Iron net: Digital repression in the Middle East and North Africa

European Council on Foreign Relations
| Jul 01, 2022

The European Council on Foreign Relations have published this paper 'Iron net: Digital repression in the Middle East and North Africa' on digital authoritarianism and surveillance technology in the Middle East and North Africa. This paper focuses on some of the key forms of digital repression in these regions, and analyses the main ways Europeans are responding to these trends - including through regulation and diplomacy - and makes recommendations for how they should address challenges.

For much of the world’s population, the digital realm has become central to the human experience. Yet access to information and essential services is often mediated by digital platforms, with or without users’ knowledge. This means that the governments, businesses, or individuals who dominate the digital realm have the potential to gain control over the public sphere.


  • Governments across the world have powerful digital tools to control and repress their populations, ranging from spyware and social media manipulation to facial recognition technology and mass surveillance.
  • Activists are working to protect themselves from such tools, but this is not a fair fight.
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the leading exponents of digital authoritarianism in the Middle East.
  • The two states have intensified their collaboration with China and Israel to gain greater access to advanced technologies.
  • The EU has responded to concerns about the risks of new technologies with a raft of regulations on digital markets and services, artificial intelligence, and technology exports.
  • The fact that European governments have been targeted, and implicated, in NSO Group’s Pegasus scandal should sound the alarm about the global threat of digital authoritarianism.
  • The EU should treat the threat as an urgent security and political concern."

It is nothing new for governments to repress their populations or seek to control the flow of information – authoritarians have always wanted to stop the spread of dangerous ideas and replace them with official narratives. And they have always sought information about citizens by monitoring their activities. The difference now is that governments have an astonishing array of tools with which to achieve these goals – ranging from spyware to facial recognition technology and mass surveillance. And they can use these tools with little concern that they will be held accountable for doing so.

Read the full report here.

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