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Why'd a Battle-Ready Mubarak Turn Egypt's Internet Back On?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 2 2011

Tahrir Square protests earlier today; image credit: Al Jazeera English.

Just last night it was that a defiant Hosni Mubarak stood up in front of the world, and more importantly, the people of Egypt, to declare that he'd be hanging on to power, at least for the near future, no matter what pressure international or domestic. And it was just earlier today that pro-Mubarak forces cracked down violently on protestors in central Cairo's Tahrir Square, in some cases galloping in on horseback and camelback; the ensuing chaos has, according to Egyptian's health ministry, left three people dead and more than six hundred wounded.

Chart showing Egyptian Internet networks now accessible from the outside world; source: Renesys.

Yet, also today, the Internet crackled to life in Egypt for the first time in more than four days. "No traffic blocks are in place, DNS answers are clean, IP addresses match, no funny business," reported Renesys, the Internet tracking firm that had first reported last week that Egypt had largely been disconnected from the Internet.

What gives? That concurrent tightening of the political scene and rediscovered Internet openness in Egypt is indeed a little puzzling. Does the Mubarak regime have some sort of savvy master plan to harness the Internet to their benefit, giving them a way to sell their version of events to the world? Or perhaps use it to track protesters? Or is the Mubarak administration that might be in its last throes just flailing about wildly here? What's going on here?

Of course, if you could make real sense of what truly goes through the mind of Hosni Mubarak and his underlings you'd have a fruitful career in the U.S. foreign service or intelligence world. "I wish I had a good answer for you," writes the Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "I find the ratcheting up of violence and the lifting of an internet block to be contradictory signals, and I have a hard time resolving them." But some technology and politics experts in the U.S. -- Zuckerman among them -- offer some compelling, if occasionally competing takes on the calculation made by Egyptian authorities to turn the Internet back on.

Andrew McLaughlin, who was the Obama administration's Deputy Chief Technology Officer for technology policy until his resignation in late December, tweeted earlier today in a way that suggested that it might be no coincidence that the Internet came back on just before pro-government people swarmed Tahrir Square. "Mobile data and net are as useful for coordinating thugs and repression as protests," tweeted McLaughlin.

But Zuckerman wasn't so sure, making the case that if Mubarak was really interested in giving loyalists some sort of tactical advantage, he might have ordered that text messaging services be turned back on in Cairo. As it is, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that major mobile phone provider Vodafone Egypt has said that while it has indeed restored mobile data services to Egyptians, the company is still "actively lobbying to reactivate SMS services as quickly as possible."

Another possibility raise by Zuckerman: Mubarak sees the reconnected Internet as a channel for pushing out to the world, inside and outside Egypt, that, with the so-called January 25th protestors, he has a destructive, uncontrollable uprising on his hands. "It's possible," writes Zuckerman, "that the Internet went back on so Mubarak could make a more effective case to the rest of the world that the protests had turned into violent clashes and that his heavy hand and steady leadership was needed in response."

For his part, Nathan Freitas, a long-time Tibet activist and technologist who's done digital organizing work on the ground in China, suggest that we might be overreading things. Inside the Egyptian bureaucracy, the right hand might not know what the left one is doing. "I don't think Egypt is nearly as well organized as China," writes Freitas. "The way they took the Internet offline was very amateur even compared to Burma standards. In addition, I think there may be dissent within the ISPs and business communities, etc, which is something we have seen in China. The fact that Noor stayed up for so long, for instance. I have to believe that perhaps they felt the momentum was shifting towards open, and so someone made the call to light things back up."

Indeed, in the end, Mubarak might have finally realized that he'd gone a step too far in forcibly returning nearly all of the 80 million people he's supposed to lead back to the pre-Internet age -- and that his actions were incensing the few allies he might still hope to have. For one thing, points out Noel Hidalgo, a New York technologist and another China activist, the Internet shut-off was proving damaging to the Egyptian economy and business community. Flipping the off switch on the Internet cut-off nearly every Egyptian from the global network, not simply the politically agitated.

Google's Transparency Report project shows a jump in search traffic as the Internet came back online in Egypt.

Supporting that interpretation is an email circulating online today from an Egyptian protestor details how local television channels have been attempting to convince Egyptians that it was the protesters, not an obstinate Mubarak administration, that was throwing Egypt into chaos. "The Egyptian channels are playing a very dirty game," reads the email from the female Egyptian protester, "brainwashing the people, and insisting the peaceful demonstrations are paralyzing the country and destroy it!" It complicates Mubarak's efforts to sell Egyptians not participating in the protests on blaming the Tahrir Square protesters for disrupting daily Egyptian life when they know that it is their president who has cut off their Internet connection.

A senior Obama administration official with real knowledge of the situation seconds the thinking that, in the end, Mubarak was forced -- by the annoyance of "everyday" Egyptians, by the vast global horror that met his decision to shut down the Internet, by the political pressure both public and private by other world leaders including Obama and Secretary of State Clinton -- to realize that cutting off a modern society from the modern communications, organizing, and commerce network that his the modern Internet was simply going out step too far.

For Hosni Mubarak, perhaps, shutting down the Internet in his country proved to be an untenable overreach. And doing it made him a friendless pariah on the world stage.

Again, as nearly every American expert consulted admitted, what we're trying to do here is read the mind of a foreign power who has found himself caught up in a historic crisis. But whatever the reason that Mubarak ultimately turned the Internet back on, Egyptians are clearly swarming back to it. The chart above from Google's Transparency Report shows search traffic originating in Egypt back up above pre-cut off levels. (For what it's worth, the most popular Google search in Egypt over the last week? "Facebook.") And in her email, that Cairo protesters says she's seizing the moment.

"I just got internet access today, so I want to write you a quick note before we lose it again," she writes. "Pray for the New Egypt. Speak up for Peace."