The Arab Spring has given new impetus to an increasingly active online diaspora’s hope for change. The regime, which has totally cordoned off the country and continues its indiscriminate repression of the population, is somewhat overwhelmed by the Net’s influence on Eritreans based abroad. It is now waging its propaganda war on social networks. Pro-opposition websites have been targeted for cyberattacks on an unprecedented scale.
Self-censorship, difficult Web access, and limitless terror
In this totally freedom-deprived country whose privately owned media were shut down in September 2001, the Internet remains the only space left where Eritreans are free to voice their opinions. Its use, however, is still very limited. Dictator Isaias Afewerki has imposed a climate of terror that has led the few Eritreans brave enough to connect despite technical obstacles and surveillance in the cybercafés to rely on self-censorship (Read the Eritrea chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
Leading diaspora websites such as Assenna.com, Asmarino.com and Awate.com are inaccessible mainly because of the slow bandwidth speed. No independent site is currently operated from Eritrea. Those living abroad who post writings on “banned” websites often have to do so anonymously as a security measure.
Not just content to terrorize his country’s population, the President is trying to target exiled dissidents with the assistance of certain friendly foreign governments. Sudan-based Eritrean editorial writer and journalist Jamal Osman Hamad, editor of the Internet website adoulis.com, was released by the Sudanese security forces in Khartoum on December 16, 2011 after being detained more than eight weeks. Known for his criticisms of his country’s leader, he was arrested on October 24, 2011, less than a week after Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki paid an official visit to Sudan – a visit during which the latter and his Sudanese counterpart inaugurated the opening of a road linking their two countries. On October 17, 300 Eritreans had been expelled to their native country without their cases being referred to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Are the new media generating an Eritrean Spring?
The regime took a very dim view of the Arab uprising and the fall of presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mouammar Kadhafi, whom it supported. It forced the state-owned media to ignore these events and was prepared to cut off Internet access, just as the Egyptian regime had done during the height of the Revolution, in the event of domestic unrest. The regime also has been concerned about the social networks’ potential as a rallying tool for diaspora Eritreans. Unlike their fellow citizens who remained in the country, diaspora Eritreans are much more up-to-date on the latest Arab revolution developments, which is reviving hopes for a political change in Africa’s “North Korea.” The movements organized by the opposition in the last few months in streets around the globe, and in diplomatic channels, are a new phenomenon.
From March to May 2011 in particular, exiled Eritrean communities held peace rallies to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence and to protest against the dictatorial regime. In Australia, Great Britain, the United States, Egypt, and Ethiopia, the slogan was “ENOUGH!” These demonstrations were coordinated primarily by the Facebook group “Ashab Yourid Isqat Isaias Afewerki” (“The People Want Isaias Afewerki to Step Down”).
Opposition Eritreans living abroad have also decided to involve Eritreans who had remained at home in a special way. Youth groups such as Eritrean Youth for Change (EYC) and Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change (EYSC) called upon Eritreans in the homeland to “empty the streets” of Asmara as part of the “Arbi Harnet” (Freedom Friday) campaign launched in early February 2012.
Daniel Gebremichael, one of the campaign organizers, stressed on Awate.com: “We also needed a channel of communication between diaspora activists and the people back home to begin to open up a bit. So you can say that [this movement] was inspired by the Arab Spring, but was heavily influenced by the political culture in Eritrea.” He added that hundreds of phone calls were made by volunteers to Asmara and other cities in the country, and text messages and emails were sent to inform Eritreans about this campaign and invite them to rally. The 10,000 plus subscribers of the EYSC and EYC Facebook pages were contacted. YouTube video clips were uploaded to convince people to take part in this call for democratic changes in the country. Daniel Gebremichael believes that the effort produced positive results. The initiative apparently received messages of support from people contacted on-site. Most of them who could be reached were so frightened that they just listened. But the important thing is that the message got through. The announced goal was to call 5% of Eritrea’s more than 230,000 telephone lines.
Yemane Gebreab, the President’s top political advisor, and leader of the incumbent party, was cornered after being spotted in a Manhattan pub by young Eritreans who wanted to question him about people gone missing in the country, and who criticized his support of the dictator. The event was filmed, posted on YouTube, and – to the authorities’ consternation – relayed by thousands of members. According to Awate.com, various forms of the video have been viewed tens of thousands of times: a hard blow for the regime’s propaganda machine.
Start of a cyberwar?
The government is still waging an online offensive against such criticisms. Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu, and Yemane Gebreab, are coordinating online propaganda, disinformation initiatives on the Internet, cyberattacks against opposition sites, and crackdowns and pressure on the regime’s opponents. They have decided to occupy the social networks’ terrain and to confront their opponents there by disseminating their own pro-regime messages. One of the Facebook pages concerned is Eritrea First, which, as of early March 2012, boasts 2,500 friends and whose motto is “The nation always comes first.”
An unprecedented wave of cyberattacks struck several websites critical of the regime in early December 2011. Most of the opposition sites, including Assenna.com, Awate.com, Asmarino.com, were blocked for several days. Hackers allegedly attacked these sites’ databases in a vain attempt to delete their archives, but pro-government sites such as Meskerem.net, Alenalki.com, and Dehai.org were spared – a new censorship episode with which it would be difficult not to connect the Asmaran regime.
These attacks were perfectly timed, when the targeted sites were speculating on the President’s end-of-year speech, and the UN Security Council was broadening the sanctions imposed on Eritrea for its presumed support of Somalia’s Islamist insurgents.