Analysis: Middle Eastern unrest causes further internet disruption

The wave of protests that has swept across the Middle East and north Africa has continued to cause disruption to the internet.


 The internet has played a pivotal role in the wave of unrest across north Africa and the Middle East

Following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, unrest has also been reported in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Algeria. The internet has played a pivotal role during the unrest in many of these countries – with protestors using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to rally their causes, and authorities attempting to cut off or censor the internet to prevent the spread of opposition.

Although an air of uncertainty hangs over the entire region, the long-standing grievances and nature of opposition in each country differs considerably, as does its internet footprint and dependencies.

Last month, Capacity reported on the Egyptian government’s unprecedented move of cutting off the internet for approximately five days. The measure attracted worldwide condemnation and its actions have not yet been repeated on such a scale in other protesting countries. Following President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11 2011, Egypt has come under martial law. Despite attempts to bring stability to its economy, at the time of going to press, the Egyptian Stock Exchange remains closed.

Egypt provides an important fibre-optic corridor between Europe and Asia. According to Jim Cowie, CTO at global internet analyst Renesys, Egypt will have to work hard to restore trust with the online business community. “Egypt has worked very assiduously for about 10 years to build an information economy and develop as a crossroads for Middle Eastern information flow. This reputation was seriously damaged and now they have a lot of rebuilding to do,” said Cowie. “The authorities have yet to address the crisis in confidence created by the closure of the internet, and it is critical that they now start thinking about how to attract investment back into the country.”

While Bahrain may not be such a strategic connectivity point for the region, the country has still invested considerably in recent years to develop itself as an ICT hub. The small island off the west coast of Saudi Arabia has taken strides to diversify its mobile market and now has three operators serving a population of over a million.

Following demonstrations on February 17, the Bahraini royal family has appeared to back off from violently confronting opposition. However, the Bahrain Grand Prix – which generates an estimated $600 million in total revenues – has been rescheduled due to the protests.

“Bahrain is unique in the region. It is the regional HQ for Skype, whereas many of its neighbours have made concentrated efforts to ban the service. The Crown Prince has a very thoughtful long-term vision of growth, visible throughout its internet structure,” said Cowie. “Its internet has had periods of slow or impaired access but is unlikely to experience anything on the scale of what happened in Egypt.”

Libya has a far smaller internet footprint than other neighbouring countries. It has experienced severe internet disruption with two full internet outages over February 19–20. The protests against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule have been marred by violence.

“In Libya, there is essentially only one internationally connected service provider,” said Cowie. “If these outages had occurred in any other country so reliant on one operator, it would be natural to assume that a fibre line had been hit or a generator had failed. But with Libya, it is very possible that the outages were a direct order from the government attempting an internet curfew.”

Rumours that Algeria would also implement an internet takedown appeared unfounded at the time of going to press. Algerian providers receive international connectivity via submarine cables from Europe, served by Level 3, Telecom Italia, France Telecom and Tinet. With a small internet footprint, Yemen would be susceptible to a ‘kill switch’ strategy, but so far has only experienced slow or impaired access.

Economic growth and investment in the Middle East has suffered as a result of the unrest, with Egypt alone estimated to have incurred total losses of over $1.7 billion. As the world becomes less reliant on oil, the economy of the region will increasingly rest with trade and telecoms, making the next few years crucial to development.

Jawad Abbassi, founder and general manager of analyst firm Arab Advisors, points to the positive economic change that occurred after the unrest in eastern Europe in the late 1980s as evidence of what could happen next. “The capital markets and stock markets in the Middle East are all experiencing pressure. Whether this instability is for better or worse remains to be seen – hopefully the political reforms that happen next will benefit investment and economic growth in the region in the long term,” said Abbassi.

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