What the NYT’s piece on the new cybercrime law says about Algeria, and its opposition

Undone from his cold dead hands?

Undone from his cold dead hands?

The New York Times has an interesting article on a proposed law in Algeria that would allow for tighter surveillance of internet users suspected of using the net to support terrorism or otherwise subversive criminal activity. Obviously, this has caused anxiety among politically minded Algerian bloggers. The article is disappointing in that it does not mention that the proposal is more than a year old (if not older). The proposed law would create an “internet police force charged with investigating online criminal and terrorist activities”. This is only partially correct, in that it proposes creating and solidifying the cybercrime “cells” and task-forces within the already existing police and security forces apparatus.

The article overestimates the perceived threat of bloggers and online mobilization on the government’s part. Like the Algerian political class and opposition at large, internet based opposition is as weak. This is a key element of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Algeria: a weary political class, fragmented opposition and a strong state that tolerates a modicum of Islamist agitation and lets the discontent rumble in the streets like a low din, knowing well that to put down young men’s riots would only make more of them angry. It is a system that serves to perpetuate only itself so long as as much is possible, but devoid of any of the naitonalist zeal of previous eras. It is an imitation of Boumediene’s style of rule, minus any of his convictions or folkloric representative or revolutionary legitimacy.This passage is worth commenting on:

Bloggers like El Mouhtarem are not yet perceived as a serious threat to the Algerian government, partly because the country has so few Internet users. But in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, none of which have Internet-specific legislation, existing laws have been used to prosecute Internet users for offenses like creating a phony Facebook profile in the name of the king or for forwarding political messages.

And countries in North Africa and the Middle East are beginning to introduce Internet-specific laws. In 2006, the United Arab Emirates became the first to pass legislation focusing on cybercrime and cyberterrorism, and Saudi Arabia followed in 2008. A similar law is under consideration in Iraq.

Helmi Noman, a researcher for the OpenNet Initiative, an academic group that studies Internet filtering and surveillance, said these new laws were a response to emerging problems like hacking, privacy and the use of the Internet for terrorism.

“Countries are doing this because there is a legal vacuum concerning new challenges associated with the use of the Internet,” Mr. Noman said.

The proposal in Algeria comes after “strong online mobilization” for a protest late last year against a change to the Constitution that allowed a president to serve three terms instead of two, said Soazig Dollet, a North Africa specialist for Reporters Without Borders.

This allowed the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to run for another term, which he won. Many opposition parties boycotted the election in protest.

“Perhaps the controversy around the re-election of Bouteflika pushed the authorities to create this law,” Ms. Dollet said.

The Algerian blogosphere was much less dynamic or critical than its counterparts in Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt, Ms. Dollet added, and there was nothing comparable to the online networks used by Iranian protesters in recent months.

“I don’t believe that the Algerian authorities today are threatened by the Algerian street,” she said.

As the article states, internet penetration in Algeria is strikingly low. Mass mobilization is spread through more conventional methods, and the political scene has rendered most people who would mobilize either too wound up in the system or too despairingly apathetic to do so. The concern is not so much political blogs (like Algerie-politique, which is linked to the FFS), but rather quite what its stated intention is; cybercriminals and terrorists. Few Algerian men of politics use the internet (and at the highest levels, including the military and in internal security, many are quite ignorant of it and its applications); in the security forces, the is an understanding of its danger in terms of vandalism and terrorist organizing. Beyond this view — of the internet as a source of trouble — there is not much else. Online mobilization against this year’s referendum was groundbreaking in Algeria’s context, where the internet has almost no political role beyond the Berber movement. This blog has written before about the use of Facebook by Algerians to drum up support for political agendas — especially in the failed attempt to bring fmr. President Zeroual into the 2009 presidential race and Louiza Hanoune‘s quite active Facebook page — but these are quite small efforts, of almost no political significance outside of the diaspora and the most wealthy youths.

The article rightly describes the Algerian blogosphere as less politicized than its Moroccan and Tunisian cousins. The most subversive Algerian website is Le Matin’s (whose site resembles a blog more than a news website); this is the paper of locked up Benchicou, and it is at once the most daring and most absurd of Algerian opposition papers. There is also the RCD-linked Liberte, which, for instance, finished up Ramadhan with a series of articles about the massive rise in drug use during the holy month, along with grinding poverty, anti-social behavior and other elements of misery that made the holy month a rough time for many Algerians. The Arabic papers are at greater liberty on line, partly because few of their readers are online than the French papers (like El Watan and Liberte), and because, as is the case with all online papers, it is not reliant on the final stage of editing that comes when the print edition goes the government or officer owned presses. These sites, including an-Nahar and ech-Chorouk, provide an alternate perspective, saturated with the news from the religious community and sometimes ultra-nationalist business and social coverage. Other Arabic sites, such as the FFS associated Mzab News serve as the mouth pieces, quite literally, of opposition sites, posting communiques and rabble rousing news briefs and essays. These were important in spreading rumors and information about the violence in Berriane over the last two years. On the whole, though, the most important sites, from the perspective of those looking to undercut opposition to the regime, are the ones linked to the militant ends of the Salafist movement. These are the ones of most concern, because while the other sites might criticize the regime within what is considered “legitimate” political discourse (though it almost always comes out to nothing), these sites continue the Islamist insurgency, provide it a place to make recruits and to organize. The Islamist movement is the only part of the Algerian political scene left with a violent style; the Berber and Citizens’ movements (who have myriad websites, full of grumblers from throughout the diaspora and the internet cafes in the capital and Kabylia) have mostly given up mass violent protest, in favor of peaceful methodology. Those who witnessed the famous march by the students earlier in the decade, led by their teachers, down from the mountains and into Algiers, understand that the political mainstream in Algeria has for the time being renounced violence as a means of change, in part out of weariness stemming from the Civil War and in part as a result of brutal crackdown in 2001. Mainstream Algerian opposition has taken on, in many cases, middle class values. On the other hand, there are many more who have simply given up on the political process all together and who now vent their frustration through periodic street riots, which usually go unattended for several hours and are the cleaned up by police (and happen several times a month), for the government now understands that to intervene would only bring on even more riotous contempt and escalation. Others focus on making money in the black market, join the military (for its wages) or attempt to emmigrate, legally or by raft, inner-tube or freight crate.

Even in the 2009 presidentials, one did not find significant online dissent, outside of the online newspapers and Facebook. Anti-third term Facebook groups with more than a handful of members were perhaps less than ten. Algerian political groups on Facebook have proliferated most widely after the election. One can find multiple groups pro or contra Bouteflika, most of them anti-Bouteflika and his third term, ranging from one member up through fifty or sixy members, capping out in the middle hundreds; two false profiles for the president have many friends, and one rarely finds negativity written on their “walls”. For those oriented against him, there is a “FUCK BOUTEFLIKA” group in the “just for fun” category” with three hundred members. A related group, titled “BOUTEFLIKA LE DICTATEUR” fulfills a similar taste, and more company with nearly 750 members, though it is full of Moroccans and videos and maps of “greater Morocco,” complete with discussion topics like “La suprématie marocaine“. Algerian Facebookists have erected false profiles for such historical figures as Larbi Ben M’hidi, Mohamed Boudiaf, Houari Boumediene, Mohamed Khider, Hocine Gadiri, Ali Belhaj, Hocine Ait Ahmed and others. Groups such as “Abane Ramdane,Mohamed Khider,Krim Belkacem,Boudiaf,…….STOP CRIME.” lament historical assassinations and dissapearences of opposition figures. One finds the most politically bold groups are made by Algerians in the diaspora, either in the United States, England or France. Several groups aimed at political discussion are also found. Groups advocating freedom of expression garner hundreds of followers. More contemporary leaders, such as Louisa Hanoune, Said Bouteflika, and many others, including Abdelouahab Benboulaid — Mostafa Ben Boulaid’s deceased son (the father, too, has a page). But one finds no coherence among the varied groups on Facebook rallying Algerian sentiments or causes; many dozens of groups rephrase the same views against this or that motion, politician or grievance; Moroccan and Tunisian groups are more numerous. In the 2009 presidentials, one could not find groups calling Algerians out to protest. One did find, however, websites and many, many groups on Facebook, in favor of the boycott, but no coordinated efforts resulting from this could be found. In so far as the boycott itself (which really did yield low voter turn out, regardless of the official figures) came through, it could not at all be attributed to anything that went on on Facebook. The boycott would have taken place with or without internet campaigns, which in the truest sense of the term were virtually non-existent.

Shortly before the April election, an aide to a member of parliament from eastern Algeria told this blogger that the current system is meant to emulate the Algeria of the 1970’s: managed opposition, strong leadership, prosperity and peace. He added: “The problem is that the today the country is not prosperous, has no managed opposition, because there is no opposition [but this is perhaps the point], and is neither peaceful nor prosperous. It is like the Boumediene era only because we have no idea what will follow it.” His statement at once reflects a kind of tiered passivity and a sense, that becomes more arrogant in its expression the higher up one goes in the government, that the only thing limiting the regime today is Bouteflika’s mortality. This is Bouteflika’s Algeria.

Furthermore, to attribute the law to the 2009 presidentials also misses that the third term campaign is widely regarded as a political success in official circles. No violence took place shortly before, on or after the election. The international community’s response was generally luke warm but tended towards the positive. The Americans and French were cool in their acceptances, but offered no serious objections. The AU, Arab League, North Korea, Russia, China and other states offered their congratulations. Observers offered a glowing endorsement of the franchise, and no international body challenged the official figures giving Bouteflika a margin of victory worthy of the finest in the Soviet tradition. World media gave it little coverage, aside from France24 and a few sparse pieces from the BBC, allowing it to go quietly. For Bouteflika, such a result qualifies as establishing both internal and external legitimacy. From the regime’s view, there is little threat coming from the street or the internet that could seriously upset its authority. What one finds most troubling about all the discourse on the amendment, and what shows how weak the Algerian internet opposition is (so much as such a thing can be spoken of), is that there was very little conversation about succession, who will follow the ancient Bouteflika in the event that he dies during this term or after. There is no clear line of succession, and real talk of it came towards the final days before the referendum, even online. The fragmented nature of that debate gave the regime comfort in the belief that it avoid serious questions about its legitimacy or its policy. The time of coherent or even ideological opposition has passed for the time being. Nothing resembling the Islamists’ skill in organizing and subversion in the early 1990’s can be discerned today. The question in Algerian politics is what comes after Bouteflika and how Algerians will get there. As of present, those who oppose the indefinite and dysfunctional present appear not to have an answer any more than those in control do, be they online, in print or on the street.

6 thoughts on “What the NYT’s piece on the new cybercrime law says about Algeria, and its opposition

  1. Martin,

    I cannot fix those links, as Liberte’s website does not archive its daily articles beyond one day (if you search for them on their website, you’ll get a link to them but you won’t be able to see the article anymore); if you search the PDFs on their site it will show up there. I should have Google Doc’ed them (which is what I usually do for Liberte and El Khabar pieces), but I did have time to while writing up this post. Apologies. I’ll put up a link to the PDF, as this was a front-page story.

    Best,

    -Kal

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