egypt afire

I am not particularly qualified to comment directly on Egypt. Foreign policy isn’t my area of expertise, I’ve never been there, I do not know the language nor the culture nor the people. But I do know that 30 years of rule by a single person would also have me saying, “Enough.” I do know that seeing the police beat a man to death for not giving them money would have me angry as well. The suspect nature of the 2001 U.S. presidential election had me seething; I can only imagine the reaction to the rigged Egyptian parliamentary elections in November 2010. I do know that when I hear my government saying that Mubarak is not a dictator and Egypt is “stable,” all they are really saying is that Egypt has been pro-U.S. (and not a non-Christian theocracy) which is incredibly presumptuous and arrogant (if entirely predictable) of us.

What is happening in Egypt is being admirably covered by many others: Aljazeera (English and Arabic) which includes Al Jazeera English: Live Stream & Liveblog – Egypt’s protests erupt Liveblog – Egypt’s protests erupt; the Daily Dish> which has been posting a constant stream of updates referencing many sources; and the U.K.’s Guardian has a liveblog: Protests in Egypt – live updates. ETA: Why Egypt’s popular rebellion is the greatest historical event in a decade, and how Barack Obama missed the boat.

And the beauty of the Internet is that you can find people who do know Egypt and understand what is going on, offering their perspectives and explanations: What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.

How did this all start? This particular round of protests started with the protests in Tunisia. But like their Tunisian counterparts, Egyptian protesters have pointed to a specific incident as inspiration for the unrest. Many have cited the June 2010 beating death of Khaled Said (warning: graphic photos), allegedly at the hands of police, as motivation for their rage. But it’s also clear that the issues here are larger.

Unfortunately, our country publishes or broadcasts this kind of stuff instead: Joe Biden says Egypt’s Mubarak no dictator, he shouldn’t step down…

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.”

On the other hand, Clinton redeems us somewhat in Obama administration eyes unfolding events in Egypt

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Egypt’s government “to allow peaceful protests and reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications.”

“We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian government to do everything within its power to restrain its security forces,” Clinton said.

But then she goes on to tell the protesters not to be violent, overlooking the peaceful start to the protests.

and the less than peaceful response.

What I do want to touch on is the part I do have some knowledge of, the online aspect of the Egyptian protests. The role of the Internet, particularly social media, is clearly a huge one for the protesters: Online activism fuels Egypt protest. Anyone on twitter can follow the #jan25, #egypt, #FreeEgypt and #tahrir tags for constant, up to the minute updates. There are also a handful of twitter users who have been working tirelessly to confirm which networks were filtering or dropping contacts, which were up or down, and making proxy servers (Tor etc) dynamically available to the people in Egypt, often in the form of “care packages” that could be downloaded and installed to automatically set up safely anonymized connections to the Internet. You can see the usage of Tor simply skyrocket in this graphic:

The Egyptian government actually shut down the entire ‘net in the country for a few hours (Internet in Egypt offline), and at this point, most of it remains down, except for the Noor Data network that they can’t shut down — because it is the one Egyptian banks and stock market use! This shutdown, and its precise outlines and details were tweeted live by the activists looking for ways to help the Egyptian protesters get back online and in touch with each other and the rest of the world. It turns out that the DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) tools that the Egyptian government used were supplied by a U.S. company (Egypt’s Internet Crackdown.) It’s possible to monitor the level of internet activity globally at this Real Time Web Monitor.

It is really quite remarkable to see groups of people from many different countries marshal together so effectively — and I think that, frankly, is something that scares the bejesus out of quite a few countries. In any case, remember that the Internet was designed to deal with these kinds of interruptions — so everything was ultimately routed back through the Noor Data network and thus out to us. I am reminded of Gilmore’s prophetic quote: The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

Some have opined that the #jan25 tag is useless by now, but Sullivan’s reader misses the point. The Internet provides several functions to the protesters. Organization, information, and broadcast. Clearly, you need different applications for each — organizing requires a certain amount of security and trust so that false information isn’t spread. Information needs to be accurate and timely. Broadcast — letting the outside world know what is happening — only needs a way out. Twitter’s hash tag isn’t being used for organizing and not really for internal information, because it clearly would be useless as such. Email, SMS, and even Facebook (Tunisians advised Egyptians on how to deal with tear gas that way) are more private ways to exchange that sort of information. But what it is useful is broadcasting: for bringing the attention of the outside world to the events in Egypt. After all, if the information blackout were 100% successful, the Egyptian government could theoretically do whatever it wished to stop the protests. Even some disruption in the flow of outgoing information gives the government additional room to maneuver. In that sense, the #jan25 and similar tags are crucial.

Being that pictures and video have the greatest impact, the distribution of these, especially through TwitPic, Facebook, and YouTube are vital. This video (which I linked to yesterday) shows protesters being dispersed with water cannons until some stand in front and force it to stop for a few moments:

Even traditional media is using online social media — witness the New York Time tweet: Are you in #Egypt, or in contact with someone there? We are looking for photos from the scene. Please email #jan25. I also want to point out that following this protest live not only gets information far faster (and more accurately) than CNN and the like do (e.g. the news of the internet blackout was nearly instantaneous on twitter, but took hours if at all to come up on traditional media and up to the minute reports such as this Al Arabiya breaking: Protestors have stormed Egyptian TV building & have destroyed some equipment. Helicopter is arriving. #Jan25 stream through constantly), but the opportunities for crushing stereotypes abound: “Egyptian Christians said they will guard the Muslims from the police while they on Friday Pray.” Amazing solidarity. #Egypt #Jan25

And of course I’m not the only one remarking on this angle of the Egyptian protests. Here’s a good one: Cutting Off Communications in Egypt — including the very interesting observation that cutting off the internet itself was a signal that may have helped galvanize the protests even further rather than fizzling it out. ETA: Another good one: What Happens when Eighty Million Egyptians Disappear?

ETA: When we watch the Egyptian government “killing” the Internet, we should look more closely at home — do we want to fall prey to that, too? In Egyptian Government Attacks Egypt’s Internet,

We see here that a government with use “kill switch” power will use it when the “emergency” is a challenge to its authority. When done in good faith, flipping an Internet “kill switch” would be stupid and self-destructive, tantamount to an auto-immune reaction that compounds the damage from a cybersecurity incident. The more likely use of “kill switch” authority would be bad faith, as the Egyptian government illustrates, to suppress speech and assembly rights.

In the person of the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government has also proposed to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could then use for censorship or protest suppression in the future. On the TechLiberationFront blog, Larry Downes has recently completed a five-part analysis of the government’s regulatory plan (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The intention of its proponents is in no way to give the government this kind of authority, but government power is not always used as intended, and there is plenty of scholarship to show that government agencies use their power to achieve goals that are non-statutory and even unconstitutional.

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