In my country’s first peaceful transition of power since independence from France in 1960, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani - a retired general and the Mauritanian army’s former chief of staff, and now our president-elect - claimed 52 percent of the vote.
It was smart.
President-elect Ghazouani’s backers, including his friend, the outgoing president (who took power in a coup in August 2008), could have had him win by almost any percentage they wanted. It is reassuring that they are wise enough to understand that, when it comes to voting percentages in democratic elections, 50s look better than 80s (of course, the outcome was never in question, since the regime picked Ghazouani to run).
The nation-wide Internet blackout in Mauritania came without warning the next day, on June 23, just as Ghazouani’s three main opponents were joining forces to protest the result, claiming in a press conference that "multiple irregularities... eliminated any credibility” in the election process.
Then-candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani joins the 52 percent, casting a ballot for himself. (photo courtesey AP)
The last message I sent to my family on that day was from my phone at 15:09 GMT. Then, my connection went dark. I dropped in the middle of a family conversation on social media. As it happens, we were discussing the results of the elections. The cut-off was as sudden as it was efficient: The tactic achieved a complete and immediate shut-down of political demonstrations or debate on social media. For me, personally, it was a major pain in the neck; my work was dead, as I rely on the Internet, and like most people, I was upset to find myself suddenly disconnected from family and friends. There was no public debate, not even a public announcement to allow the people to save their work online, make back-ups or otherwise quickly wrap things up.
Later on that day, I connected through someone's DSL at 17:59 to send a message to my brother, Yahdih, and my two nephews, who were abroad to tell them that the Internet was out. But the government wasn’t finished: They took out landline connections later that day, too, and only restored them later to a few businesses (based on criteria that weren’t clear to me).
Ten days later - on July 3rd, at around 13:30 - my nephew called to tell me that the Internet was back. At that point, I didn’t know whether to curse the powers that be for depriving me of the Internet for so long, or to praise the government for graciously giving it back, as it was made incontrovertibly clear to all of us that no one could compel them to turn it back on.
These are archaic measures, the authoritarians' of the world's last gasp. Technology promises to surpass governments’ ability to act this way, rendering the modus operandi we are used to in this part of the world not just unacceptable, but unsustainable. In short, old-school leaders like ours won’t know what hit them!
While we hope for the best with President-elect Ghazouani, his roots are "old school." He is a long-serving military officer and long-time cog in the old regime, having held office as defense minister since the 2008 coup. His candidacy for president was backed by the military and its allies - businessmen and powerful tribal leaders who have exclusively shared the spoils of power in this country since the prior coup of 1978, which deposed the first president.
During the presidential campaign, Mauritanians joked about a “peaceful transfer of power” between military officers, which gives you some idea of both our politics and our national sense of humor.
But those who voted for Ghazwani, by and large, were not thinking about change. Mauritanians are practical people who simply cannot afford to vote for a candidate who will not win. I visited several tribal meetings outside of the capital, Nouakchott, before the election, and the sense in those meetings was that the regime would win either way - in the election, or in another coup somewhere down the road - and so it was better to be among the ones who helped the regime win in order that their communities and businesses might benefit.
And so it was in the two small villages my family is from, where 405 of the 579 votes were cast for Ghazouani. Some of these votes were cast as favors to family members who are either government employees or businessmen who depend on the government, knowing how vulnerable their positions are. Many government employees live in fear of being fired or transferred to the “parking lot,” as we call it in Mauritania, where they have no job. Businessmen, similarly, understand that they can be ruined by the government at any time.
This status quo has lasted decades - but it can’t last. Which brings us back to the Internet.
Within a few years, it looks like it will not be up to our government when to turn the Internet on and off. The switch will reside somewhere else, far away from the reach of governments that use access to the Web to control people’s behavior.
Google, Facebook and Elon Musk have plans to offer global WiFi using different technologies. Elon Musk’s Starlink has already started to build a low-orbiting, 12k-strong satellite constellation that will provide high-speed Internet to every corner on the planet (and away from the watchful eyes of authoritarian regimes).
Google's Project Skybender aspires to deliver global 5G WiFi access via solar-powered drones. (Photo courtesey of Google)
Then there is “Project Loon,” which offers another radical new approach to expanding Internet access via “a network of balloons, traveling along the edge of space.” As far as I know, “balloons flying 20 km up in the stratosphere” are outside the reach of any leader in my part of the world.
TechCrunch reported recently that Facebook is "testing solar-powered internet drones again — this time with Airbus.” The drone will beam down WiFi using “laser communications and millimeter wave systems.” Each drone will fly for three months at a time. Besides being state-of-the-art, it will be energy efficient, soaking up all the 5,000 watts it needs from the sun. It’s not a lot of power, equivalent to what is needed to run either three hair dryers or one top-notch microwave oven.
Authoritarian leaders find all of this terrifying. There is a history of fear in my part of the world, in particular, when it comes to new technologies.
I can still remember the revolution of satellite dishes around the middle of the 90s, when many governments in the region all but panicked, anticipating the loss of their monopoly over their one and only exclusive, unchallenged narrative. Before then, we only knew what State TV and Radio told us, all of which reflected the wisdom of whichever great leader at the time and reaffirmed how lucky we were to have him. Just to make sure their coverage was full, I remember the national radio office sending trucks to our poor neighborhood blaring songs of praise of the military officer on the top and explaining his projects for the country and the people.
In a desperate bid to combat the information tsunami driven by the satellite dish, some governments used swift legislation - or decrees, in many cases, due a lack of functioning legislative bodies - to criminalize free access to information via satellite TV (as they would later try to do with smartphones).
But most of all, they turned to powerful religious institutions to issue very stern fatwas against the use of satellite TV. The powerful late Saudi Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Bin BazBin Baz was one, declaring in one of his religious opinions:
“Nowadays it is common to find the so-called ‘TV dish’ that helps broadcast, from all around the world, all types of sedition, corruption, false doctrines, and the preaching of infidelity and atheism. It also broadcasts [images of] people drinking alcohol and other kinds of evil that is found outside of the country. I understand that this tool is used by many people, and that the parts are manufactured and sold in the country. Therefore, I have to warn and point out the seriousness of this tool and the urgent need to combat and avoid it. It is forbidden in Islam to use it in our homes, as it is to buy or sell it or manufacture it, because of the great damage and corruption it causes. It is forbidden in Islam to cooperate in the furtherance of sin and aggression, and the spread of infidelity among Muslims...“
The religious ban on satellite dishes was not the first, and not the last, attempt to stop technological advances from overrunning government control. A running list of other anti-technology fatwas that were later reversed was published by the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya and included bans on the telegram, the telephone, the TV, the video tape recorder, the bicycle(!) and the smartphone. One can understand how most of these could profoundly influence the narrative, but I cannot see where the bicycle fits in. According to the article, the bicycle is haram (forbidden) because it’s among the types of “amusement that distract from worshipping.”
The binary of an extremely devout people and an utterly corrupt and ungodly government seems symbiotic. The leadership of the Taliban, for example, famously banned the use of satellite TV.
I remember as a child during the Western Sahara War in the late 1970s, when my older sister “illegally” tuned into Radio of Sahara, risking the possibility of punishment because the music of the “enemy” was simply better than the propaganda that had been droning in loops on Mauritania’s national frequency. The song “Sahara ma Timba” (“The Sahara is Not for Sale”) still rings in my ears!
By all measures, the total Internet blackout in my country was draconian - collective punishment that touched the overwhelming majority, even the regime’s staunchest supporters.
Perhaps there are times when it is in the national interest to disconnect the country - for example, if there is an imminent threat to the public. Laws governing the parameters of Internet use should be up to the people, however, through freely and fairly elected representatives, and after an inclusive national debate. If grown people want to have a father-figure president that can put all the “kids” on a timeout if he suspects one of the kids of misbehaving, I would have to respect that hard-to-understand position.
As it is, however, disconnecting the country from the rest of the world feels more like an act of aggression, even war, against the people. This was the case during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, when the Russians augmented their bullets with a massive cyberattack that threw the Republic of Georgia into darkness and gave the whole world pause.
I don’t want to live in a country where my government has that kind of unchecked power. To date - and apart from a handful of well-worn propaganda clips on our national TV showing how happy people were with the Internet shut-off - the government hasn’t given any explanation, convincing or otherwise, why they shut off the Internet, or on what legal basis.
If we are a country ruled by law, we need to abide by the law and make sure human rights, including free and unfettered access to ideas and information - online, and otherwise - are respected.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a Mauritanian author. He was detained without charge at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp from 2002 until his release on October 17, 2016. His bestselling memoir, Guantánamo Diary, was translated into more than two dozen languages. He is currently working on a sequal, as well as several short stories. A feature film based on his book is also currently in the works, to be shot Fall 2019.