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Mideast Cyberactivists Say Dreams of Democracy Remain Unrealized

31 Jan 2014 – By Dale Gavlak

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.





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