Syria plods into net revolution

December 10, 1999

AMMAN. Fax machines have been legal in Syria only since 1995. Mobile phones have not been introduced on the grounds that they represent a threat to national security, and the internet was banned until July this year.

However, a government-controlled pilot project is now making access to the internet available to government institutions and universities.

"The project looks very good on paper, but maybe it is a little late," conceded Hassan Al-Richeh, of Damascus University's electronic engineering department. He has overseen the introduction of compulsory computer classes for all students at the university. "It's going to be a kind of revolution," he said.

Students at Damascus University follow one semester of basic computer training as part of their undergraduate studies. With only 325 computers available for 90,000 students, the computer laboratories are very crowded.

Only five of the 21 laboratories offer open access to students to use the computers - between 6am and 8am.

The regime keeps a tight grip on access to information on campus. Students are not allowed to browse the shelves of the library but must order books from the librarian, and many books are banned. As for the internet, the university has only seven lines. Access to these accounts is restricted. Only third and fourth- year students can use the internet for research, with written permission from their supervisors.

Professor Al-Richeh promised improvements to the computer project in the future. "We are bringing in 3,000 computers this year, and soon we will be offering a semester training on using the internet." On campus, however, there is little evidence of these new computers - none of the academic staff has yet received a personal computer, and internet training will not be possible until more lines become available.

A tender has just closed for

service providers to start operating in Syria from the beginning of or next year, and although the internet is likely to remain expensive, it will become available to everyone who can afford it. Syrian universities plan to expand the number of lines available next year.

Students eager to speed the introduction of the internet have found an ally in Bashar Al Assad, President Hafez Al Assad's son. Bashar Al Assad is the president of the Syrian Computer Society, the body responsible for pushing the introduction of information technology in Syria's universities. He is making his name in Syria as an advocate of new technology as he prepares for his probable succession to his father's position as president of Syria.

"Before long, the computer culture is going to become an integral part of our traditions," he said in a recent interview. "Just as, until fairly recently, illiteracy meant a human being's inability to read and write, the latter-day version means an inability to use the computer."

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