Arab netizens pay a visit to Algeria's police state  

By Mohamed El Dahshan, Hivos’ fellow to the Arab Internet Governance Forum.

This post first appeared on the Foreign Policy on 20 November 2013.

This past month, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn’t know what to make of this whole “freedom” thing.

Welcome to the Algerian version of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a three-day annual conference whose second edition was organised from the first to the third of October in Algiers. At the conference, stakeholders from the governmental, private, and non-governmental sectors discussed questions of Internet use and management in the region. While the discussions and meetings were extremely interesting in their own right, it was even more entertaining to observe the way the Algerian state dealt with the conference.

Government representatives did their best to hide the police state mentality that permeates the country. At times, however, they failed, reverting to their standard modus operandi – providing anyone who cared to observe with a fascinating example of what happens when a decades-old police state collides with Internet-era professionals. (In the photo above, the Algerian police partake in a “show of force ceremony” in July.)

Multiple conference organisers from within and outside Algeria told me that government officials did their best to shape the event in the weeks before it began, even going so far as to object to specific discussion topics and veto particular speakers. Most of the time, they got their way.

During the conference, the overbearing security presence made many people uncomfortable. Algerian officials attempted to control discussions by planting people in the audience who were tasked with making comments that followed conspicuously similar arguments. (“A state should monitor its citizens because it protects them the way that parents do their children.”) This feeble strategy quickly became obvious and repetitive.

Participants were often chaperoned, and, in some cases, explicitly forbidden from wandering away from the official conference premises. Those who tried were subjected to a shrill diatribe from an official of the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology. As the conference progressed, the official’s patience wore thin with those pesky conference attendees who thought they could have a free and open discussion. At one point she called on security to remove a young Algerian participant who had asked a perfectly benign yet unscripted question about users protecting their privacy online. The official claimed that the alleged offender was not registered and had forged her entrance badge (which was, naturally, untrue). And when said participant attempted to complain to another official at the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology, he lewdly invited her to his hotel room, harassing her by text message all throughout the night.

Amusingly, the Algerian government was not the only one trying to peddle a pro-surveillance agenda. A Lebanese government official, seemingly emboldened by the host’s security-driven ideological bent, jumped on the bandwagon, declaiming at length about the “security” need for surveillance of personal communications.

Was holding this event in Algeria, a country with such a stifling attitude towards free expression, a good or bad idea? The optimist might argue that such a high-profile event forced Algeria to open up and face, head-on, the likelihood that the Internet, thanks to its speed and decentralised organisation, will always be one step ahead of government control. The Algerian government’s nervousness – which they displayed increasingly as the conference proceeded – is proof of this.

Pessimists, however, will argue that the event organisers ceded too much control to a government that was bent on stifling the debate on Internet Governance. In a private conversation on the sidelines of the conference in Algiers, one participant who had also attended last year’s regional IGF in Kuwait told me that she felt that the discussions this time around were rehashing all the same arguments. Her feeling is probably justified, especially if one compares the debates in Algeria with the issues tackled by the global Internet Governance Forum, where discussions have touched upon diverse and specialised issues (gender and youth perspectives on Internet Governance, the role of the Internet in disaster management, emerging cyberthreats, and many others). By contrast, the Algeria forum kept circling endlessly around basic and repetitive debates about the issue of government surveillance.

The Arab world still jails people for tweets and caricatures. Governments that are unwilling to tolerate open discussions attempt to bury the truth under institutional debris.

The Arab IGF in Algiers proved that much remains to be done when it comes to Internet policy in the Arab world. But along the way it also demonstrated that digital rights and Internet freedom are unstoppable – however hard the police states might try to prove the opposite.