On Friday, 28 January, the Egyptian government shut the door on its population’s access to the internet. How this was done is still unclear. Initial reports mentioned phoned commands to service providers. A more recent story posits a single internet “kill switch,” flipped by the regime.
The reason why Mubarak’s minions shut down the web is no mystery. They were afraid of it. The causes of this fear – never explained or even admitted – bear reflecting on.
Picture these web-phobic bigwigs 20 years ago. They towered over the information landscape, lords of all they surveyed. Egypt had few newspapers, all controlled by the regime. The same was true of TV, with a vengeance. It was all Mubarak, all the time. The population, in any case, had a high incidence of illiteracy, and owned few TV sets. Power, in that golden age, was a game for a handful of elite players. Information was produced by them and for them – no one else need apply.
Today the environment has changed beyond recognition. The digital age – what I’ve called the fifth wave of information – has swept over Egypt, transforming scarcity into overabundance, simplicity into complexity, and a passive mass audience into a public which talks back. It was the roar of this ungainly monster, the many-throated public, which terrified the power brokers of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Demonstrations planned after Friday prayers in many Egyptian cities were the immediate cause of the shutdown. But let’s inhabit the skins of the old men who ruled Egypt on 28 January. What were they thinking? Very likely, that they were snatching away the means of communication and organization from the unruly public: that they had flipped a switch and cut off the public’s voice.
The fifth wave, however, isn’t just the internet or even mobile devices (also shut down by the government). Streams of information still surrounded and invaded Egypt, beyond the ability of political power to control. These conveyed to the protesters a story in which they, rather than the politicians, emerged in the leading role.
Shutting down the web made history in the worst way. At home and abroad, the move conveyed a feeling of crisis and panic in the regime. But its most important effect by far was to create a silence – filled, almost immediately, by Al Jazeera, which among its many agendas has pursued a long-running campaign to de-legitimize Egypt’s ruling clique.
The dominance and influence of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian uprising is a worthy subject of research and study. The network kept the story alive by streaming it to every corner of the globe. From Davos, Switzerland, I could witness street violence in Cairo on my laptop, via Al Jazeera in English; many others in that self-important place did the same. My guess, too, is that Al Jazeera was instrumental in framing the event to the world as a struggle between idealistic youth and a vicious thugocracy. It led Western public opinion – including, it may be, in the White House – to a tipping point favoring the end of the Mubarak reign, despite real fears about the consequences of instability in the cradle of the Muslim Brotherhood.
YouTube amplified this sentiment, re-hosting video from Al Jazeera and other broadcasters, as well as raw footage from cell phone cameras which somehow found a path to the web. Unlike TV or streaming, YouTube could select the most visually dramatic moments, and make them searchable. It archived spontaneity: a defiant young man suddenly gunned down by security forces, a bizarre horse and camel charge by Mubarak supporters into the crowd at Liberation Square.
Almost all YouTube videos favored the protesters. In the aggregate, the result was a brilliant exercise in geopolitical persuasion, wholly uncoordinated, but the more authentic and effective because of that.
The men who pulled the plug on the web must have known they couldn’t keep ordinary Egyptians from learning about events. Hundreds of satellite TV stations flooded the country’s airwaves. Probably, they imagined they still retained some control over the framing of images: a generational mistake.
More interestingly, shutting down the web seemed to have little effect on how protesters communicated and organized themselves in response to events. The public never lost its mighty voice. Many reasons can be put forward, quite plausibly, to explain this. Here’s my candidate: the kill switch was flipped too late in the game to have an influence on the protesters’ behavior.
Responding to events – figuring out how one feels about them – is a public activity, deeply dependent on one’s social circle. In Egypt, the Facebook groups which coalesced many months before 28 January served this function. They provided a public forum to shape and sharpen anti-Mubarak opinion for the hundreds of thousands who joined.
“We Are All Khaled Said,” a Facebook group memorializing a 28-year-old Egyptian beaten to death by the police, became the largest gathering “place” for young dissidents to debate their response to the shifting political landscape. Its discussion page remains feverishly active to this moment.
Even with the internet silenced, these people remained emotionally connected to, and drew strength and courage from, each other.
The figure of Wael Ghonim, moderator of the Facebook group, represents everything that perplexed, and ultimately defeated, Egypt’s aging autocrats. Ghonim is a computer engineer, married to an American, who worked for Google in Dubai when the street protests began. That is to say: highly educated, global-minded, and technically savvy to an extent which would have been unthinkable, outside the ruling elites, a generation ago. In a demographic transvaluation, he was us become them – or, conversely, the outsider now lurking on the inside.
While an amateur agitator on Facebook, Ghonim achieved star status on TV. He was arrested at Liberation Square in front of a Sky News camera. The incident multiplied and amplified on YouTube, leading to a frenzy of protests by online activists, Amnesty International, and others. Released after twelve days, he was soon after interviewed on Egypt’s independent Dream TV. This interview, which showed an emotional Ghonim pleading for an end to state-sponsored violence, was a determinative moment in the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
Every step of Wael Ghonim’s progress through the labyrinth of the Egyptian uprising would have been impossible when his antithesis, Hosni Mubarak, first assumed the presidency 30 years ago. From the perspective of information, the two men grew up in different countries. Neither, therefore, understood the other, but Ghonim was a carrier of the fifth wave, an aggregator and connector, a drop of rain in a global storm, while Mubarak in his moment of crisis could only grope for a switch to turn out the light.
We needn’t accept the idea that Facebook groups can defeat tanks and bullets to perceive – dimly, like a faint shadow over the events in Egypt – a cataclysmic transformation in human power relations.