What happened on Jan 27, 2011 in Egypt was remarkable. In the largest attempt in Internet history, the Egyptian government have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.
‘Critical European-Asian fibre-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now. But every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut-off from the rest of the world’, says one blogger.
On the 25th of Jan 2011, thousands had marched in demonstrations across Egypt’s governorates, with efforts believed to have been largely dependent on the internet and mobile SMS texting. The ‘Day of Anger’ page proliferated in social media weeks earlier with over 90,000 supporters for the event on one Facebook group.
It was also the first time mobile services and websites were blocked at separate times and places by the government. The three mobile services in Egypt – Vodafone, Mobinil and Itisalat – were cut off for a few hours on the first day of the protests. Protesters reported loss of mobile connection in Tahrir square – the heart of down-town Cairo where the largest protests took place. Egypt security forces also blocked three websites, just a few hours after the start of the demonstrations: twitter, albadil and Al-Dostour (a famous opposition independent newspaper). Two days later, Facebook was reported down.
Egypt security services have been known for years for their strong ability to ‘monitor in silence’ the Internet, albeit leaving a relaxed policy for most sites to operate without blockage. Talk in Egyptian media and within the ICT ministry have taken place about the possibility of blocking some social media sites like Facebook. But the night of 27 Jan 2011 was the first time that the government actually blocked almost the entirety of the Internet, in an attempt to curb the larger mass protests .
Power of Internet or People?
The unprecedented use of Internet and mobile phones and the government back-lash raise a few questions: are the Arab governments getting that weak? or is information communication technology, particularly the Internet, becoming very strong? Philip Howard (2010) argues in ‘The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy’ that no change in dictatorships can happen today without the Internet, drawing from the example of Iran back in 2009. The story of Egypt-the largest population in the Middle East – could be a case testing whether his argument stands.
Tunisian mass protests toppled president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali earlier in January 2011, bringing inspiration to many Arab countries. Similar protests happened in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt simultaneously calling to end unemployment, corruption, police brutality and increase of prices. Many believe that the so called ‘revolution of Anger’ in Egypt was largely inspired by Tunis.
But a few issues remain unclear. Has the Internet’s capacity to allow sharing news across social media and representation of public sentiments, created a sense of ‘collective emotions’ that contagiously spread across the Arab World? Or have the Arab peoples been fed up for decades making revolting inevitable with or without the Internet? Similarly, can dictatorships control attempts to topple their regimes with their power over the Internet? ‘The Internet blackout in Egypt shows that a country with strong control over its Internet providers can force to pull their plugs. But is it enough to stop the anger? And will the mass protests stop weaken without Internet and telecommunication service?
The future of the Internet – like the future of Egypt – remains to be seen.