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Syrian Activist In Hiding Presses Mission From Abroad

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Syrian Activist In Hiding Presses Mission From Abroad

Middle East

Syrian Activist In Hiding Presses Mission From Abroad

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Syria, an uprising that began weeks ago as a demand for reform now seems to be a call for revolution. And today, when tens of thousands of protesters turned out after Friday prayers, security forces fired bullets and tear gas at them.

Playing a major role in the protests are young social media activists. They are part of the same Facebook generation that helped topple autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria, some activists have been forced to flee.

They work now across the border in Lebanon with simple tools, cell phones and touch pads, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

Mr. RAMI NAKHLE (Activist): (Arabic language spoken)

DEBORAH AMOS: This 27-year-old Syrian, Rami Nakhle, is on the phone and on the run. He changes numbers often, doesn't give out his address. He's a wanted cyber activist in Syria and he fled to Lebanon ahead of a prison term.

Mr. NAKHLE: I went to hiding for one month in Damascus. During this time we were looking for smuggler and I smuggled here.

AMOS: Nakhle has a revolutionary Facebook page under an assumed name. He was questioned dozens of times by a Syrian secret police officer, who finally figured out that the Facebook activist and Rami Nakhle were one and the same.

Mr. NAKHLE: So he went to just immediately, directly to my wall in Facebook and he said: Hello, Mr. Nakhle, we got you.

AMOS: Were you in Beirut when they put that on your wall?

Mr. NAKHLE: Yeah. Yeah, I were here. It's just about 10 days ago.

(Soundbite of a TV broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He works from this sparsely furnished safe house. A TV clicker and a camera sit next to a full ashtray and a cold pot of tea. Nakhle's site is now a hub for protest pictures, eyewitness accounts, the names of the dead documented by human rights groups, a network of activists who know and trust each other.

Mr. NAKHLE: We are playing two roles. First, to spread the news, then to influence the street. We are not leading at all, but we are trying to influence.

AMOS: He downloads a live stream of cell phone videos for uploads to YouTube. Syria has banned almost all international media. But Nakhle says so far Syria's social media network can beat the ban with technology. The media needs pictures for Syrian coverage.

(Soundbite of protest)

AMOS: When the Arabic channel Al-Jazeera broadcasts the latest news, the images come from Nakhle's network.

Mr. NAKHLE: Now there is breaking news in Al-Jazeera, saying a protest near to Damascus, chanting: We are peaceful protesters for freedom.

AMOS: These protests are an unprecedented challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his family that have ruled the country for more than 40 years. The cost has been high. At least 200 dead, according to human rights groups, and many cyber activists have been jailed. But Nakhle says more are joining.

Mr. NAKHLE: We were not expecting this. But we have like thousands and thousands of youth. It's like a national brainstorming, really. They are doing this. It's like they are creative and every idea just will get picked up by many, many, many small groups.

AMOS: He is a veteran of the movement. He was in close contact with Tunisian and Egyptian activists and learned from the failures as well successes. The Syrian leadership has learned nothing from the Arab uprisings, says Nakhle. They use old tactics of concessions, followed by violence against a growing movement that has lost its fear while armed with Smartphones and upload links.

Mr. NAKHLE: Now, we have the tools. We have the anti-dictator tools. What is the dictator tools? Their propaganda, their secret police, they still have the same old tools. And we are like developing our tools day after day after day.

AMOS: Even Nakhle admits Syria is different and it will take time. It's one of the most repressive regimes in the region and Syria has a substantial number of regime supporters, especially in capital.

Still, he insists, the revolution has begun.

Mr. NAKHLE: It's impossible to crush to crush this movement for Bashar al-Assad, because the change is not changing the regime, it's changing the mentality of the street.

AMOS: His optimism is reflected on the Facebook page that almost sent him to prison.

Mr. NAKHLE: And this is my post today.

AMOS: I see light at the end of the tunnel, he wrote.

Mr. NAKHLE: And look at how many like it 50, 51.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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