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Hackers in Arab Cities: Slow Internet and Girl Power in Algeria

[All link lead to French-language pages unless otherwise indicated]

Sabine is a journalist. Ophelia is a photographer and a filmmaker. Both are contributors to the former digital culture and data journalism outfit OWNI, which was a Global Voices media partner in France, and are currently shooting a Web documentary entitled ”Les hackers dans la cité arabe (Hackers in Arab Cities) about technology, applications, hacklabs and makerspaces that are blossoming nowadays in the Maghreb and the Middle East.

In this post, the second of our mini-series detailing their adventures, we feature excerpts of their interviews with young Algerian computer specialists whom they met at the Ecole Supérieure d'Informatique d'Alger (ESI, the IT Graduate School of Algiers).

Text by Sabine Blanc; Photos by Ophélia Noor; Excerpts chosen and edited by Claire Ulrich.

Yazid : A start-up in 54 hours only?

Yazid is 20 years old. Behind his shy voice, there is an adamant desire to establish his own start-up. Along with four other students in their final years of school, he has started working on creating a platform to connect between service providers and prospective clients. Yazid explains his entrepreneurial frenzy:

Internet est un terrain vierge, j’ai 5 à 10 ans pour monter ma start-up.

Internet is a blank state here, I have 5 to 10 years to establish my start-up.

To demonstrate his point and give us an example of the challenges ahead, he points out that his parents are paying 12 euros per month (about 16 US dollars) for a 256 KB Internet connection. A standard connection of 10 MB would therefore cost 30 euros per month (about 39 US dollars). Algeria infamously has the slowest Internet speed in the world, ranked last out of 176 countries last year. To get online in his dorm room in Algiers, he is secretly using his neighbour's connection.

A wall of the ESI scientific local club in Algiers. Photo by Ophelia Noor. Used with permission.

Aside from his project, Yazid tells us about another oddity of the Algerian Internet — there is no e-commerce. To be remunerated, there is a user account system through money-order with a point system: to get a contact, one has to purchase points. Needless to say, this obsolete system is angering many:

Il y a une grosse pression des chefs d’entreprise pour déréguler.

Business leaders are pushing hard to change this system

While waiting for the proverbial Godot, Yazid relies among other things on the support of the public cyberparc (National Agency for the Promotion and Development of Tech Parks) [fr]. Located in the new town of Sidi-Abdellah, 30 kilometers south of Algiers, that public organism is proof that the administration here has a real interest in information technology.

The location also host events such as Algeria 2.0. The first edition took place last year and a second one is scheduled this year. Similarly, a ‘start-up weekend’ was organized for this coming summer by the government. Among the sponsors for the events are the usual industry heavyweights Google and Microsoft.

But listening to youth complain about the administrative obstacles faced when attempting to establish a company, we can't help but wonder whether the pitch for the start up week-end “créer une start-up en 54 heures” (create a start-up in 54 hours) might be a silly joke by the schizophrenic government. Let's wait and see if it will stick to its promise of making life easier for entrepreneurs or as they usually do, keep it in the back burner.

Yasmine Bouchène : “It's the era of girl power!”

Even though she is just 22 years old, Yasmine Bouchène has already created two webzines – Jam Mag [fr] on ”geek culture and new technologies” and Vinyculture, ”a cultural webzine”. Now she wants to establish a company dedicated to marketing and communications. For Yasmine, black irony has become a daily sport.

Yasmine Bouchène, Algiers, December 2012. Photo by Ophelia Noor. Used with permission

The current digital situation in Algeria drives her to despair — the mere idea of beginning the process of starting up her agency makes her sweat:

e-Algeria 2013, un programme de numérisation du pays lancé voilà cinq ans, a été un échec. Le dossier de la 3G, c’est 5 ans d’effet d’annonce. Et le web n’existe pas dans la nomenclature administrative !

e-Algeria 2013, a digitisation programme launched in the country 5 years ago, turned out to be a fiasco. 3G was heralded 5 years ago. Not to mention that public administration lacks any web presence !

A few days after our discussion, she wrote a short piece [fr] on the launching of 3G in Somalia, while slamming the Algerian government:

En proie à une guerre civile depuis dix ans, la Somalie n’a pour autant pas ignoré le développement de son secteur économique, à commencer par les télécommunications, secteur qui compte des millions d’abonnés.

Marred by an ongoing civil war for ten years, Somalia didn't overlook the development of its economy, starting with telecommunications, a sector with millions of subscribers.

Une participante à l'atelier JerryCan à l'ESI d'Alger

A participant in the JerryCan workshop at the ESI in Algier. Photo by Ophelia Noor. Used with permission

The Algerian state seems to be winning the power struggle between the private and public sector via national provider Algeria Telecom. But things weren't always like this. The country also has its free tablet, the Eepad. The first and sole private access provider in Algeria entered the market in 1999, when competition was officially allowed. In 2003, it started offering ADSL followed by Assilabox, its Freebox.

Yasmine calls for caution when reading and analyzing the official number of Internet subscribers as claimed by the government. ”One should consider the figures of the IUT (Telecom International Union),” she says. According to them, only 14 percent of Algerians are using Internet in 2011.

Her spirits are lifted, however, when she speaks about women. Laughing at our astonishment in seeing so many girls at ESI, she brags:

C’est le girl power, on s’amuse bien ! Les années 90 nous ont beaucoup aidées : les féministes sont montées au combat et un socle d’idées est resté. La ministre de la Culture Khalida Toumi est une féministe, en poste depuis dix ans.

It's girl power, we are having a lot of fun. The 90′s helped us a lot: feminists lead the struggle and some core ideas have persisted. Culture Minister Khalida Toumi is a feminist, she has been in office for ten years.

Recently, some concessions were made by the government. ”They don't have a choice”, she points out. After 19 years serving in the government, ten of which as education minister, Boubekeur Benbouzid resigned from his post. A campaign entitled #BenBouzidDégage (Benbouzid clear off!) was launched on Twitter and Yasmina wants to believe that it was efficient.

The liberalization of media is apparently on its way and a new text is expected by mid-2013, Yasmine rejoices. [...] Yasmine recalls the difficulties in holding reunions in the past. After the state of emergency law n° 91-19 of 1991 was lifted, this law that rules over the right to hold peaceful meetings was enforced yet again later. It is a very strict law as Franck La Rue (United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of the Freedom of Expression & Opinion) assessed in a mission report issued last June. But Yasmine explains:

La vraie censure, c’est la lenteur de la connexion Internet. Il y a eu des tentatives de censure lors des émeutes : ils n’avaient pas grand chose à censurer. Le gars qui est à 512 ko… Mais ça montrait qu’ils avaient peur.

The real censure is the slow speed of the Internet connection. During the riots, some attempts at censure were made. But there wasn't much to censure. The guy was using 512 kilo octets/sec internet speed … but this showed that they (the authorities) were afraid.

Original article published on 28 January, 2013 [fr] by  on their blog “Hackers in Arab Cities”. Read the first post in this mini-series by clicking here.

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