Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Cyber Diplomacy

Posted by vmsalama on March 17, 2007

FORWARD MAGAZINE

by Vivian Salama

Syria’s Ambassador to the US loves music, art, and his wife. He is keen on showing that to the rest of the world through his online blog. Ambassador Moustapha has redefined diplomacy by blogging.

Accessibility usually is not the first word that comes to mind when discussing Arab diplomats – that is, until recently. I first became interested in learning about Dr. Imad Moustapha. Syria’s Ambassador to the United States, while watching him on a number of American media networks during the Israel-Lebanon war of last summer. Often put on the hot seat by journalists trying to portray Syria in a certain light, Moustapha was extremely candid, often firm, but always polite.

Since much of my recent writing and research has focused on Arab blogs, I was even more intrigued to learn that the Ambassador, a computer scientist by trade, had launched a blog of his own. An Arab diplomat AND a blogger? Something didn’t add up. I eagerly searched for it online, all the while, anticipating pages full of sharp critiques and hardball politics. Instead, I discovered a window into Moustapha’s private life. I was taken aback: a clear Syrian patriot, the Ambassador’s personal blog comprised of page after page of personal information, from his love for art of all kinds, to the chronicles of his one-man book club. He even posts photos from vacations he’s taken – that is, mostly photos he’s taken of his wife. As for politics – it seems that’s just a day job for this multifaceted diplomat.

I had to meet him.

Usually when a reporter looks to meet any politician or diplomat, they must go through their press secretary. In the case of Arab diplomats, this is usually followed by weeks of run-around, missed calls, a little stalking and ultimately, a lot of frustration. Therefore, I was less than pessimistic when I clicked on the link that read “email me.” It amused me that he would tease his cyber visitors with such a thought.

Naturally, I was left dumbfounded when the Ambassador returned my email within a mere 12 hours with a simple “thanks” and “just say when.” In less than a week, I was sitting in the Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC, tea in hand, for a chat with this technocrat-turned-politician. Right up front, the Ambassador confessed to me that his colleagues in Syria’s diplomatic community are a bit perplexed by his desire to blog.

“I guess they think it’s unconventional,” he admits. “I have no image what a diplomat is because I am not a career diplomat. I’m not a technocrat either. I think a more accurate term to describe me is tech-savvy.”

In fact, it appears his cyber activities are so unconventional that the Ambassador has even met his share of Western skeptics. On 6 May, 2006, Moustapha wrote: “A couple of journalists who interviewed me last month in California asked me if I were really the author of my blog. When my face reflected utter astonishment, they felt a little embarrassed.” The 21st century is all about the citizen journalist, or blogger, as they have come to be known in cyberland. Online conversations are no longer casual; they are hardly private. Internet users from all four corners of the globe have taken on a new role.

It remains unclear who the first blogger was; a young American journalist named Justin Hall was cited by the New York Times in December 2004 as being “the founding father of personal blogging.” Hall would cover video game conferences, and then publish his reviews in the form of an online diary. Dozens of young men and women were quick to follow suit, establishing personal websites and updating them frequently, asking any visitor of the site to post their comments. Years later in Iraq, an individual by the screen name of Salam Pax (Salam is Arabic and Pax is Latin for the same word; “peace”) gained notoriety in May 2003 when he began publishing a blog about his life during the invasion. The blogs were honest and compelling – so much so, in fact, that skeptics began speculating whether he might be a US or Israeli agent, or a relative of Iraqi government officials set to spread misleading informationabout the war.

Once the Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Damascus, Moustapha originally developed his own website in 1997. The site would grow in sophistication and eventually evolved. “The phenomenon of blogs started, and I liked that you can get personal. I have a very stressful life.” In 2005, the Ambassador launched his blog and would eventually work his way up to receiving some 7,000 hits per week. Only shortly after the New York Times published an article about the blog did his site receive some 123,000 hits within a couple of days, and another 1,100 would come within three days of an article written in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot. Most notably, he says, was the tendency by people he was meeting for the first time to make reference to his blog. “Often I would be meeting someone and they would instantly connect with me, for instance by discussing a book that I wrote about in my blog.”

Moustapha and a small handful of others like him have kicked off a new, often controversial, trend within the diplomatic community. Jan Pronk, the UN’s Envoy to Sudan was recently expelled from the country after remarks he made on his personal blog angered the Sudanese government. Sudanese officials accused Pronk of “psychological warfare” after writing that the government had broken Security Council resolutions. While Ambassador Moustapha’s blog steers clear of political issues, he suggests that diplomats can play both sides of the fence. “Professionally, the UN envoy shouldn’t flagrantly be taking positions,” he says. “If you are trying to find solution to both sides, you shouldn’t take sides. This is not professional. That said, as a human being of course he has the right.”

Moustapha makes no secret of Syria’s reported attempts to limit Internet access to its citizens. Reporters Sans Frontiers, a non-profit media rights group, cites Syria as an “Enemy of the Internet,” saying it is a top offender for imprisoning cyber-dissidents. According to the group, the Syrian government also bans access to Arabic- language opposition sites and sites catering to the nation’s minority groups. The Ambassador insists the situation has improved tremendously in recent years, though he concedes that some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) function differently than others. “If you try to access my blog from one ISP in Syria you can’t, but then you try using another ISP and you can,” admits Moustapha.

He continues: “The situation is not that bad in Syria but it needs to evolve. We have different interpretations about what is legal and illegal; healthy and unhealthy. I personally belong to a school of thought that promotes the relaxation of state interference.” Moustapha goes so far as to cite an example from his days as a lecturer in Damascus. As a professor of computer science, firewalls were part of the puzzle for mastering the Internet. “When I was a professor, my students always tried to bypass firewalls,” he recalls. “I think all young people should be naughty. My students used to bypass these firewalls and then they would come and tell me. I would pretend to be cross with them but really it would make me happy – also because it meant I was a good teacher!” Nowadays, the Ambassador refers to himself as an “outside observer” with regard to his blogging. Since he and his wife Rafif welcomed a new addition to their family just days after his interview with FORWARD – a baby girl named Sidra – Moustapha confesses that his blog may divert from topics of art and literature to talk of bibs and baby nappies. Overall, the Ambassador’s weblog is meant to give Internet surfers incite into the man behind the politics. “It’s liberating. I never thought it would be that fun.”

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