Syrian Surfers Take to the Net

By George, Alan | The Middle East, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Syrian Surfers Take to the Net


George, Alan, The Middle East


Alan George in Damascus

In the Muhajrine district on the slopes of Jebel Casioun, the mountain which dominates the Syrian capital, the dozen computer terminals in the Public Internet Hall -- popularly known as the internet cafe -- are all in use. It's the same downtown, in the city's other internet cafe, on Nasser Street, near the shabby terminal of the Hejaz railway, the line which never fully recovered from T E Lawrence's First World War exploits.

The earnest young surfers could be almost anywhere in the global village. It's hard to believe that they are in the heart of a country so authoritarian that until the mid-1990s it banned the import of fax machines and computer modems.

The internet age may have come late but now there's no looking back. "Already we have 5,000 internet and e-mail subscribers," said Ghatfan Kandel, system administrator for the state-run Syrian Telecommunications Establishment's (STE's) Pilot Internet Project. "Demand is very, very strong."

The Pilot Project, implemented in 1997, was the country's first internet scheme but it was available only to government ministries and state-owned enterprises, several of which -- for example the Syrian Arab News Agency, the state-owned daily newspaper Tishreen and the Syrian Computer Society (SCS) -- established websites.

This was followed by a so-called Interim Project, on which work started in 199'8 and was completed last year, which at first offered only e-mail and then was developed to include internet services. Private subscriptions, however, are restricted to businesses and to professionals such as doctors and engineers.

Full public internet access is presently available only at the two Damascus internet cafes, at the Assad National Library in central Damascus (a body run by the Ministry of Culture) and at the Damascus offices of the SCS. The latest access points, opened this month, are in the transit and arrivals halls of Damascus International Airport. More are planned for Syria's second city of Aleppo.

For its internet plus e-mail services, the STE charges 5,000 Syrian pounds (SP; about $100) for installation plus a monthly subscription fee of 1,000SE Time on the net is charged at one SP per minute. Until 1 July, when the new, lower rates were inaugurated, the monthly fee was 2,000SP plus two SP per minute on-line.

For e-mail only, the STE charges a 5,000SP installation fee plus a 600SP annual subscription, while the on-line charge is one SP per minute.

Syria's computer nerds have been lucky to enjoy patronage at the highest level. The SCS was founded in 1989 by Basel Assad, elder son and successor-designate of the late President Hafez Assad. …

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