US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Why Egypt Shut Down the Internet

in Program

We have seen this story before: an authoritarian regime is
challenged by its youthful population. TV stations are shut down, border
security is strengthened, and the government tightly regulates the flow of
information out of the country.

The protests that followed a disputed 2009 election in Iran were among
the first examples of a ruling regime’s monopoly on mass information being
challenged by new Internet communication tools. Suddenly, the protesters were
on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites, sharing detailed
information about what was happening, directly as they saw it. They detailed
the violence and the rage, the hope for change and the despair of their
comrades. This burst of information was such a surprising event that those
outside Iran didn’t know how to channel the influx of information, and those
inside Iran weren’t able to fully turn off the spigot.

In Egypt
today we see a similar situation evolving. However, instead of blocking access to social
networking sites, like we saw in Iran,
Egypt
simply pulled the plug on the Internet, something that many thought wasn’t
possible. Renesys, an organization which monitors global web traffic, said that
“this is a completely different situation from the modest internet manipulation
that took place in Tunisia…or
Iran,
where the internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make internet
connectivity painfully slow. The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have
essentially wiped their country from the global map.”[1]

How the authorities managed to disconnect from the Internet is
still somewhat shrouded in mystery at this point. Given the Egyptian
authorities’ centralized control and relatively limited number of internet
providers, it appears that they demanded that the four central internet
providers (Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat
Misr) essentially pull the plug in one coordinated effort. Within
minutes, “approximately 3,500 individual BGP [border gateway protocol] routes
were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could
continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt’s service providers.”[2]

But can they truly hope to contain that information for even
a limited period of time? Even though Egypt took more extreme measures than
Iran or Tunisia, people found work-arounds: dial-up internet connections based
outside of Egypt were still working, some organizations faxed information into
universities and other companies, and landline telephones still worked,  with evidence to suggest that people called
friends in other countries, asking them to post information on their behalf.

The
protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, are examples of an important
new political trend: revolutions finding homes and allies both on the streets
and on the Web. Both the Egyptian and Iranian experiences share several
commonalities that may provide a guide for assessing the possibility of future
social networking revolutions. First, both Egypt
and Iran
are countries with youthful populations, with an average age of 24. To them, Internet
access and social networking have become a normal part of daily life, no longer
a privilege for the affluent. This is becoming the case in many developing countries,
even those where Internet connectivity is not as widespread or stable.

Second,
in countries where bloggers are routinely harassed by police, as we saw with
the four-year detention of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil, it provides a safe place to
congregate when face to face meetings are not possible.

Third,
social networks provide a direct feed to those outside those countries looking
in, providing a real-time sense of hope, fear, and despair, and exposing the
truth about current events that may or may not be getting attention from
government-owned media entities.

Finally,
and perhaps most importantly, it allows its users to remain, for the most part,
anonymous. Rallies can be organized and protests can be highlighted without
requiring a central leader whose arrest could deflate the protest. However,
governments are not inept: they are learning to make social networking work for
them, and they can and do attempt to identify users based on their ISP address.

Access
to social media should not be seen as a metric for a revolution’s success, but the
attention that it can bring to the critical issues, both internally and
internationally, can help to keep support levels high.

Turning
off the Internet, as Egypt
has done could backfire in terms of its relations with other countries. The idea
of an American ally objectively cutting off its country from the rest of the
world is contrary to American foreign policy. As President Obama said during
his YouTube interview following the State of the Union, “I think that it
is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate
grievances…there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that
we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people
being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with
each other and express their concerns. And I think that is no less true in the
Arab world than it is here in the United States.”

How
will this revolution play out? It is too early to tell how events of the last
week will impact Egypt
in the long-term, but chances are that we will have a front row tweet to the
action.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: “Arabic Blaqckberry” by Danny McL, 2010

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmcl/5226911233/

 


[1]
“Condemnation over Egypt’s
internet shutdown” Financial Times,
28 January 2011.

[2] “Egypt
Leaves the Internet” Renesys Blog, 27 January 2011.

 

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