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Walking like a 2011 Egyptian


Egypt's uprising was the subject of many analyses through all of the 18 days it lasted: the future of Arab-Israeli relations, oil futures, democracy in the Middle East, the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and, of course, the role of social media in facilitating the said uprising. The Egyptian revolution, rather like Tunisia's - where the people successfully ousted their dictator - was, according to some, accelerated by the tools of the new information age. Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk were said to be instrumental in the organisation of the protests. Even so, observers across the world were stunned when the now-former Hosni Mubarak regime decided to flip a 'kill switch' on the country's internet services.

It wasn't a literal big red lever that the despot pulled while laughing maniacally to himself, but it was nearly as simple. The Egyptian government issued a directive to the country's internet service providers to shut down service. Under Egyptian law, they were bound to comply. Just like that, a nation of 80 million plus went dark on the Web.

It was a betrayal of Mubarak's own (misplaced) fear that his people would use new technologies to tweet him out of power, so to speak. His Tunisian counterpart was deposed by a few weeks of sustained demonstrations that may have begun with the poor and unemployed, but soon straddled across socio-economic divides.

Erstwhile President Ben Ali's misjudgement of the situation, in his assumption that a mere throttling of the Net was enough to keep his unruly populace under check, could, after all, have delivered the killing blow to his faltering regime, and Mubarak was cussedly determined to avoid that fate, as we saw. But as he discovered, Twitter didn't cause the Egyptian (or Tunisian) people to revolt;decades of repressive policies were enough to make that happen.

Pulling the plug on the internet wasn't enough to kill communication amongst would-be protestors, or prohibit them from reaching the outside world. But it wasn't new media that provided the Egyptian people an outlet to reach each other and the rest of the world;it was good old-fashioned landlines, fax machines, and even ham radios.

The people who could get online had to use lengthy workarounds and hook up dial-up modems (which essentially use landlines to place 'calls' to access numbers that then 'talk' to network servers). The best way to stymie a repressive regime isn't, it seems, to go ultra-modern, but rather to go retro.

Indeed, it might just be the smart thing to always keep old technologies within reach - they look like the more reliable bet. In the event of a total communication blackout, be it because of an environmental disaster, an authoritarian crackdown, or a zombie apocalypse, older ways of communication are much more likely to work;ham radios can survive just about anything, it appears.

And more, as we learn that the internet's power to foment social change has been greatly exaggerated, we may be better served to not put all of our eggs in one basket.

For instance, authoritarian regimes the world over are able to choke, for the most part, information flow among their citizens, and from citizens to the outside world. China's great firewall is the most obvious example, but the information people can access via the internet is regulated in Venezuela, Iran, and Russia, among others. In fact, the internet is filtered even in democracies such as Australia, the UK, Italy - and yes, even India. American lawmakers are debating a bill that would give the president power over privately owned internet service providers and computer systems during a "national cyberemergency", whatever that may entail.

Over the last couple of years, as it has become more apparent that the internet is not any more inherently prodemocratic than it is a tool that best serves to curtail individual freedoms, it has also become clear that strongmen are overcoming their distaste for social media and learning how to channel them to spread propaganda, keep tabs on dissidents, and hunt down the more pesky ones.

Beijing famously pays commentators to direct criticism away from the regime, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has embraced Twitter. There is ample evidence that, in the aftermath of Iran's so-called Twitter Revolution, authorities used the internet to track down opposition supporters. And Google's well-documented decision to pull out of China was motivated by that government's hacking of the email accounts of prominent dissenters.

As those regimes have demonstrated, the average dictator need not harbour a fear of social media. The internet, like other technologies before it, is not deterministic. For a while, everything from the Voice of America to fax machines was thought to be responsible for the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Today we know that that collapse had more to do with the crippling debt the Soviets had acquired in their race to build better weapons than the United States.

The Net cannot, by itself, cause political or social change. The revolution may, on occasion, be tweeted, but it must begin elsewhere. No doubt Twitter and Facebook are great to facilitate the organisation of protests - though in Egypt, as in Iran, most tweeters were thought to be outside the country rather than in the thick of the happenings.

But there is something faintly patronising about the suggestion that they can, simply by existing, overthrow repressive and corrupt governments. There are far too many exo and endogenous factors, not least of which is the way typically powerful military forces sway in the event of a revolt, that influence the ultimate outcome.

The writer is an Annenberg fellow at the University of Southern California

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