In 2011, on a wall near the Ministry of Interior in Tunis, protestors sprayed the graffiti “Thank you, Facebook” in recognition of how social media platforms helped activists organize, cover the protests, and disseminate information globally. While this has often been overstated and simplified by international media and observers, there is no doubt that the Arab Spring was a defining moment in history which cemented the internet’s role as an essential enabler of human rights in the digital age.
However, with the exception of Tunisia, the uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and across the Arab world took a calamitous turn, and so did online civic space. Dictators and despots—old and new—quickly learned how to weaponize the same online spaces and tools against their own citizens in order to quash any form of political dissent or mobilization, both online and offline.
As we mark the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, we reflect on how increasingly authoritarian digital spaces have become. What tactics have authoritarian Arab governments added to their playbooks since?
Criminalization of online speech
Since the Arab Spring, Arab regimes have worked to ensure that no social or political movements are to ever emerge again. Under the pretext of “fighting terrorism” and safeguarding “national security,” authoritarian governments in the region have engaged in fear mongering, silencing independent media, orchestrating disinformation and smear campaigns, harassing and arresting journalists, activists and citizens over their social media content and internet activities.
Repressive legislation such as counter-terrorism and cybercrime laws have become the legal cornerstones for online repression. In Egypt, for instance, the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a special branch of the Public Prosecution responsible for prosecuting crimes related to terrorism and state security, has increasingly prosecuted Egyptian activists, journalists, lawyers and others on nefarious charges of joining or aiding terrorist groups, “spreading false news,” and “misuse of social media,” under the counter-terrorism law of 2015, cybercrime law of 2018, and the Penal Code. In recent months, online repression using the cybercrime law in Egypt extended to non-political speech such as the case of the young female TikTok influencers who were prosecuted and jailed for “violating the values of Egyptian family.”
In Bahrain, tweets can land you five years in jail. Bahrain’s Appeal Court in 2018 upheld its five year jail sentence for prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab for his tweets and retweets against killing of civilians in Yemen and torture in Jau Prison. In Iraq, state and non-state actors have resorted to extralegal means such as smear campaigns and assassinations to silence those who dare to cross the line. Most recently, Iraqi doctor and woman activist Riham Yaqoob was tragically gunned down in her car by unknown militias for speaking up against human rights violations.
Website blocking is another common censorship practice across the region. In Egypt, over 600 websites have been blocked in the country since 2017 including those independent media websites, human rights advocacy groups, and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated websites. In Jordan, the government has blocked around 291 websites including an LGBTQ magazine.
Increasingly, website blocking and censorship in the region has been falling into geopolitical lines. For instance, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt block websites affiliated with or coming from Iran. They also block media websites affiliated with Qatar including Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English, and Al Jazeera Documentary among many others.
During the days of mass protests in 2011, governments in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Syria ordered telecommunications companies to shut down the internet in order to disrupt the flow of information and keep protestors in the dark.
This tactic continues to be used by Arab governments, particularly around key national events such as elections, social and political unrest, and national school exams. In October 2019, for example, the Iraqi government shut down the internet intermittently for more than 50 days amid mass anti-government protests, during which more than 23 civilians were killed and many others arrested. Similarly, in 2018 with the rise of mass protests, Sudanese authorities blocked access to social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter.
Internet shutdowns, which are impermissible under international human rights law, have been also used as a form of collective punishment against entire communities. One of the world’s longest internet shutdowns took place in Bahrain in 2017 when the government killed the switch on the Shia village of Diraz every night between 7pm and 1am for one year in addition to lockdown as a punishment for the community’s peaceful demonstrations.
Increasingly, governments resort to less obvious and hard-to-prove measures such as throttling or slowing down internet services. The Jordanian government has repeatedly used this tactic, specifically throttling Facebook Live Stream, in order to stop citizens from filming and sharing information, most notably during protests.
In some MENA countries, certain mobile apps are banned altogether—forcing populations to only use government-approved platforms which have been used for mass surveillance. The UAE, Qatar, and Oman permanently blocked WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime and continue to do so despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent need for many communities to connect and communicate.
Arab governments have invested millions of dollars in surveillance technology and spyware to target human rights defenders and internet activists. One of the most notorious spyware technologies used by Arab regimes to target activists and journalists is the NSO’s Pegasus spyware. A sophisticated and invasive malicious covert technology, the spyware turns infected phones into small spies in pockets. Once installed, it allows access to the target’s private data including their contact list, passwords, emails, text messages, voice calls, calendar, and browsing history. It can also turn on the phone’s camera and microphone to spy on the target without their knowledge. The spyware has been most notoriously used to spy on human rights defender Ahmed Mansour in the UAE, Saudi activists in exile including colleagues of Jamal Khashoggi, and most recently to target Moroccan activist and journalist Omar Radi who is currently facing bogus charges of espionage and sexual assault.
The Arab Spring was a catalyst for global discussions for the need of more robust export controls of digital surveillance technology. Seven years later, following the barbaric murder of Khashoggi, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, called for “an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology until human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks are in place.” However, global progress towards transparency, due diligence, and stronger export controls by the EU, the U.S. and other states have been modest. The surveillance market has been thriving with no transparency or accountability especially when human rights violations are committed using these tools by repressive regimes.
Profit over rights
Social media giants, namely Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, also deserve attention—and this time, not for the reasons they were lauded in 2011. A decade after tech companies enjoyed their moment of glory, touting themselves as upholders of free speech, they seem to have turned their back on Arab activists. Arbitrary and non-transparent content moderation policies and procedures, which are deaf to the regional and local contexts and nuances, have often resulted in silencing political speech of oppressed communities.
From Syria to Egypt, Tunisian to Palestine, thousands of activists and ordinary users have had their content removed or accounts suspended without an explanation. Facebook disabled thousands of Syrian anti-Assad accounts documenting war crimes since 2011 under the pretext of removing terrorist content from the platform. Similarly, YouTube has erased archives of human rights violations’ evidence and documentation.
Social media platforms can get cozy with governments and dictators. Saudi Arabia has even infiltrated Twitter by recruiting two of its U.S. staff to spy on Saudi dissidents and share their private data with the Saudi government. Those platforms have so much unchecked power in determining who can and can’t speak on their platforms.
“Legacies and Unfinished Activisms”
The current realities of the region—both online and offline—might be bleak and somber, but not all hope is lost. As regimes continue tightening their nooses on online spaces and internet freedoms, activists, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations are fighting back for a free, safe and open internet.
In the words of African American activist and scholar Angela Davis, “…the legacies of past struggles are not static. If these legacies mean anything at all, they are mandated to develop new strategies, new technologies of struggles.”
Today, the legacy of the Arab Spring serves as an urgent reminder for governments, private companies and international organizations to curb the rising wave of digital authoritarianism and stand up for human rights in the digital age.
This article was published as part of TIMEP’s “Ten Years On: Organizing in the MENA region” project.