restricted access Civil Society and Cyberspace: Reflections on Dehai, Asmarino, and Awate

Websites created and sustained by Eritreans in diaspora over the past two decades stand as one of the most significant initiatives undertaken independently of the state. Because of the Eritrean state's domination of public life and orchestration of political expression and practice, the online public sphere created by the diaspora has no offline counterpart of free press or civil society within Eritrea. This essay argues that diaspora websites are an integral part of Eritrea's national politics. Eritreans use websites as an ambiguous and elastic space, which can serve at times to extend the nation and state sovereignty across borders and at other times can be used as an extraterritorial space, safe for civil society and dissent because of its location outside Eritrea and beyond the reach of the state. This shows that the Internet is not singular or universal in its effects on politics, but can produce quite opposite results, based on the ways people engage with it. Websites like Dehai, Asmarino, and Awate are public spaces where a range of political activities can take place. Websites bring publics and counterpublics into being, mobilize opinions and actions, and allow for collective debates and collaboration. Cyberspatial activities extend beyond the realm of the virtual, yielding material consequences, even as they transform people's understanding of the nation and their places in it. The Internet brings people into contact in a public agora, to voice their concerns and share their hopes. People's control of this public agora is perhaps the most fundamental political issue raised by the development of the internet.