nonpareil.

Our deep condolences to Anthony’s family and to his many friends and colleagues.

 

Daring Theater Offers Respite from Baghdad’s Misery

Anthony Shadid

Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999)

Soon after the tattered curtains part in Baghdad’s Sheherezad Theater, a boisterous Baghdad comes to the fore.

The frenzied strains of an Iraqi pop song herald the appearance of a cross-dressing belly dancer, seductively clad women and a wiggling and jiggling government official, and suggest the presence of drink and drugs in the office of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Animal Resources. On stage come a secretary who works as a pimp, an effeminate deputy minister who loves his wine and women, and his boss, who goes nowhere without an escort of prostitutes.

The plot? Tucked in with dancing, stand-up routines and a few tortured ballads is the story — sort of — of the Kuwaiti ministry’s plan to buy an American bull for the outrageous price of $115 million to improve the gene pool of Kuwait’s livestock.

“Bye Bye America” has played to full houses during a wild run that began in November in Baghdad. Its target, obviously enough, is the Kuwaiti government, with some barbed attacks on America’s sway over the Gulf’s monarchies and potentates. The laughs, however, don’t just come at the expense of Kuwait. In other plays on the Baghdad stage, the bribes and bureaucracy that torment Iraqis are the butt of jokes, and some criticism is bolder — even shocking — the kind of stuff that would earn an editor of any staid Iraqi newspaper a stint in jail — or worse.

The plays have transformed Iraq’s once dormant theater scene into a thriving arena for artistic expression and creativity that is often daring and usually ribald. From just two playhouses a decade ago to 20 today, theater represents one of the few bright spots on Baghdad’s bleak cultural landscape. Lines from popular plays are frequently quoted in cafés, and tickets for some sold-out weekend shows can be scalped for five times the price of 1,000 Iraqi dinars (55 cents). Virtually all the productions are comedies, and therein lies their saving grace: They provide an officially sanctioned outlet for mounting frustrations. So official, in fact, that Saddam Hussein himself is said to be a patron, allocating 35 million dinars last year to help with their rather meager overhead.

The beauty of Iraq’s theater, though, goes beyond the exhilaration it brings to a city whose streets, like al-Rashid and Abu Nuwas, with their now shuttered nightclubs, were once synonymous with a capital as cosmopolitan and secular as any in the Arab world. It also evokes that free-wheeling time a generation ago when Palestinian students received scholarships to study in Iraq and Arab writers and artists fled the anarchy of Lebanon’s civil war to bring their intellectual force to a flowering Baghdad, making 1970s Iraq, for those on the “correct” side of politics, a time as nostalgic as the romanticized city of Abbasid glory.

Baghdad’s tragedy today, it seems, is not what it is but what it has become under the United Nations’ seemingly permanent sanctions. Although the material conditions of Iraq have improved under exemptions that allow the government to buy food with oil exports, the sycophancy of much of the country’s sanctioned intellectual life and, more acutely, the desolation of its cultural landscape drearily remain, mocking the oft-quoted adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

Dar al-Ma’moun, one of Iraq’s main publishing houses, once issued 20 titles a year. Now it produces only two, maybe three. Its 96 translators of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian have decreased to ten today. The Iraqi film industry, once a pet project of the government, has all but shut down, Iraq’s cinemas closing with it.

In this grim setting, Baghdad’s theater brings subtlety, a finesse that seems reminiscent of al-Hallaj, whose ecstatic exclamation that “I am the Truth” got him executed — actually, dismembered — in tenth-century Baghdad for blasphemy. The sophistication is all the more welcome in a city that, with its victory arches, martyrs’ memorials, and paintings of Saddam in black beret, suit and tie or kaffiya, or in Norman Rockwell-like scenes with children, is anything but subtle.

One long-running play, “A Party for a Respectful Person,” skewers an Iraqi official for obstructing access to the permits Iraqis need to travel or to sell and buy a house. The official, a director-general, usually the highest position that will come in for criticism, defines his day-to-day work with a furious style of favoritism and nepotism. The play ran for a remarkable three years.

In “Mudhouse,” a play set during the Hashemite monarchy, Iraqis are taken to prison, questioned and tortured, some emerging beaten and bruised. For the audience, it takes little imagination to place the scenes squarely in modern-day Iraq.

“Playground of the Hypocrites” takes the idea a tantalizing step further. In this play, an Iraqi is detained and politely asked by his interrogator to sit down. He is then told to confess. But, he asks, where is the boiling oil, the whips and the ceiling fan he should be hanging from? When told there’s nothing of the sort, he warns his interrogator, “They’re going to fire you!”

The writers and actors know they are on a long leash and are typically reluctant to talk about their freedom for fear of endangering it. If they do, they put it in the context of current politics, namely sanctions, the one topic anyone in Iraq can discuss.

“Life used to be much easier, and now all that is cut off,” says Sabah ‘Atwan, who finished writing “Bye Bye America” in 1993. “Iraqis feel they are suffocating with the sanctions, and the theater gives them the lungs they can breathe with.”

He makes clear, though, that the government has made a conscious decision to give Baghdad’s liveliest plays a freer reign. Or, as he put it in an interview, “The Ministry of Culture and Information doesn’t place a police officer inside the theater.”

His play is not so much subtle criticism as fast and fierce comedy, an often salacious celebration of puns, innuendo, slapstick and base humor that plays on every Iraqi stereotype of Kuwait and creates a few along the way. The Kuwaiti government spends $115 million for the American bull. To ease its transition, it allots $10 million for his housing, $10 million for food and entertainment and another lump sum for his own airplane — equipped with a swimming pool. A delegation meets him at the airport, and functionaries interview a personal Indian cook and a Chinese barber.

“We will bring cows from the Philippines, Thailand and Holland. We’ll bring them from all over to entertain the bull,” says Mr. Fouad, the minister’s secretary and pimp. Inside the office, the deputy minister drinks from a flask tucked behind his gown. He complains incessantly that Fouad will not deliver him the women he provides the minister. And he signs his papers with a thumb print because he cannot read or write. In any crisis, the minister shouts, “Call America! Call Texas! Call Washington!” At other times, he breaks into a dance.

And then there’s the fun that could implicate a government at home or abroad: One minister warns that if they do wrong, the interior minister will take them into a dark room and make them sit on a bottle. In another scene, an underling lambasts the minister behind his back, then flatters him with a kiss on the cheek.

On this evening, one of Baghdad’s frequent electricity outages cuts short the nightly performance. One of the lead actors, Muhammad Imam, soon comes on to a dark stage lit by a few candles to apologize to the audience and beg them to come another night. The audience, in turn, seems to take it in stride. There are worse things in Baghdad, they insist, than a power cut.

“It’s not their fault,” says Sattar Karim, a 37-year old Iraqi who brought his family. “It was about to end anyway.” He pauses, then adds casually: “We like to enjoy ourselves, even if it is for a short time. It’s always good to laugh.”

Also by Anthony Shadid in Middle East Report:

Lurking Insecurity: Squatters in Khartoum,” MER 216 (Fall 2000)

Nature Has No Culture: The Photographs of Abbas Kiarostami,” MER 219 (Summer 2001) (with Shiva Balaghi) (text only)

Victims of Circumstance,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

The Shape of Afghanistan to Come,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

 

Irony, Satire and Humor in the Battle for Syria

This was out today on Muftah.org 

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus (Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/))

On February 3, 1982, the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad massacred thousands in the city of Hama, quashing the city’s Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising. Thirty years later, during the current Syrian uprising, the government has again subjected Hama to substantial military action. In the midst of this on-going violence, Syrian activists have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre with Internet-based user-generated videos, representing the first time people have spoken in a public and even creative way about “the events,” as they are referred to in the country. The finger puppet web series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” a thirteen-part comic production created by a collective of Syrian artists, recently featured an episode called “Beshuu`s birthday,” in which Hafez al-Assad returns from hell to remind his son and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the success of the 1982 Hama crackdown. During the episode, a fearful Bashar musters the courage to remind his father that during the Hama massacre he killed everybody but Ibrahim al Qashush, a Syrian singer whose popular song “Yalla Irhal ya Bashar” or “Come on, Leave Bashar” has become an anthem of the 2011 Syrian uprising. In this song, al Qashush mocks Bashar and his well-known inability to pronounce the letter “s”: “Go, Bashar…May you and the Baath party be destroyed…Go and fix your pronunciation of the letters!” (In July 2011, al Qashush’s body was found in a local river, his throat cut and larynx removed along with signs of brutal torture).

The dark humor found in Top Goon and the songs of al Qashush might seem misplaced in light of the thousands of deaths across Syria (more than 7000, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committee) and bombings taking place in major Syrian cities (such as the February 10, 2012 bombing in Aleppo, which left 28 dead according to Syrian authorities). In fact, however, these creative forms of political activism are one of the few mechanisms left for nurturing civil disobedience in a conflict that has been increasingly depicted as a civil war. As a Syrian communication expert who wishes to remain anonymous points out: “The more we see an armed conflict, the more it means that the regime has succeed in its campaign. They know how to play when arms are involved, but do not know how to react to mash-ups, parodies and irony.”

“One of the goals of artistic production is to bring a sort of relief to people who are suffering on the ground,” say Mohamed and Ahmad Malas, Syrian twins, playwrights, and actors who were imprisoned by the government for a few days after joining the artists` demonstration in Damascus in July 2011. The Malas twins now live in Cairo and travel around the world raising awareness about the suffering of the Syrian people through their theatrical plays. Recently, the Malas twins have been

“We Are All Germs” (Photo credit: “We Are All Germs Facebook” page)

performing their plays in Paris where they also began filming a new project, which registered more than 5,000 views two days after it was posted on YouTube. In the video, the playwrights stage a vox-populi on the Champs Elysee, blaming Bashar al-Assad, the Baath party and Syria’s corrupt regime: “You see this, how beautiful Paris is? Here people go to the theater and appreciate culture, not like in our country, where you’ve pursued a mafia politics, and theater is just another place for corruption.”

In speaking of the President and the regime, the video is filled with curse words. In the past, such insults would never have been used against the President or the Baath party, but with the old fear gone these once untouchable symbols of state power are now regularly ridiculed and derided. Using extreme, unpleasant expressions that were never before heard in Syria is a form of liberation, represents a symbolic break with the past and serves as notice that many Syrians will never again blatantly pretend to believe the magnificent rhetoric of the Baath party and the President.

Hussein Jabri, aka Abu Zoheir, exemplifies both the trend towards “cursing,” and its political significance. Jabri has reached near hero status on YouTube with his videotaped phone calls to Syrian officials from the presidential palace, the government and different secret services branches. He begins the conversation by greeting the official with a polite, warm welcome. Things, however, quickly turn surreal as Jabri offers to sell new devices for bombing protesters to the secret police, and then levels extreme curses against the regime. Even people who object to his vulgar style have reacted positively to a phone call in which Jabri forced a secret service official to confess that the government, and not the “armed gangs” referred to in the official narrative, tortured and killed Syrian activist Ghrias Matar.

“I am with Syria” (viral campaign on the Internet)

During the Syrian revolution, perhaps the most striking examples of irony and dark humor have emerged from Homs, a city that has seen the worst violence so far. In the past days, Homs experienced heavy bombings and shelling in what is believed to be an attempted crack down against a vibrant center of street protests and rebellion. The virtual alleys of the Internet reflect Homsi creativity, documenting the protesters` chants and the dances performed during demonstrations across the city’s streets. A satirical Facebook page pretends to offer washing and lubrication services to the tanks used to crack down against protesters in the city. The most popular joke on the page mocks the regime’s claim that, because the protests begin with the word “Takbir” (an incitement to praise God’s greatness), the demonstrations are being led by Islamists, and, in its place, creates a new slogan “Tahwiil” (the word used for bank transfers), a clear reference to the regime’s greed and corruption. Another very popular Facebook page “the Chinese revolution against the Chinese dictator” reports on events in Syria as if they were taking place in China, and pokes fun at regime officials as if they were Chinese communist party members.

Also from Homs is the Facebook page, “Kulluna Jaratheem” (We Are All Germs), which mocks the official narrative describing protests/protesters as “germs”. Bashar al-Assad is represented as Doctor Dettol – a disinfectant widely used in Syria – while Syria’s citizens are depicted as germs, “whether bacterial or viral.” Interestingly, the slogan “We Are All Germs” as well as the page’s avatar are parodies of a government-backed public relations campaign that

“I am not Indian” (viral campaign on the Internet)

featured on billboards in Syria during the early stages of the uprising. These billboards included a raised hand declaring, “Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law”.” Whether girl or boy, I am with the law.” Soon thereafter, parodies of these government posters circulated around cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised hand, each poster carried a different slogan. “I am free,” said one raised hand. “ I lost my shoes,” echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a customary symbol of protest in Arab culture. “I am with Syria” featured on other cyber-posters. “I am not Indian,” joked another poster, revealing Syrian wittiness as well as awareness that the regime has exclusive control over the formal meaning of “law” and “lawlessness.” “I am not Indian” is the ironic answer to a regime that asks its citizens to abide by the law as if they are foreigners who do not know the rules of the game in the country.

“I am free” (Photo credit: Free Syrians)

“I am not Indian” and cyber-posters featuring multiple-colored hands, which mirror the hands raised in the Syrian street, are perhaps the best examples of citizenship regaining its legitimate place over and above concepts such as “law,” “nation,” and “unity,” which the regime has historically monopolized and manipulated. They are also prime examples of an emerging remix-culture, first theorized by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessigthat exists in the form of an inner creativity producing and re-manipulating symbols and narrations, which is finally blossoming in Syria despite the horrible circumstances.

*Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute in Damascus, focusing her research on the Syrian television industry. You can follow her writing and work at www.mediaoriente.com and on twitter @donatelladr.

How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime (Part Two)

PR groups like the D.C. based Capital Communications were in talks with the Syrian government few months before the uprising. The group chair, Akram Elias, offers Shaaban an “action plan that covers in depth the subject matter” discussed in a previous meeting. The email does not specify the topic of the conversation, but Capital Communications skills serve areas like “crisis communications and reputation management” and offer services as“how to pitch a story to the US media” for those who want to shape “effective messages”. Among its clients, the group counts many foreign governments as that of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and also Russia. Other groups that focus more on bridging the government and the private sector have tried to set their operations in Syria. N.Y. based Global Leadership Team  attempted –unsuccessfully, it seems from the email correspondence – to reach out to the presidential palace in order to host world summits on innovation and capitalism in Syria and to award first lady Asma al-Assad among “the most innovative people” in the world.

 People like Shaaban and the presidential palace`s inner circle of seemingly reform-minded folks –English-speaking, Western-educated elites that know how to impression the West by employing words as “empowerment” and “entrepreneurship” which make up the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism– have been able to seduce organizations that lie at the extreme sides of the ideological spectrum, like the World Economic Forum and Viva Palestina!.

Former British Labour Party MP George Galloway, who co-founded the latter to bring humanitarian aides and relief to Gaza`s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack, is a well known leftist activist. His involvement in the Palestinian cause has matched with Assad`s rhetoric of Syria being “the last Arab country” committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. Dubbing Assad`s Syria as the “last castle of Arab dignity” is as enormous as when he cheered Saddam Hussen with “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability” .Later, Galloway declared to have been misunderstood, as those words were addressed to the Iraqi people, not to the dictator; he might have been caught in the same kind of misunderstanding concerning Syria.

 The charm that Assad`s Syria has exercised on both world`s capitalists and leftist activists relies on an enmeshed network of privileges, personal favors, mutual benefits and exchanges, mixed with what is left of old fashioned anti imperialist ideology. Here, the seemingly-opposites coincide. This clever mix of neoliberalism and anti-imperialism rhetoric is cultivated by the presidential palace and pushed forward in the public space of media by its unofficial spokespersons. Deemed respectable and enlightened by Western media, companies, governments “these people speak the same language we do” –as a Western diplomat once told me–. The editor in chief of the Syrian Forward magazine, Sami Moubayed, is one of them. His articles on the Syrian uprising give a sense of his skills in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the palace`s seemingly reformist project. This might be the reason why Moubayed is able to appeal an edgy US publication as the Huffington Post; as much as he is able to get invited to dinner by Turkish ambassador in Syria and be hinted as the person who should write “to express the Syrian position” on Turkish press.

Last spring, Moubayed had proposed the palace to “solve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way” and push forward a “third view”  between the official regime position and the people`s. This project — the TV series “Fawq al-saqf” (Above the ceiling)— failed dramatically, as it never reached audience success and was stopped after its 15th episode in Ramadan 2011 . The same seems to happen now to these West-appealing elites sitting at the palace, whose reform-minded project is proving to be just a media project, not even a well marketed one anymore.