Tag Archives: internet activist

Technology & The Egyptian Revolution

9 Aug

5,735 miles away – I was here in Toronto, while the majority of my family was living history in Egypt.

For the past 30 years, Egypt had been at the mercy of an oppressive, authoritarian government which deceived the rest of the world as it  flaunted a façade of democracy. To the Egyptian people, 30 years had been 30 years too long. Enough was enough and it was time for President Hosni Mubarak to be shaken from his throne by the masses.

January 25, 2011 – Day of Revolt

The grievances of the Egyptian people had bubbled and boiled and on January 25, 2011 the nation erupted in mass protest. To the Egyptians, this was all about bread, freedom, justice, and dignity – the  fundamental human rights which had been denied to them from Mubarak for too long.

Despite the distance that separated me from my homeland,
every sight in Cairo’s Tahrir Squarewas witnessed,
every sound that was whispered, shouted and echoed was heard,
and every feeling that overcame the Egyptian people was felt

…all the way here from Toronto.

Without global communications, this would not have been possible for me and the millions of others across the globe who witnessed for 18 days the events that made history in Egypt earlier this year.

After Tunisia, Egypt followed in becoming the second revolution of our millennium. However, it was the first to be revered for being defined by technology, specifically the internet and mobile phones. Their power in today’s information age is one that is undisputed.

Internally within Egypt, Facebook was the “weapon” of choice that first provoked the January 25 Day of Revolt. Egyptian Google executive and internet activist, Wael Ghoneim, created the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed” which  aroused awareness about the beating and death of 28-year-old Khaled Saeed by Egyptian police.

The page then became a forum where thousands of Egyptians voiced their opposition against the Egyptian police and the Mubarak regime as a whole.From there, the internet and social networking sites became an integral tool that revolutionary Egyptians used to organize and mobilize. Through blogs and videos, Egyptians were urged to not be afraid and join the January 25 protest.

Facebook Café & Restaurant in northern port city of Alexandria, Egypt. Photographed by: Hidie Shaheen

Externally, the internet connected Egypt to the rest of the world. Through Twitter Tweets, Egyptians were not just giving each other updates about the state of the country, but the rest of the world as well. Marshall McLuhan’s well-known concept of The Global Village” could not be more applicable than to the internet and Egypt’s relationship with the globe during its 18 days of revolution.

Despite the hundreds of thousands of miles that separated people, the internet was a means by which awareness, attention, and solidarity was given to the Egyptian people. The world was turned into a small village where communication between people became easier and more accessible. The internet was responsible for facilitating  a collapse of space and time to make this possible.

Solidarity with the Egyptian people was viral, with protests and support of the revolution springing up everywhere:

All eyes had been on Cairo and what was happening in Tahrir Square. It was evident that with technology, cities were no longer bound to their traditional regions, but were connected to cities all around the world regardless of the borders and languages that typically separated them. Coinciding with the theories of Donald Janelle, the Egyptian people did indeed use technology to project their presence and ideas beyond their immediate locales.

Picture taken by: Heidi Shaheen
A mosque in the southern rural city of Aswan, Egypt with satellite dishes. Photographed by: Hidie Shaheen

In his interview Technology and Revolution: Empowering the Powerless, CNN reporter Fareed Zakaria said that today’s internet revolution is what allows people the opportunity to access more information than ever before. Social networking opened doors for people to share information and more importantly, to organize.
Fifteen years ago in Egypt or Tunisia all you could hear and see was state propaganda. Now, the lies put out by the regime can be refuted, which proved to be destructive to dictatorships. Everyone is connected now and not just through their computers, but through their mobile phones as well. It is a basic necessity that everyone owns.

While I was in Egypt just 5 months before all this happened, I saw with my own eyes that it was true what Zakaria said about the cell phone being a basic necessity that everyone owned. It was 2011 and perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that mobile phones had become as much a part of observable Egyptian culture as smoking Shisha and drinking tea in outdoor cafés.

Even my Grandpa had a cell phone!

And in rural areas? You can bet you’d see something like this too..

According to the 2008 African Mobile Factbook, Egypt is a key primary area of growth for Africa’s mobile market. Egypt is in Africa’s top 5 countries with the largest mobile markets and also accounts for the continent’s second largest most internet users.

January 26, 2011 – Information Blackout

Just a day after mass demonstrations erupted, the Mubarak government made a bold move to shut down the entire country’s cellular and telephone networks, as well as unplug from the internet. The goal? To immobilize the Egyptian people from being to able effeciently organize civil unrest, as well communicate with the rest of the world. The result? Perhaps the most paralyzing thing that could happen to a country in this day in age.

It was reported that all internet traffic from Egypt seized and entirely all Egyptian nodes were dropped. In internet terms, it was as though the country had never existed.

Omar El Akkad, A Globe and Mail technology reporter, reported in his article In a span of minutes, a country goes off-line” that:

“It took just 13 minutes to wipe 80 million Egyptians off the internet. The government ordered all internet providers to shut down. Although other countries such as China have tried to block their citizens’ access to the Web during politically unstable times, the situation in Egypt is unique in scope and impact, both because of the country’s pivotal role as the fulcrum of the Arab world, and the speed with which a major regional power went silent.”

David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur  wrote an opinion piece “Connected to the Revolution” in the Toronto Star that commented on the Mubarak’s shocking move to unplug his country:

“It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly more divided between the connected and the disconnected, the open and the closed.”

At this time, Egypt momentarily felt what it was like to live in the Sub-Saharan African countries excluded from the world by the digital divide. However, despite not having access to internet or mobile and telephone networks, the Egyptian people were not completely shut out from the world. They demonstrated how old technologies may not always be as obsolete as everyone might deem them to be.

In an emergency situation, Egyptians resorted to using fax machines and even ham-radios to send morse code messages.
Slowly as connectivity was being regained, response to the situation motivated  Google and Twitter to launch a new Speak-to-Tweet service that allowed Egyptians to dial an international phone number and leave a voicemail which would then be converted into a Twitter Tweet.

Web services from the West such as Tor also allowed Egyptians to connect to a network of volunteer computers that gave their internet connection abroad. Tor is anonymously routed so that if the Egyptian government were to try to trace the connection, they would have no control in trying to shut it down.

The days that followed saw marches of millions, both in Tahrir Square and virtually. Words alone cannot do justice in explaining the rest of the remarkable events that happened during this revolution:

February 11, 2011 – Friday of Departure

“Congrats,” the text message I had received from a friend read, “Mubarak stepped down.”  It was 11 a.m. EST and approximately 6 p.m. in Egypt. As the joke goes, “What happened to Mubarak? Was he poisoned? Assassinated? No, he was Facebooked.”

The extent to which technology, specifically the internet, has helped the Egyptian people create their own narratives beyond government control is not only significant from a revolutionary perspective, but in a panoramic sense for the Egyptian nation in the years to come. Slowly, many cities around the world are developing and beginning to adopt the characteristics of many Alpha World Cities. Cairo, which is now considered a Beta World City by GaWk, is one of them.

Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “tribalism” is but one of the many facets of world cities. In Egypt, a return to tribal culture is exemplified when people regardless of their age, religion, or socioeconomic class forgot their inherent differences and grouped together because of one cause. Prior tot he revolution, Egypt saw conflicts between its Muslim and Coptic-Christian populations. However, it was their one profound desires for a common goal that united people and was facilitated by social networking sites. Under one umbrella, the unification of a people happened.

Technoscapes, which are the types of technologies associated with world cities, are already available in Egypt. However, the degree of their width and depth are something that will surely expand. Egypt has now become a model as the world’s first country to have a technology motivated revolution. The Egyptian people have proven themselves capable of using the technology on such a large-scale that I believe this will attract companies to develop infrastructure that will support new, and mature technologies.

Ideoscapes are the ideologies associated with world cities. Democracy is without a doubt an example of this. Democracy is associated with many modern, developed cities because it is the political ideology that allows for progression. With technology and social media, Egypt has crossed the threshold to make possible the genuine democracy that other world cities have. If it wasn’t for this tool, the events in Egypt would have not played out the same way. Perhaps the reason a revolution like this didn’t happen 15 years ago was because the Egyptian people felt paralyzed. Although unhappy with their government and lifestyles there was no motivation to rise up against it because there was not a means by which that could organize people as well as technology.

A big issue in Middle East and North African countries is rulers that rule with an iron fist and allocate their money and efforts in a way that does not help the country to be on the same level as many of the world cities across the world. With the new Egyptian government, I predict that whoever the ruler is will have an epiphany. This ruler will understand that they have been elected the president of a new Egypt and will be aware of the strength of the people with technology at their fingertips.

An attempt to regulate the usage of technology will not happen because the ruler understands that it is a tool that the people will use to express their resistance to any actions they are not content with. Tightening a grip on rules will only amplify the anger of the people. If the ruler tries to burn channels of communication, the Egyptian people will find a way around it, as they did with Mubarak. The rest of the world now has a close eye on Egypt so any actions that blatantly go against public approval will be unsuccessful.

Egypt’s new government will surely understand the importance of its connectivity with the rest of the world. By being connected, Egypt will be open to the inspiring ways of other World Cities. This should motivate the beginning of a metamorphosis that will develop Egypt and its major cities in the four main areas of: finance and business services, power and influence, creativity and culture, as well as tourism. It is then that Egypt will be able to pride itself on something other than its acclaimed ancient history.

Masr, Umm el Dunya –

Egypt, Mother of the World