Putting Dissent on Hold: Internet Control and Social Activism in Algeria

Internet

How the Algerian government has combated the spread of dissent by using cyber-bullying and by keeping internet and telecoms standards low.

Was it coincidence or was it deliberate? Following the January 2013 attack at the natural gas complex in the Saharan town of In Amenas, the Algerian government once again spurned the adoption of modern mobile phone standards. The government blamed administrative procedures for its decision. Others viewed the rejection as the regime’s latest step to curb dissent.

The In Amenas hostage siege led to the deaths of at least 38 civilians and 29 militants. Shortly after the attack, newspapers reported that several high-ranking officials were concerned about the risks of third-generation (3G) telecommunications standards, particularly in the government’s fight against terrorism. The Daily Dawn, an Algerian newspaper, cited anonymous sources, presumably close to the government, that revealed “the wider security environment in the Sahel” is the real reason behind the delay.

However, many activists interpret the government’s ongoing postponement of the provision of 3G as yet another attempt to shackle dissent. Creaking telecommunications standards and a complex set of internet laws and regulations, particularly aimed at controlling information on social media sites, make anti-government activism in Algeria increasingly complicated.

The government seems intent on hiding behind the shield of one of the world’s most archaic information and communications frameworks.

During the Arab uprisings two years ago, social media platforms surfaced as a force of popular empowerment. Bloggers throughout North Africa and the Middle East helped to rally mass street demonstrations, which led Tunisia and Egypt to revolution, Morocco to simulate reform and Libya into civil war.

Amidst such sweeping political change across the region, Algeria emerged as the only country in the Maghreb where the government retained a firm grip on the country, despite widespread poverty and high unemployment, particularly among Algeria’s youth.

Pundits attempting to explain what has come to be known as “Algerian exceptionalism” are quick to point to the country’s history – in particular the civil war in the 1990s, which cost more than 150,000 lives – to argue that Algerians favour political stability over what might end in chaos and armed conflict.