On February 11, 2011, after 30 years of dictatorship, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak announced he was stepping down. As ancient pharaohs slumbered inside, a crowd of over a million surrounded the rose-colored Cairo Museum setting off fireworks and jumping for joy as they peacefully forced a modern pharaoh to flee. This hopeful moment will be studied for years, and no topic will be more hotly debated than the role of social media in the uprising. Whether you believe this was the inaugural outing of "Revolution 2.0" or not, the ease with which Egypt was wiped off the Internet should give us all pause.
"This had nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter"
During the eighteen-day revolt, Americans young and old could not get enough of the protest video. But as Frank Rich of the New York Times points out, decades of declining media coverage of the world left Americans with little or no context for what we were watching.
The more difficult story of Egypt's skyrocketing food prices, high unemployment, and complex political groupings took a back seat to endless ruminations on the role of Facebook and Twitter. Frank makes the case that the focus on Facebook was egocentric American hype, noting that when the Egyptian government pulled the plug on the Internet the movement never paused. He quotes experienced Middle East reporter Richard Engel: "This didn't have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook," said Engel. "This had to do with people's dignity, people's pride. People are not able to feed their families."
In the end, we may discover that the old-fashioned Friday prayer service was the critical vehicle for educating and mobilizing the great unwired. But Facebook appears to have played an important role in mobilizing the younger, more urban and wired classes, giving them the comfort of an on-line community and making it safer to take collective action.
"This revolution started on Facebook"
Wael Ghonim, a young Google product manager who was secretly arrested and held for 12 days during uprising, claims that "this revolution started on Facebook."
For years now, democracy activists across the Arab world have been meeting and collaborating on-line. Six months ago, Ghonim started the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page honoring the Egyptian blogger who was beaten to death by police after he released material exposing police corruption. What started as a campaign against police brutality and government propaganda grew into an enormous chat room for a generation disgusted with the Mubarak regime.
John Nichols writing for the Nation says the Facebook page launched the first day of protests and utilized savvy online organizing techniques: "Calling a protest on January 25, activists quickly began distributing downloadable flyers and detailed instruction manuals that included advice on how to counteract tear gas. To ensure greater numbers, organizers promised one another that they would each bring at least ten non-connected people they knew to the protests. They even agreed on messaging tactics in advance. In order to better succeed at recruiting poorer, less-educated Egyptians to join them, they focused on economic issues as a rallying cry, not torture." Ghonim asked 50,000 to pledge to come to the first rally. Instead, 100,000 made the pledge.
Nichols believes that this type of organizing gave people the courage to step out of their homes and onto the streets, because they knew they would not be alone. Once the protests were underway, the government clamped down with an unprecedented Internet blackout.
On January 28th, Egypt virtually vanished from the Internet and cell phone service was disrupted. One internet monitoring firm reported with some astonishment: "approximately 3,500 individual BGP 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. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide."
This take down was much more severe than the type of manipulation, limited blockage, forced slowdowns and other interference sometimes pursued by governments. Egyptians responded by pulling fax machines out of closets, using dial-up modems and calling friends via landlines to relay Tweets to the outside world. Google and Twitter launched a "speak-to-tweet" service, helping Egyptians get information out beyond the nation's borders, but internal communications were wiped out for six days.
Fortunately, international media descended en masse ensuring a diversity of reporting and offering a measure of protection to the protesters under siege in Tahir Square.
Could It Happen Here?
Repressive regimes all over the world are no doubt studying the Egyptian experience with an eye on how to prevent such occurrences. Proponents of free speech need to do their homework as well. The ease with which Egypt's Internet was taken down has raised concerns in America over proposals for an Internet "kill switch."
While taking down Egypt's handful of Internet service providers was a relatively easy task and may have been achieved simply with a series of phone calls, taking down the hundreds of U.S. networks would be a more daunting challenge. That is why some in Congress are advocating an override mechanism.
Last year, U.S .Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CN) and Susan Collins (R-ME) proposed a bill that would grant the U.S. president far-reaching emergency powers to seize control of the Internet in a so-called national emergency. The proposal, not yet introduced as a formal bill this year, would give any president the power to take emergency action when he or she believes there is an "ongoing or imminent" cyber-attack on the nation's critical infrastructure.
Critics, including Free Press, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Center for Media and Democracy, say the bill is too vague and overbroad to comport with First Amendment protections.
"The situation in Egypt gave us a real example of how a kill-switch would work and also why a government might want one," says Lisa Graves, my colleague at the Center for Media and Democracy who has testified repeatedly before Congress on surveillance technology. "Giving a government official the unilateral power to pull the plug on our electronic communications is an unwise and unconstitutional concentration of power, especially because the government and companies already thwart numerous attacks each year without such a dangerous power to disrupt the power to assemble and dissent."
In Egypt, the young democracy protesters stayed peaceful and positive in the face of everything thrown at them: rubber bullets, secret arrests, hired thugs, Internet blackouts, and ceaseless government propaganda. The struggle ahead for this nation of 80 million is a daunting one. The army is in charge and recently dissolved the Parliament. The goal of reform is free and fair elections within a year. This goal will not be achieved with out a free and diverse media. A young army of "new media" warriors will be essential to this task.