Printer Friendly

Cyberspace across the Sahara: computing in North Africa.

Spanning 7.2 million square kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and encompassing the Great Saharan Desert and Nile River Valley, North Africa embraces Mauritania, Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Charting the development of information technology (IT) is as challenging as traversing the souks, the labyrinthine ancient marketplaces.

IT use in North African countries is at lower levels than might be expected from observations of other developing parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (Table 1). Internet connectivity is particularly low, but growth rates indicate progress. As of July 1995, there were 214 registered Internet hosts in Egypt, a 311% increase over 1994; 65 in Tunisia, a 41% increase; and 16 in Algeria, a 120% increase [2]. Research and educational institutions host the majority of existing Internet connections, with little use by business people. A regional communications network has been planned by the Egyptian government (RITSENET), but implementation is still in progress [7]. Long promised efforts to link Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia via MAGHREBNET, an X.25 network, have yet to amount to much. Mauritania, Morocco, Libya and Western Sahara have no registered hosts.

All North African countries together have about .76% of the world's main telephone lines, and connectivity is often hampered by poor telecommunications infrastructure outside major cities. Almost all computer networking is concentrated within these urban areas. Average telephone penetration hovers around four lines per hundred population, well below the world average of 10.3 [9]. Computer penetration levels are yet another one to two orders of magnitude lower. IT has not touched the lives of most North Africans.

While basic economic statistics partly account for slow progress, other factors also hinder region-wide diffusion. Current IT use is centered within small, well-educated elites, many with degrees obtained abroad, who are aware of the benefits and potentials of using the technology and have the language skills needed to participate in worldwide internetworking. These elites often seem more interested in communications with people in countries outside the region than within.

Similarities in culture and history aside, the area suffers more generally from a lack of extensive modern IT-enabled bonds between next-door neighbors, at least partly because of political differences between different ruling regimes and the obsession each has with security. Traditional rote-learning educational methods do not foster innovation or change, and low literacy levels make extensive computer use difficult. The market for Arabized software is hampered by pervasive pirating from Europe and North America, since free copies of programs, even in a foreign language, make it difficult for strong, indigenous software industries to develop.

This article briefly examines the status of IT in the five Mediterranean North African countries, and then returns to some of the factors that appear to constrain extensive use.


The Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria is suffering from the effects of civil war, hampering efforts at IT absorption. The largest country in North Africa, three times the size of Texas, Algeria places third in population but has fallen to fourth in teledensity (Table 1). Civil war is damaging the telecommunications infrastructure and discouraging foreign business. GNP growth rate has fallen to 1% or less. Computer vendors report minimal activity, and foreign investment has been curtailed despite low import duties. Since the government devotes extensive resources to domestic security, there is little thought of a national informatics infrastructure. At universities, a shortage of books and journals contributes to the increasing isolation of Algerian researchers. Many higher-degreed people emigrate; there are few jobs for those who stay. The current political unrest reverses the developments of the 1980s, which featured IT development, market liberalization, and state decentralization. During this period, the largest state firms, SONATRACH (oil and gas), SIDER (steel), and SONELGAZ (power utility) were computerized. In 1990, it was estimated that 400 mainframes and minis, and 5,000 microcomputers, served the government, military, financial, and customs sectors [6].

Algeria's telephone system consists of 962,247 main lines, of which about 740,000 are in use. This yields 3.7 lines per 100 inhabitants, filling about 60% of customer demand. Algeria is connected to the Internet through the Centre d' Etudes et de Recherche d'Information Scientifique et Technique (CERIST) in Algiers via a 9600bps leased line with the Istituto del Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Pisa, Italy. Within CERIST, about 15 computers serving 70 users have the potential to connect to the network [8]. However, low line speed limits use to one or two connections at any one time. Users dialing in from outside CERIST have only UUCP access.


The Arab Republic of Egypt has achieved a comparatively significant level of IT development due to relatively strong government support and university-based networks. It has the largest population and the largest post-secondary educated population and university community in the Arab world. Although Egypt has the highest teledensity (5%) in North Africa, it also has the lowest GNP per capita.

The small Egyptian computer industry is based on PC assembly and an emerging software industry that has achieved some success with Arabized software, generating exports to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East, primarily the Arabian Peninsula. The first locally produced PC compatibles were procured by the Ministry of Defense and manufactured by the state-owned Banha Electronics Company. The Egyptian government has adopted a demand-pull strategy since the [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] early 1980s by creating demand within the state sector to spur assimilation of computer technology. By 1992, government procurement accounted for 50% of mainframe, 40% of minicomputer, and 25% of PC sales.

Egypt's PC hardware market amounted to $61.8 million during 1994, adding 36,350 units to an installed base of 194,300, a 23% increase over 1993 [4]. The total software market grew to $33.5 million in revenues [5], 55% of which comes from reselling imported software. Locally developed software earned $15.1 million in revenues, with about 25% from exports [5].

Improvements in the telecommunications infrastructure have taken place in the past 15 years. Exchange capacity increased from 510,000 to 3,123,500 lines between 1981 and 1994. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is working with ARENTO, the Egyptian national telephone monopoly, to improve management practices hampering efficient operations. USAID is also helping to fund more lines, switching centers and a national operations center. Despite the fact that the government regulates and taxes fax usage, the number of installed fax machines rose from 374 to 25,000 over the period between 1986 and 1994.

The state-sponsored Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Center (RITSEC) promotes networking, software development, and education of computer professionals through conferences, training programs, and its Web-accessible Information Technology Service [7]. The Cabinet Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) has installed computerized decision support centers in each of the 27 Egyptian governorates to assist high-level decision makers. The Egyptian National Scientific and Technical Information Network has provided the technical community with document retrieval services since the early 1980s. Full Internet services, including email, gopher, and at least eight Web servers, are available through the Foreign Relations Coordination Unit at Cairo University, the American University in Cairo, and the Cabinet IDSC. Egypt specialists, students abroad, and the expatriate community supply more online information from sites outside the country than is provided within Egypt, a common occurrence among countries with poor information distribution channels. Internet connectivity is via a 64Kbps leased line to Montpelier, France, but login is often difficult due to the small number of communications ports available.


The Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya seems to have the lowest nongovernment IT penetration. Current information is difficult to obtain, due to the UN trade sanctions imposed in 1992 and to the pervasive control of an authoritarian government. Libya can boast the highest GNP per capita (based on oil revenues) and the smallest population in North Africa, but has no Internet connectivity.

Computers, telephones, fax machines, and other communications devices owned by Libyan citizens or foreigners must be registered with the government. Libya has a relatively modern telecommunications infrastructure that provides some communications throughout the country and apparently good service along the Mediterranean coast. Although this system has the capacity to serve 10 million subscribers, there are reportedly only about 370,000 lines available to individual subscribers, a density of about 4.8 lines per 100 people. This reflects the under-utilization of the telephone network by citizens and its heavy subscription by the government and military.


The Kingdom of Morocco ranks second in population after Egypt and GNP growth after Tunisia, but its low teledensity (2.5%) and GNP per capita retard IT growth. To remedy the lack of telephone lines, the Office National des Posts et Telecommunications (ONPT) is planning to double the entire telecommunications infrastructure by the year 2000 with a $1.5 billion investment. More than 200 firms sell hardware, software, and consulting services, employing over 16,000 professionals and 3,000 engineers [10]. Several factors are working to promote IT business prospects, including International Monetary Fund and World Bank investments, timely external debt repayments, and profitable Moroccan export industries.

In 1990, the Finance Ministry computerized its budgetary process, developed front-end software for database access, and automated personnel records. This process is now being extended to other ministries within the Monarchy. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are used by municipalities and the Gendarme Royale. A new technical institute, L'Ecole Nationale Superieure d'Informatique et d'Analyse Des Systemes is the first in Morocco to offer advanced degrees in information management and software development. Morocco is one venue for the Maghrebian Information Processing Society (MIPS), which promotes IT education and research in the Maghreb region (Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Western Sahara) with annual conferences and tutorials.

But there are high customs and import taxes on software, documentation, and licenses. Management complains that staff does not make effective use of computer equipment, and lack of technical competence can cause decision makers to choose systems that do not meet their needs. Morocco is not connected directly to the Internet, but the (.MA) top-level domain has been declared. Network users have UUCP access to EuNet in France [8]. The ONPT and l'Ecole Mohamadia d'Ingenieurs are working with a commercial Internet provider to establish access soon [3].


The Republic of Tunisia may have the highest per capita level of IT in North Africa. It is the smallest, barely larger than the State of Georgia, with an urban teledensity of 8.2%, 4.5% overall. Tunisia has the highest GNP growth rate in the region (2.6%), and the highest high school graduation rate.

With few natural resources, Tunisia looks to other means to boost its economy against the discomforting presence of neighboring Algeria and Libya. Openness to the outside world, a strong tourism industry, and ministerial support for computing in government have permitted IT to develop relatively quickly. In 1987, new government policy spurred growth with tax breaks, reduced customs duties, and relaxed import restrictions for information system purchases. The Centre National de L'Informatique developed a National Informatics Policy in 1988, now is being implemented at the ministries and universities.

However, after 18 years of computing, Tunisian entrepreneurs still refer to their country as an "adolescent" in IT maturity. They predict a transition from a supplier-driven to a demand-driven IT market, based on education and new management practices to produce an informed clientele. But the current IT market is small and saturated and competition among dealers is sharp; price wars threaten profit margins and firms must offer unique services to survive. Partnerships with European telecommunication equipment suppliers Ericsson, Siemens, and Alcatel have been negotiated to build local production facilities. Tunisia does not want to be considered a cheap labor site, so joint ventures must include a provision which adds value to the Tunisian economy. For example, Ericsson's plant in Tunis must train Tunisian engineers to master its production technology.

Tunisia is connected to the Internet through a 19.2Kbps leased line between L'Institut Regional Des Sciences Informatiques et Des Telecommunications and L'Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique in France using IP. An upgrade to 64Kbps is planned for the third quarter of 1995. Five subdomains have been declared using 14 class C addresses [8]. About 65 hosts are connected, linking almost 1,000 users. Traffic has gone from 50 Mbyte/month in 1991 to 1.8 Gbyte/month in early 1995, with email, ftp, and gopher applications. The number of Web servers in Tunisia has been constrained to only a few sites due to the low speed of the international line. However, thanks to the efforts of expatriate Tunisian students, engineers, and academics, there are at least 25 Tunisia-related home pages on the Web, but only five originate from Tunisia itself.

Regional Problems of IT Assimilation

Political and security issues, slow growth of incomes, the lack of regional social and economic integration, and low teledensity rates make absorption of IT problematic in North Africa. In households with annual incomes of less than $3,000, purchase of a $1,500 computer with networking capability is out of the question. Restrictive government trade policies, questions of ownership and control, and lack of technical expertise have limited IT diffusion [1]. North Africa operates 27% of the roughly 1,100 hosts in the Arab Middle East, which account for only 0.016% of all registered Internet hosts worldwide [2].

Less Obvious Conditions

Besides these and other measurable factors, there are less obvious conditions that may influence IT assimilation in North Africa.

Language. While the spoken dialect of a Moroccan might be incomprehensible to an Egyptian, all North African countries share the same written language, Arabic. The French colonial legacy left its language in widespread use in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, more so than the Italian legacy in Libya or the British in Egypt. Nevertheless, Arabic remains the language of written communication, including newspapers and educational material. But the complexity of Arabic has yet to come to terms with IT, a lingo-centric technology favoring English and other Latin alphabet-based Indo-European languages. Arabization of network interfaces and software still slows new product appearances. The lack of enforced standards in Arabization and keyboard layout persists, causing further delays in product integration, despite the 1985 recommendations of the Arab Standards and Metrology Organization.

Education. Literacy levels in North Africa range from 45% in Egypt to 65% in Tunisia, severely hampering widespread computer use. Furthermore, IT assimilation by a small percentage of the educated portion of the population creates a new ledge above the already-existing gap between the well-educated elite and the poorly educated masses. The implications of this could be severe considering this gap has been in part responsible for fueling religious militancy in Algeria and Egypt. In addition, current educational systems, particularly in conservative regions, do not foster innovation or change, but harken back to traditional methods of rote learning. This has created a passive-recipient learning environment in which the capacity for accepting and creating change is limited.

Employment Impact. North Africa abounds with cheap labor. In the minds of many, this reduces the need for and the importance of improving labor productivity through expensive imported technologies. For example, in the extreme case of Egypt, with its huge government establishment and laws making it practically impossible to lay off state employees, there exists an incompatibility between the labor-saving nature of IT and the employment-insuring nature of the public-service sector.

Government and Politics. Although the state is often the best customer for IT, bureaucratic regulations in North Africa complicate equipment purchases. These include the complex process of bidding on government-issued tenders, the requirement that local agents of foreign vendors handle all business negotiations, and import duties or value-added taxes.

Military establishments are also factors affecting IT use. For example, in Egypt they can preempt bandwidth in cellular service ranges; in Tunisia Global Positioning Systems are considered military hardware; and in Algeria the mobile NMT network has been shut down for two years for security reasons.

While North African countries follow different schools of Islamic jurisprudence and may contain sizable religious minorities, they share a religious culture, officially reinforced by some governments, which emphasizes allegiance to traditional values. There is a concern that IT, particularly Internet connectivity, could weaken the enforcement of these values.

IT constitutes a mechanism of empowerment to its users that can have both reinforcing and debilitating effects on the stability of society and its values. While this might be a relatively minor issue for Western societies accustomed to constant and rapid change, it has far-reaching implications in North Africa. There, challenge to long-standing traditions could lead to social dissent. Such conflicts can only be resolved by either compromising some of the country's social or political values or compromising IT uses.

This empowerment also has a political dimension. To maintain political power, North African governments assert control over all means of communication, ranging from the mass media to fax machines. Internet connectivity provides a medium for the uncontrolled dissemination of information, threatening to alter the often fragile relationship between strong centralist states and their populations.

This creates a dilemma for policy makers and clerics in countries where censorship of movies, TV programs, and magazines is an important tool for maintaining political and religious values and control. Traditional media, such as newspapers, film, and books are easily monitored because they are tangible, and censorship can be applied since the distribution occurs on one-to-many platforms.

However, it is difficult to enforce such censorship when the medium is a many-to-many platform. Here the electronic transfer of images can take place without detection by authorities. TVRO satellite dishes, which have mushroomed on rooftops and balconies all over the Middle East, allow capture of the TV signal from many sources, to the chagrin of local authorities. The Internet may also pose this threat when national governments no longer control the single Internet gateway into or Out of their countries. The current limited capacity and bandwidth of most North African links make transfer of images a very slow process. However, in text mode the Internet introduces the capacity to publicly express opinions, anonymously or otherwise, that could be antagonistic to the prevalent socio-political system with less fear of repercussions.


The computer evolved overwhelmingly in the West in a manner compatible with Western mentality, language, cultural and political values. When IT is injected into cultures such as those of North Africa, it comes loaded with an embedded virtual value system. There may be conflicts of social, political, and economic dimensions that have to be resolved for widespread assimilation to take place. IT may promote more efficient management and business practices, change living standards, encourage literacy, and increase trade, but are North African governments willing to accommodate these and other effects of freer access to information? Restrictive governments oppose the destabilizing potential of innovative technologies and information access, and governments don't want to lose control of communications channels. There seems to be a virtual tug of war taking place between conserving and innovating forces over the impending information revolution, the result of which may determine the future of cyberspace in North Africa.


Much of our information was gathered during the course of several trips to North African countries from 1992 to 1994, and from conversations with many business, academic, and government officials. We wish to express our thanks for their cooperation. We would also like to thank Jomaa Ben Hassein, Grey Burkhart, Gerrold Green, Nermeen Ismail, and Diane Goodman for their constructive reviews.


1. Goodman, S. Press, L., Ruth, S., Rutkowski, A. The global diffusion of the internet: patterns and problems. Commun. ACM 37, 8 (Aug. 1994), 27-31.

2. Internet Domain Survey. [], July, 1995.

3. Internet coming to Morocco. Middle East Economic Digest (Aug. 1995), 22.

4. Ismail, A. The Egyptian PC Market, 1994-1999. International Data Corporation, Framingham Mass. 1995. Cited with permission.

5. Ismail, A. Software in Egypt, 1994. International Data Corporation, Framingham, Mass., 1995. Cited with permission.

6. Lardjane, M. The computer systems market in Algeria. Report for the Commercial Office, U.S. Embassy. Algiers, 1990.

7. RITSEC Regional Development [Http://]. Directory ritsechp/ritsnet.html. April 1995.

8. Sellami, K. Networking efforts in the Maghreb region of Northern Africa. In Proceedings of INET '95 Conference. Hawaii, 1995.

9. Tarjanne, P. Africa Telecom '94 Forum, opening presentation. Cairo, 1994.

10. Temsamani, N. Building technological foundations for regional growth: Some Moroccan experiences. Ministry of Administrative Affairs. Morocco, 1992.

Youssef Nassef ( is a member of the Egyptian Diplomatic Corps; Ann K. Danowitz ( is senior research specialist; and Seymour E. Goodman is professor of MIS and a member of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Association for Computing Machinery, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Danowitz, A.K.; Nassef, Y.; Goodman, S.E.
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Dec 1, 1995
Previous Article:Property and speech: who owns what you say in cyberspace?
Next Article:Ethical concepts and information technology.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters