The future of Egypt’s internet

The use of social media to facilitate and organise protests could lead to an uncertain future for the web in Egypt.

Al Jazeera - picture of protester with a poster of Mubarak
The protests in Egypt kicked off through networking on social media sites, even after the internet was taken down by the government, protesters have proved that the protests can continue regardless [CCdarkroom productions]

Amidst the latest headlines of the “Twitter / Facebook” revolutions, there is no doubt that technology – from social media to basic landlines – played an important role in facilitating Egypt’s popular uprising.

As the protests began to make headlines on January 25, it immediately became clear to most observers that social media had played a significant role in organising the vast protests. 

A Facebook event, set up days in advance, received tens of thousands of attendance confirmations, while a Google Doc posted to a Facebook group collected email addresses of the group’s members in case of a Facebook block.  Even the uprising’s ubiquitous “#jan25” hashtag was selected days in advance, with Egyptian Twitter users debating a few options.

But with most of the internet shut down for nearly three days now, it’s become clear that without the assistance of social media, the protests go on.

Though the Egyptian government forced ISPs to shut down early Friday morning, one has remained available.

Noor, which has about 8% of the market share, remains online, and a number of its customers have continued to post updates to Facebook and Twitter, reporting on incidents on the ground, seeking information about friends, and connecting with loved ones.

A second option – perhaps one that many young Egyptians haven’t had much contact with – remains available to enterprising users as well by connecting to international dial-up connections, often using mobile phones.

Several projects aim to bring Egyptian voices heard over phone lines onto the world wide web:, an Egyptian-Lebanese collective, offers a self-described “live audio news bulletin from activists inside Egypt”, while the Twitter account @jan25voices provides brief sound bites and text updates from phone calls back to the country. Global Voices is aggregating tweets and blog posts from still-connected Egyptians.

With the social media landscape sparser than before, the information coming across the wires is often pointed, critical. Tweets about a missing Egyptian Google employee, Wael Ghonim, have been circulating since Friday, with a link to his photo so Cairenes can look for him.

Twitter user @RamyRaoof posts photos every time he makes it online, while journalists like Lara Setrakian of ABC News (@LaraABCNews) utilise the tool for straight reporting.

Yesterday, Al Jazeera’s own team in Cairo – including @AymanM and @nolanjazeera – used Twitter to notify followers of their arrest; they were later released, though their equipment was seized.

Those without mobile connections to Twitter often note their destination before getting offline, presumably in case of incident.

The Egyptian internet blackout, though widely reported as unprecedented, follows a few similar incidents, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In February 2005, Nepal severed international internet connections following a declaration of martial law, and in September 2007, Burma shut down the internet entirely following widespread documentation of demonstrations racking the country. In 2009, residents of China’s Xinjiang province were without internet for several months, with little explanation from Chinese officials.

While all three incidents no doubt strongly impacted netizens, the number of internet users in Egypt is more than twenty times the number of users in Nepal, Burma and Xinjiang combined. 

Furthermore, the degree to which online communications were used in Egypt for organising prior to the blackout is simply unprecedented; though electronic communication may not have catalysed the popular uprising, they certainly helped it along, perhaps even accelerated it.

Because of that, by the time the internet was shut down, the population didn’t need Facebook to tell them to take to the streets: They could see from their windows what was happening.

Though it seems the internet is unlikely to come back in the near term – what with massive protests planned for the week and depending on the outcome of the standoff with Mubarak’s regime – Egypt’s internet could face filtering in the future.

During the first two days of the demonstrations, Egypt blocked Twitter and then Facebook before forcing ISPs to shut down.  Prior to January 25, the government blocked few, if any, websites, all local and related to political opposition.

Though it’s unclear what the future holds, Egyptians could face a long-term block on certain social media sites, such as that in place by neighbouring Syria, which blocks YouTube and Facebook.

Update: Shortly after submitting this article, Noor – the last remaining ISP functioning in Egypt – shutdown the majority of its operations.

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.