Many analysts have been commenting on the broader significance of the astonishing and awe-inspiring events that have swept Egypt by storm over the past six days. From Tunisia to Yemen, the Arab world is in open revolt against the sclerotic, corrupt and vicious dictatorships that have held power with the tacit support of the US and EU for decades. The status quo in the region – in the form of received wisdom about ‘the Arab street’, the Islamist ‘menace’ and business-as-usual in the corridors of corporate and political power whether in Washington DC or Cairo – has shattered into pieces once and for all. But the significance of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt is not limited to the Arab world, or even the Middle East. Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ouster of Suharto by a popular revolution in Indonesia in 1998 has the world witnessed the sheer, breathtaking power of unarmed revolutionary masses in action – and this in a region whose image has been carefully crafted for decades by politicians and media pundits as a stagnating backwater of opportunism and quiescence. The world is watching in awe - and anxiety - because, in these rare moments of unmediated and massive social upheaval, the naked power of the national security state is on show for all to see, in all its violence and unmitigated brutality. One of the things that makes Egypt different from Indonesia in 1998 of course is the rise of social media and the unprecedented ability of the regime in power to completely shut down domestic and international communication through its coordinated assault on the internet and wireless and mobile phone networks. We have heard much in the last couple of years about the pivotal role of social media in popular uprisings from Eastern Europe to Iran, but perhaps what we have not yet fully contemplated are the future global ‘security’ implications of network and wireless communications technology.
The Mubarak regime’s first reaction to the massive protests of 25 January was to immediately disconnect Egyptians from the world at large and from one another. It did not choose merely to target a handful of the major social networking sites, but rather the internet as a whole in addition to mobile phone networks – and with the active complicity of the major corporate servers. It comes as no surprise then, that the Cairo headquarters of Mobinil and Vodafone – the two major providers in Egypt – were attacked and set on fire by outraged demonstrators at the same time that protestors were storming the NDP headquarters a few kilometers away. In the wake of an unsuccessful takeover bid for Mobinil by France Telecom in 2010, Orascom Telecom - the multi-billion dollar telecommunications empire and parent company of Mobinil - teamed up with the popular singer Ahmad Adawiyya to launch a major advertising campaign called ‘The Egyptian’. The multi-million pound campaign sold its product by orchestrating a new kind of corporate-nationalist sentiment (that came immediately on the heels of the media-stoked anti-Algeria hysteria during the 2010 Africa Cup).
Mobinil’s rapid execution of the regime’s orders to shut down its networks on 27 January exposes the utter cynicism of this campaign (the family of Naguib Sawiris, head of Orascom and its Executive Chairman along with 19 other billionaire businessmen reportedly fled the country to Dubai on 30 January) and demonstrates the shocking vulnerability of immensely strategic digital infrastructure in the hands of ‘bottom-line’ multinational corporations.
Mobile phone networks were restored two days later on 29 January (minus texting service - a flexible and effective form of mass outreach) but the internet remains down with no immediate prospect of its return. In the latest ominous move, the Cairo offices of Al-Jazeera have been shut down and the press passes of its journalists revoked. Millions of Egyptians who relied on Al-Jazeera for the latest updates on unfolding events all over the country are now forced to fall back on state television, which has been broadcasting sunny images of Mubarak meeting with advisors as though Rome were not burning around him. It is exactly this kind of utter, open contempt for the Egyptian people on the part of the regime – and particularly the President – demonstrated on countless occasions and in countless ways over the past few years, that lies behind the deeply personal hatred that ordinary citizens feel for Mubarak himself. The floundering regime seems to hope against hope that this type of unprecedented information blockade might keep the worst of its atrocities hidden from its own people and the world at large. But in shutting down internal domestic communication and information sharing, the regime is also hoping – perhaps even more importantly - to prevent the formation of any kind of alternative power base that can serve as a starting-point for a post-Mubarak, NDP-less interim unity government. Indeed, the regime’s entire strategy until now - including withdrawing police forces from major cities, emptying major prisons and directing armed gangs of looters - points to a deliberate attempt to prevent the movement from moving towards this ‘Tunisia moment’ in any kind of organized way. The regime recognized from the very beginning that the stakes were high, and that Egyptians were above all determined to topple the regime. By reacting as it has, it is simultaneously delivering the same message to the Egyptian people and to the US: Like it or not, there is no immediate alternative to Mubarak and the NDP.
I think it has become clear by now that this strategy has failed in the face of the courage, determination and spirit of the millions who have refused to be broken over the past five days in spite – or perhaps because of – the hundreds of dead and disappeared and the thousands of wounded, and that it is only a matter of time before Mubarak takes his place amongst the Suhartos and Ben Alis of the world. Egyptians have continued to protest, organize and keep their neighborhoods and cities running in the face of the regime’s attempt to sow chaos, destruction and fear. In a profoundly moving testament to the tenacity and ingenuity of the movement, organizers and activists are making do with the tools at hand: photocopies, faxes, land phones, word of mouth and lots of legwork, including extensive canvassing and door-to-door mobilization. There is news at the date of writing that a new, independent Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions has just announced the formation of nation-wide workers’ committees and the organizing of a general strike. Still, the lockdown has resulted in a climate of deliberate misinformation, uncertainty, rumor and fear-mongering with ominous portents: In the last 24 hours, the US and UK have begun evacuating their citizens from Egypt while Britain’s foreign secretary has stated that there is a danger of “extremism” taking hold in Egypt. Like the deliberate phrasing of Mubarak’s 28 January televised speech, these particular words are surely calculated to sow insecurity and doubt about the peaceful, entirely secular nature of the popular revolution in the minds of the watching world.
Mubarak’s departure, the historic moment which we will certainly soon be witnessing, has been in the making since at least the infamous Presidential elections of 2005, and what comes next will depend, in the broadest terms, on the army and the people. But one thing is clear: in a ‘free’ world dominated by market ideology but where restive and outraged populations are beginning to challenge the ravages of contemporary finance capitalism en masse, ordinary people everywhere are now witnessing first-hand the terrifying naked alliance of multinational corporations and the national security state against civil society. It is remarkable that this unprecedented moment of total censorship coming in the midst of a major popular revolution has so far elicited nothing but tepid and vague statements from the US and EU states. Nor have any of these governments made explicit reference to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on freedom of expression. Nor has the possibility of immediate sanctions against the regime even been raised. It is also not a coincidence that Anonymous, the international association of internet activists that emerged on the scene in the wake of the US-led assault on Wikileaks, quickly intervened in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution by publishing a call-to-arms to bring down Egyptian government sites.
Anonymous’ first major operations targeted the major corporations – Mastercard, Amazon and Paypal – that executed US government orders to shut down Wikileaks’ web-based infrastructure. Five suspected Anonymous activists were recently arrested by the British authorities and the FBI is now investigating 40 suspected activists in the United States. The US campaign to extradite and prosecute Julian Assange as well as the ongoing FBI investigations of scores of dissident activists in Minnesota and Chicago are of course all focused on the control and monitoring of digital and wireless networks in the United States and abroad. The fact that the Egyptian regime has actually gotten away with disconnecting and isolating an entire country of 80 million human beings for the first time in digital communications history while it sets about terrorizing the population and liquidating opponents is an incredible event of global significance. One wonders how the Mubarak regime’s ongoing ‘experiment’ in internet and telecommunications lockdown will serve as both a future model for national security states the world over and a resounding wake-up call to their citizens