Middle East


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Arab Spring is taking place one person at a time. The question is when do enough people turn against their government to force a change. Many protesters may stand up to be counted today. It is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, which has become in many places a day of protest, and authorities are bracing for protests from Libya to Syria.

This morning, we'll hear the story of one man who's worked to galvanize opposition in Syria. He recently fled to Turkey with his family, where he met NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON: Thirty-two-year-old Mohammed Feezo unpacks his laptop in a windswept schoolyard in the Turkish village of Guvecci, and stares at the hills of northern Syria just to the east. A former worker at an iron factory, he seems an unlikely cyber revolutionary. But now, having brought his wife and children to safety, he spends 12 hours a day online, tracking the government crackdown in Syria and providing information and a sense of belonging and purpose to Syrians desperate for change.

Feezo was born to a Sunni Muslim family in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, the scene of last week's military crackdown by loyalist forces. In the 1980s his family relocated to the coastal city of Latakia, where he came face to face with the discrimination that favored the Allawite regime and its supporters. He also came to know the reach and power of Syria's dreaded Mukhabarat, the secret police. He says he criticized Syria's involvement in Lebanon in a discussion in a coffee shop one day, and soon found himself under arrest.

Mr. MOHAMMED FEEZO: (Through translator) I was 24 when I was first arrested. It was horrible. They put me in a basement interrogation room. But they didn't even want information. Their way is just to humiliate you. That's why now I use my real name. It's a kind of revenge, just to show that I'm not intimidated.

KENYON: After being detained several times, Feezo decided that since the regime was determined to treat him as an adversary, he might as well get involved in the opposition. At first he came up against the same problem all critics of the regime faced - how to communicate in the face of a highly-evolved domestic spying apparatus that caused Syrians to adopt the saying, don't even talk to yourself, they'll hear you. But then about five years ago, he discovered the Internet and it opened a new world of possibilities.

Mr. FEEZO: (Through translator) I started using the Internet, and I discovered it wasn't really on their radar. For instance, when they would detain me they would never ask me about anything I had written on the Internet.

KENYON: He says gradually other Syrians began to realize that there was a certain measure of virtual freedom to be had online.

Mr. FEEZO: (Through translator) In the beginning, any discussion I had felt like people on the other end were still afraid, afraid to speak out. But then we began to realize the government can't really monitor six million Internet users, so people began to get more brave, and I turned my Facebook page into a page with opposition comments.

KENYON: Feezo says nonetheless, when he and his friends began calling for the initial demonstrations on March 15, they were terrified, and had no idea who would respond, since demonstrations were so rare in Syria. But when their Facebook page attracted 70,000 people in the first week, and soon doubled that number, they realized that Syrians were ready to follow Tunisians and Egyptians onto the streets, whatever the consequences.

Three months and more than a thousand dead later, he believes the true number is much higher, Feezo is grappling with the downsides of Internet freedom, the danger of forged documents being planted by the regime or their sites being infiltrated or hacked. He knows the government is adapting to the new reality of Internet-driven protest, just as the demonstrations are. But he believes the movement has reached a critical mass that can't be stopped.

Mr. FEEZO: (Through translator) Yes, I think it's unstoppable. The government can affect it by cutting the Internet. But at the end, the Internet is just a networking tool. It's the people in the streets who make the difference. Even if they cut the Internet in the whole country, the protests will continue.

KENYON: Feezo says now that his family is safe, he'll return to Syria. He doesn't consider himself any more important than the other Syrians who are defying the regime. But he's found a way to make his voice heard, and he'll use it as long as he can.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the TurkishSyrian border.

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