The decision of the Egyptian authorities to turn on the Internet yesterday after a week of interruption reversed a massive, shortsighted mistake. While controlling the Internet may have seemed like an obvious solution to a situation rapidly spiraling out of control, the Internet actually provided an outlet for the pent-up rage of young Arabs. That rage quickly found expression on the streets instead.
In the attempt to control the growing unrest, the Egyptian government played catch-up on the Internet front. Protestors demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter. Social media had become the primary way for protests to be organized. On January 25, Twitter was shut down; the following day Facebook, Gmail and YouTube were pulled. Yet these measures were far from complete.
On January 27, a day after the Egyptian government tried to shut down the Internet, one Facebook page devoted to a protest had 80,000 followers. In the absence of a central point of control of the Internet, the Egyptian government had to rely on Internet service providers to comply with their demands.
And though the Mubarak regime cut off the Internet, information flows found ways around it. Google, for instance, created a voice-to-tweet service that allowed Egyptians to leave voicemail messages that were turned into tweets. Other Internet services allowed streaming audio clips from young Egyptians to be heard from anywhere on the world.
Egyptian bloggers contacted by CyberDissidents.org, an organization started by Nathan Sharansky in support of victims of authoritarian regimes, stated that the government’s move against the Internet was very “stupid.” Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent the last four years in Egyptian prison, stated that blocking the Internet actually made Mubarak weaker. It provoked a great outrage among Egyptians and helped fuel the desire to get rid of Mubarak. And indeed, it deprived the government itself of the ability to monitor the movements of the demonstrators, which it had been able to do on social media Web sites.
The unfolding of events that started with the self-immolation of a single fruit vendor in Tunisia on December 17—leading as of now to protests in Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt—suggests the revolutionary potential of the new media. In Egypt, for instance, 20 percent of the population has access to the Internet, and 95 percent has cell phones. Information (and disinformation) travels on these networks like wildfire.
It is not only authoritarian regimes like that of Tunisia or Egypt that are struggling with the potential of social media for political activism. Even though “Internet freedom” is official U.S. government policy, the response of the Obama Administration to just about every recent development in the Middle East, as well as its failure to support the growing number of cyber dissidents in countries around the world, points to a dearth of serious commitment and strategic thinking within the U.S. government.