As protests in Egypt that many believe were inspired by the upheaval in Tunisia continue to grow today, the government of Egypt has taken what some say is an unprecedented step:slicing off all International connections to the Internet. Meanwhile, protest fever has seemingly spread to Yemen.
Confirming what a few have reported this evening: in an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet. Critical European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now. But every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.
At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt’s service providers. Virtually all of Egypt’s Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.
This is a completely different situation from the modest Internet manipulation that took place in Tunisia, where specific routes were blocked, or Iran, where the Internet stayed up in a rate-limited form designed to make Internet connectivity painfully slow. The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.
What happens when you disconnect a modern economy and 80,000,000 people from the Internet? What will happen tomorrow, on the streets and in the credit markets? This has never happened before, and the unknowns are piling up. We will continue to dig into the event, and will update this story as we learn more. As Friday dawns in Cairo under this unprecedented communications blackout, keep the Egyptian people in your thoughts.
Reports are coming in that Egypt is now under an Internet and SMS blackout, just hours before a new series of major protests are planned against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Sebone, a major Egyptian service provider based in Italy, is reporting that no Internet traffic is entering or exiting the country as of 12:30 AM Egyptian time. Reporters and citizens on-the-ground are also reporting that they are experiencing Internet and SMS outages.
Egypt has been enveloped in unrest over the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. The protests have been partly inspired by the successful revolution in Tunisia that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of power after 23 years. Facebook, Twitter and social media were key communication tools used by protesters to organize rallies.
Just like Tunisia, Egyptian protesters have been utilizing social media to organize their own protests, using hashtags such as #Jan25 to communicate. In response to the protests, Egyptian authorities blocked Twitter and Facebook. Egyptian police have been cracking down on protesters using water cannons and tear gas.
“I suspect the internet cutoff is just a fraction of what the government has in store for Friday,” CNN’s Ben Wederman, who is on the ground in Egypt, said on Twitter earlier today.
Sky News notes that the government has warned it intends to get tough with protesters and adds:
Protesters have warned today will be the biggest day of action, as crowds gather after Friday prayers.
Authorities have tried to limit protesters’ efforts by disrupting email, Twitter, Facebook and text services.
However, Egyptians can still coordinate efforts via mosques – which have become a vital network for communication in the country.
The largest opposition movement, The Muslim Brotherhood, has already backed the street demonstrations and this afternoon their Imams are expected to call on the faithful to demonstrate.
The Brotherhood is the largest power structure in Egypt besides the army and state, and last night authorities ordered a crackdown on the group, arresting at least three key activists.
“We have orders for security sweeps of the Brotherhood,” a security source said.
A lawyer for two Brotherhood leaders, Dr Essam El-Erian and Dr Mohamed Mursi, revealed they had been arrested, along with a number of other members.
Meanwhile, an issue that comes up in American foreign policy frequently has come up again. In speaking to defend leaders who have helped U.S. policymakers maintain U.S. interests, is the United States putting itself at risk of alienating possible future governments if a once seemingly strong leader suddenly topples?
The issue comes to the forefront again due to comments by Vice President Joe Biden. The Christian Science Monitor:
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the PBS NewsHour tonight with the most direct US governent comments yet about the gathering Egypt protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year reign.
Mr. Biden’s comments are unlikely to be well-received by regime opponents, as they fit a narrative of steadfast US support for a government they want to bring down. About eight protesters and one policeman have died this week as Egypt has sought to bring down the heavy hand of the state against opponents. Since the US provides about $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt a year, the repressive apparatus of the state is seen by many in Egypt as hand in glove with the US.
……Ahead of a day that could prove decisive, NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Biden if the time has “come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?” Biden answered: “No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there.”
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters’ demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that afflicts millions of Egyptians.
Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: “We’re encouraging the protesters to – as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we’re encouraging the government to act responsibly and – and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.” He also said: “I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable… accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.
The full transcript of the Biden interview is HERE.
Here’s a News Hour report on the protests:
Raw Video: man shot in protests:
Foreign Policy has this collection of Obama administration statements on Egypt.
But the protesters aren’t only relying on the Internet: leaflets are being given out by protesters giving details of a plan for action, the Guardian reports:
Egyptians have been urged to come out after Friday prayers tomorrow and demand the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s government, along with freedom, justice and a democratic regime.
Anonymous leaflets circulating in Cairo also provide practical and tactical advice for mass demonstrations, confronting riot police, and besieging and taking control of government offices.
Signed “long live Egypt”, the slickly produced 26-page document calls on demonstrators to begin with peaceful protests, carrying roses but no banners, and march on official buildings while persuading policemen and soldiers to join their ranks.
The leaflet ask recipients to redistribute it by email and photocopy, but not to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which are being monitored by the security forces.
Protesters in Cairo are advised to gather in large numbers in their own neighbourhoods away from police and troops and then move towards key installations such the state broadcasting HQ on the Nile-side Corniche and try to take control “in the name of the people”. Other priority targets are the presidential palace and police stations in several parts of central Cairo.
The leaflet includes aerial photographs with approach routes marked and diagrams on crowd formations. Suggested “positive” slogans include “long live Egypt” and “down with the corrupt regime”. There are no signs of slogans reflecting the agenda of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. It advises demonstrators to wear clothing such as hooded jackets, running shoes, goggles and scarves to protect against teargas, and to carry dustbin lids – to ward off baton blows and rubber bullets – first aid kits, and roses to symbolise their peaceful intentions.
Diagrams show how to defend against riot police and push in waves to break through their ranks. “The most important thing is to protect each other,” the leaflet says.
The Atlantic Online offers this translation of the plan in more detail.
Syrian author Robin Yassin-Kassab, writing in the Guardian, asks if his country will be next (he thinks it is less likelyL and writes this about the obstacles facing protesters in Egypt:
Egypt’s anti-regime protests are unprecedented in size, frequency and ferocity. In Shubra, Dokki, Mohandaseen and Bulaq, the people of Cairo have chanted ash-sha’ab yureed isqaat an-nizam, or “the people want the fall of the regime”, and braved tear gas and baton-wielding thugs in the central Tahrir Square. Alexandria, Tanta, Suez, and the labour stronghold of Mahalla al-Kubra have also demonstrated. A government building has been burnt in Suez. Posters of Mubarak have been ripped down and burnt in several locations. Mish ayazeenu, the people shout: “we don’t want him.”
When Tuesday’s Day of Anger started, police at first allowed protesters to move freely in the streets. This was unusual, and suggests fear on the authorities’ part, as does the abrupt shift back to traditional methods as night fell. At the time of writing, at least 1,000 people have been arrested, several killed, and hundreds beaten. Uniformed police are backed up by plainclothes goons, many armed with iron bars. (One hopes that someone is collecting photographs of these people in order to identify and shame them.)
Certain developments illustrate why Hosni Mubarak’s regime will be harder to dislodge than Ben Ali’s in Tunisia. Trade unionists have been at the forefront of Tunisian change; in Egypt the state’s co-opted Egyptian Trade Union Federation has ordered its branch heads to suppress protests. And the country’s largest opposition party – the Muslim Brotherhood – has so far played a negligible role. When the regime, predictably, blamed the Brotherhood for organising the protests, the Brotherhood quickly proclaimed its innocence. Indeed, events seem to have taken the Brothers by surprise. It may be that the leadership has gambled on regime survival, either for pragmatic reasons or because what Brotherhood ideologues consider the “Islamisation” of society to be proceeding smoothly under the status quo. But the demonstrations have been bigger than anyone expected. Interestingly, al-Azhar clerics, often tools of the regime, have ruled that protests are not counter to Islamic precepts.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Los Angeles Times reports:
Reporting from Cairo and Beirut — The current unrest in the Middle East spread to impoverished Yemen on Thursday as tens of thousands of protesters angry over unemployment and political oppression marched in the capital against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Instability in Yemen is a major concern for Washington, which has been working with Saleh’s government to defeat an entrenched Al Qaeda offshoot that claimed responsibility for last year’s attempted bombings of planes over U.S. airspace. Officials fear anarchy in the country would give militants a strategic base in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has been unable to stem unemployment and improve education, healthcare and sanitation in the region’s poorest nation. Anger toward him and his government has been steadily growing, especially among young activists and tribal leaders. He has also faces an intensifying secessionist movement in the south.
The U.S. has expanded its intelligence and security roles in the country, and American military aid is expected to reach at least $250 million this year, a major increase from previous years. But Washington has long been wary of Saleh, who runs a government based on patronage networks and has a history making questionable deals with enemies, including Islamic militants, who years ago were tolerated.
“I saw many, many people today, in the thousands,” said Ahmed Arman, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Sana. “There were four demonstrations and they were organized by the opposition. The majority of the demonstrators were young people, but there were others there as well. They’re calling for political change, a complete reform of the political system.”
Some other reaction to these events:
–Glenn Reynolds has some interesting tidbits and reaction on the Internet being sliced off in Egypt HERE.
It looks like the government has shut down 88% of the internet connections in the country, although the addresses serving the stock exchange remain active. This is probably a one day shutdown that is less painful because a lot of government agencies and businesses are closed for the day anyway, but a modern country can’t function if its banks and businesses and government agencies have no internet access.
If you are looking for a sign that the Mubarak regime may be on its last legs, now you have a strong one.
It’s quite possible that a ridiculous spike in commodity prices over the last year has served as a trigger that ignited long-simmering grievances about tyrannical behavior from Middle Eastern clients of the United States. Tunisia’s tyrant has already fled to Saudi Arabia. In Cairo, they are chanting that Mubarak’s villa in the Saudi Kingdom is ready and waiting for him. Food rights have broken out in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, and Jordan, which are all U.S. (and/or European) clients to one degree or another. Lebanon has its own problems.
We may be entering a revolutionary phase in the Arab world. If we are, it will certainly have strong anti-Western tendencies. But the keystone is the peace agreements between Jordan and Israel (brokered by Clinton) and Egypt in Israel (brokered by Carter).
….I think we should view this as the breakdown of the status quo that has allowed Israel to operate with impunity in the Occupied Territories. Despite this, Hillary Clinton has not been backing the Mubarak regime’s censorship and has encouraged them to use the protests as an opportunity to enact reforms. There is a level of disingenuousness involved in both this, and in Obama’s praise of the revolutionaries against our long-time clients in Tunisia. But, at least our government isn’t reflexively supporting the autocrats.
We always try to avoid paying the piper. But it is going to take some real finesse to pivot away from the strategy we’ve been pursuing to protect Israel’s interests by buying off their enemies, to supporting the democratic aspirations of their deeply anti-Israeli populations.
As CSM notes, the protesters would surely be curious to know which of their demands for democratic reform is “illegitimate.” I get that we’re in a diplomatic bind here and that Biden’s hands are, to some extent, tied. Remember what happened last week when Harry Reid described Hu Jintao, not (entirely) inaccurately, as a “dictator” before walking it back? But if Obama’s leaning on Mubarak to democratize in order to earn the U.S. some goodwill on the Arab street, how do Biden’s comments here serve that end? Are the two playing some weird version of good cop/bad cop, with the VP responsible for stroking panicky Arab autocrats while the president plays to the people in the street? Mixed messages aren’t going to win much support if Mubarak is toppled after decades of America propping him up. Sure hope this bet-hedging works.
Also, as I noted in Quick hits, Joe Biden put himself on the wrong side of history with a quote I truly hope haunts him for a long time. Really wasn’t expecting that Stephen Harper would prove a better democrat than the Obama admin.
Sadly, almost none of this is making it to American news, being far more interested in examining ad nauseam the tea parties and the latest ridiculous committee assignments in the Senate. Reportedly, Hillary Clinton couldn’t even get her call taken in an attempt to broker for a democratic solution. And even more violence is predicted for tomorrow.
—Global Voices offers some excerpts from Tweets about the “international black hole” Egypt has become due to Internet shut off.
–Here’s a quick cross section of some Tweets appearing as this post is being written:
okenOfBritain RT @emm_ah: RT @awartany BREAKING: Multiple news sources; simple calculation: protesters have definitely exceeded a million in #Egypt.v @Hamdanism
UPDATE: Time has a must-read piece. Here’s just the end of it:
Explaining why the U.S. continues to support Mubarak, the State Department’s Crowley on Thursday told al-Jazeera that “Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East … It’s made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that’s important; we think that’s a model that the region should adopt.”
The problem for Washington is that Arab electorates are unlikely to agree. The democratically elected Iraqi government, for example, despite its dependence on U.S. support, has stated its refusal to normalize relations with Israel. A democratic Egypt, whether led by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other opposition party, is unlikely to go to war with Israel given the vast imbalance in military capability, but they’re even less likely to accept normal ties given the present condition of the Palestinians. And the most secular liberal activists in Egypt reject with contempt the argument that regional stability can come at the expense of their right to choose their government.
Turkey, once its electorate was given a voice in matters of state, denied the U.S. the right to use its territory to invade Iraq. It has become more assertive in challenging both Israel and the U.S. strategy on Iran. Arab electorates are unlikely to give Washington the sort of support against Iran it gets from the region’s pro-U.S. autocrats.
The problem the Administration now confronts is that backing autocrats who support U.S. regional policy is no longer simply uncomfortable given the values Washington professes to uphold: it’s increasingly untenable as the forces of demographics, economics and technology gnaw at the bonds imposed by those autocrats. The Egyptians, young and old, that risk life and limb by taking to the streets on Friday may not have the patience for the pace and nature of change envisaged by Secretary Clinton.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.