Egypt’s Internet gambit misfires. Surprised?

January 31, 2011


As China prepared to quell the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989, the government of Deng Xiaoping made a crucial tactical decision: It ordered western networks to shut down their satellite trucks, making sure the violent end to the revolution would not be televised.

As Egypt tried to contain nationwide protests this past weekend, the government of President Hosni Mubarak at first did nothing to stanch the endless real-time flow of street-level video showing angry, violent confrontations.

Instead, they turned off the Internet.

China’s ruthless approach handed the regime an enduring propaganda victory, of course. Even though hundreds of peaceful protesters were mercilessly mowed down when the military swept through Tienanmen Square, the most iconic image of the crackdown is downright peaceful: A tank commander refusing to challenge a single, unarmed civilian who would not yield.

On the other hand, for all the democratizing power the internet provides, Egypt’s decision to shut the internet door shortly after midnight Friday (along with much wireless service), while technically effective, was entirely ineffectual. And as for TV: It was only on Sunday that Cairo moved to silence Al Jazeera, which had been broadcasting non-stop, in what one hopes is not prelude to a Tienanmen Solution.

It all gets down to critical mass. Twitter and Facebook are peerless accelerants, but when you can look out of your window to see where the protesting is going on (to paraphrase veteran NBC correspondent Richard Engle) the power of the internet is dwarfed by pure people power.

In a way, you could excuse Egypt’s knee-jerk reaction. After all, wasn’t there a “Twitter Revolution” in Moldavia? Didn’t the small messaging service propel the “Green Revolution” in Iran? Wasn’t Facebook banned by Iran before the 2009 election which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power?

Apparently, the Mubarak government isn’t reading Malcolm Gladwell. Social media inspires and creates nothing like the social activism which, the best-selling author argues, sparked the U.S. civil rights movement. Weak ties, are, well, wimpy.

“Our acquaintances — not our friends — are our greatest source of new ideas and information,” Gladwell wrote in a much-dissected New Yorker article. “The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Twitter’s own (perhaps self-preserving) view of itself is also somewhat humble. In the midst of Friday’s protests the company reminded the world that it is a medium, not a messenger.

“Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users,” co-founder Biz Stone and General Counsel Alexander Macgillivray wrote in a Friday blog post. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.”

It’s tempting to give lots of credit to a medium which is still so new we aren’t quite sure how to process a reach we’ve only begun to appreciate. There’s no doubt Twitter and Facebook are as loathed by repressive governments as they are loved by advertisers — and for the same reason. Strike a match, toss it on the lighter fluid and just try to control the flames. Like wildfire, there is nothing like social networks to spread word globally with unprecedented speed.

So, in the age of the internet, does withholding the internet slow a crowd’s ability to form?

Memo to the next regime who thinks so: Turn on the TV.

Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon/Flickr. Used with gratitude under a Creative Commons License.

One comment

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Some valid points but having lived in both countries -some big differences. Communication in Egypt was much, much more open. Also many people get their TV and communications through direct satellite. Up to Italy quite easy to watch futball but also Greece, Turkey, Israel. In Egypt there are several mobile operators whom use switches and equipment networked off the European grid. Its fairly easy to bypass IP addresses and connect online through your phone. Family is all over the Gulf, Europe, etc flying in on a weekly basis.
The press has a lot of outlets and points of contact. If you want to leave Egypt as an Egyptian its easy.

In China – you are on your own and its hard to leave – sometimes its even hard to move in China. All the “competition” goes through the same bottlenecks, personal visits are much rarer. Its easy to shutdown entire channels.

China can do things Egypt could never do. Im not a big fan of Mubarek and its time for him to go – but give credit where its due. The Egyptian military didnt open up politics but it did a good job in wiring into the world and letting people talk. Its not easy to switch Egypt “off”.

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