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EGYPT: A Revolution, Unplugged

Aprille Muscara

WASHINGTON, Feb 1 2011 (IPS) - Despite the Hosni Mubarak regime’s attempts at muzzling communication and dissent, and the reportedly government- sanctioned shutdown of Egypt’s last standing Internet service provider to individual users Monday, Egyptians are still managing to get their voices heard and mobilise – both through advanced technical workarounds and older, traditional technologies.

“We’re seeing that this is a country, a regime, which is hell-bent on trying to silence the people and not let the word get out,” Middle East and North Africa regional editor of Global Voices Amira al Hussaini told IPS in a telephone interview from Bahrain.

Late last week, almost all web access was disconnected, except for one Internet provider, Noor, which services Egypt’s stock market. But Monday, ahead of Tuesday’s planned mass demonstrations dubbed “March of a Million”, technology experts, cyber activists and sources reported that Noor was no longer accessible to its individual users, although banks and the financial sector are said to still have connectivity.

When news of the initial Internet blackout broke Friday and real-time tweets and blog posts from inside the country slowed to a trickle, netizens the world over stepped up to help ensure the voices of people on the ground were not wholly muted, while citizens in Egypt stuck to traditional means of organising themselves.

Circumventing Censorship

On the more technical end, Anonymous, a decentralised community of cyber activists, over the weekend released a crowd-sourced document outlining 20 methods of circumventing the Internet outage. On the list were workarounds to accessing social networks, loopholes to connect to Web portals set up abroad and even ways to get online via ham radio.

Meanwhile, for the majority of citizens without Internet access, sympathisers from large corporations to concerned individuals across the globe volunteered to disseminate bulletins from inside Egypt – no matter how they were received.

“The Egyptian blogosphere is very robust and dynamic,” Hussaini told IPS. “Because of the blackout, people have had to resort to ‘stone-age’ or pre-Internet era technologies to try to get [and put out] information.”

The Telecomix News Agency offered to post received faxes, Google is tweeting voicemails left at certain international numbers at @Speak2Tweet, We Re-build – a group of cyber activists – pledged to report communiqués picked up via Morse code and a host of personal Twitter accounts, including individuals in Egypt who still manage to access the Internet, are tweeting recorded phone calls and publishing spoken messages from contacts inside the country.

“As a personal motivation, I believe that the documentation of the events that took place from the perspective of average citizens tells a very interesting story as compared to the typical news,” one of these Twitter users, who is Egyptian and asked to remain anonymous, told IPS.

“If you go back through our posts, particularly the last couple of nights, it is very interesting to see the variety of emotions that are expressed – from fear, to hope, to pride – and these are occurring real-time and dynamically, giving a map of the sentiment around the city and country.”

Despite “reporters on the ground… being bullied, harassed, arrested and beaten up,” according to Hussaini, journalists also must also find ways around the Internet blackout.

IPS’s own Emad MeKay and Cam McGrath, who are currently in Cairo, have been relaying dispatches verbally via landline to a colleague in London who renders their words for publication.

“We went back to basics,” Hussaini echoed. “We have an influx of material – videos, photos, testimonies and tweets – and we can weave a story on the ground just from people who are breaking this curfew and risking everything they have to tell their story.”

Al Jazeera, whose coverage of the rising tensions in Egypt has far exceeded those of other cable channels, said that six of its English-service journalists were arrested Monday and that it was directed to cease all of its activities in the country.

According to sources in Egypt, the network continued to broadcast as of Monday night, but was subject to brief, intermittent outages. In a surprising act of solidarity, sources report that some of the channel’s competitors, such as Al Hewar, Al Jadeed, Al Karama and Aden, began streaming Al Jazeera’s Arabic-service on its own frequencies Tuesday.

Organising the Old-Fashioned Way

While the viewpoints and narratives of the Egyptian people continue to seep out despite Mubarak’s Internet blackout, similarly, the communications crackdown hasn’t prevented them from mobalising en masse.

In addition to deploying its army into the streets, declaring a 3pm curfew and effectively shutting off the web in Egypt, the regime in Cairo has also halted train service in an attempt to prevent protestors from gathering in Tahrir Square from other parts of the country for Tuesday’s march.

Given the enormous turnout – the square is filled with more than a million people at press time, sources report – Mubarak’s efforts didn’t work. People already knew about the demonstrations, sources say, and the lack of transportation just prompted them to march in the large cities closest to where they live, such as Alexandria or Suez, in addition to Cairo.

“We need to debunk the myth that all this was caused by new media,” Hussaini told IPS. “It’s not easy to change your mentality and all of a sudden say, ‘I’m going to a protest.’ A protest is something banned; it’s not allowed. New technologies did not change the whole mindset of a whole country. [Egyptians] have serious economic and political issues that need to be addressed.”

Although social media networks like Facebook and Twitter helped organise the Jan. 25 demonstrations – the first of these major, widespread protests in Egypt – the Internet blackout hasn’t prevented people from mobilising the good, old-fashioned way: “We organise by word-of-mouth, plus phones,” Shereef Abbaf, a Cairo resident, told IPS in a telephone interview.

Abbaf takes part in his community’s “Neighbourhood Watch” – civilian checkpoints that have cropped up on most roads in Cairo after Mubarak withdrew the police forces.

“We coordinate with other streets,” he said, describing a network of neighbourhoods across which information travels from person to person and small groups, like the old schoolyard game of telephone.

“Sometimes we hear rumours from nearby neighbourhoods that a suspicious car full of thugs and informants and such is out on the streets, going around and spreading chaos to make people scared,” Abbaf told IPS. “So we stay on full alert in case they pass by.”

“Whenever a car comes, we tell them to turn off their headlights, slow down and stop, and we check their IDs and see who they are,” he explained. “At the same time we have a lot of weapons on us – knives, sticks, Molotov cocktails, anything we can get our hands on and be prepared.”

Abbaf said that so far, there have been no incidents and every car he’s stopped has been very cooperative. “By the time they reach us, they’ve just passed 10 other checkpoints before us. They all understand,” he said. “We’re all for Egypt.”

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