The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism in the time of Covid-19: The Case of North Africa

Ziani, Otman (2020) ‘The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism in the time of Covid-19: The Case of North Africa’, Rowaq Arabi 25 (4), pp. 77-92.


By Otman Ziani, a professor of public law at Mohamed I University – Morocco. He is specialised in topics of political and constitutional life.


At the forefront of measures adopted by North African states in response to the Covid-19 pandemic was the deployment of information and communications technology (ICT). Digital technology is highly important in terms of declared health targets; nevertheless, the adoption of arbitrary, draconian laws that utilise digital surveillance tools in many cases exceeds stated targets in regards to coping with Covid-19 and protecting public health. The pandemic-related measures adopted by North African states deploy digital authoritarian practices and sustain them, with the aim of imposing surveillance and control over the citizens, in violation of their human rights, privacy rights, and public freedoms. An acute danger is posed to the protection of internet freedom, together with heightened risks associated with violations of privacy and the compromise of personal data. Digital surveillance enables governments of North African states to extend their authoritarian reach, by silencing the voices of popular dissent, independent media, and opposition figures. This comes with rising fears that digital surveillance will be sustained beyond the end of the Covid-19 crisis.


The advantageousness of the internet in regards to enabling transparency and increasing democratic engagement is widely understood and often taken for granted. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic has witnessed a rise in digital authoritarianism throughout the world. This rise is more pronounced in North African countries, where internet shutdowns, censorship, mass surveillance, and violations of privacy rights have become more frequent, and citizens are not guaranteed digital rights and freedoms.  These countries are increasingly providing internet services that threaten democracy, and can even act as a weapon against democracy by facilitating forms of ‘postmodern totalitarianism’.

Internet freedom in North African countries has deteriorated dramatically with the emergence of elements of a dystopic future. These elements include the monitoring, control and manipulation of cyberspace to the extent that it resembles 1984 by George Orwell, with ‘big brother watching you.  Likewise, it resembles the model of a ‘panoptic community’ as theorised by both Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault.[1]

The increasing use of internet in North African countries is perceived by their governments as a genuine threat to their rule. Thus, these governments embarked upon a comprehensive strategy to confront any perceived threat through strong state control, including state control over the internet and media. In the time of Covid-19, state control over the media has intensified, with these countries now witnessing the growth of practices associated with digital authoritarianism, practices that include the prosecution of bloggers and online commentators. Restrictions on information access and free expression not only violate the rights of citizens, but also they also violate the rights of journalists and the media to express and promote opinions and ideas.

The growing threat of protests has not gone unnoticed by North African states, with their keen awareness of the role social media played in the protests’ outbreak. Yet although technology has had an important role in facilitating protests, the authoritarian governments of North Africa are exploiting some of the same technological innovations to suppress popular mobilisation and dissent. Technology is used not only to quell protests, but also to tighten conventional methods of control. Thus, the use of digital repression and the standard means of repression, in ‘real life,’ – such as detention and torture – have concomitantly increased.

The intensification of digital authoritarian practices in North African countries was dictated by the renewed authoritarian tendencies of their governments, which saw the Covid-19 crisis as a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to install the foundations of digital authoritarianism. Such digital authoritarian practices can gain legitimacy among broad segments of society, due to the health goals such practices are purportedly after, and due to fear spreading throughout society. This is evident by the exceptional measures and electronic applications that have been adopted.

In order to approach and deconstruct the topic of this paper, we will rely on a scientific and critical methodology that takes into account the necessity of bringing together the pillars, indicators and arguments that support the growth of digital authoritarian practices in North African countries, in the context of Covid-19. Meanwhile, we will clarify the manifestations of digital authoritarianism by focusing on four countries: Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. On this basis, one can begin by asking, how do the governments of North African countries exploit panic and uncertainty to extend and enhance digital authoritarian techniques? How do these governments employ laws to restrict and tighten the screws on internet freedom and violate the principle of privacy; the overall objective remaining to silence, suppress, and eliminate critical voices? By highlighting cases from the countries under study, how is the suppression of internet freedom and the violation of privacy carried out? How do feelings of fear (regarding the imminent danger emanating from Covid-19 alongside the legitimate anxiety created by existing authoritarian legacies and new digital authoritarian practices in light of Covid-19) increase the likelihood of the transformation from temporary comprehensive electronic monitoring of citizens into permanent electronic monitoring? In pursuit of answering these legitimate questions, analysis of the subject was undertaken according to the following elements.

For the complete paper and pdf

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