A battle already lost

The Egyptian gov't failed not just to evaluate its technological ability to disrupt Web access, but to anticipate the int'l reaction to the move.

February 2, 2011 06:09
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

egypt tahrir square 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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The revolt currently taking place in Egypt is theoretically similar to other upheavals. It happened in China, Myanmar, Iran and most recently Tunisia.

In the first three examples, the events have subsided but in Tunisia and Egypt, they are leaving a mark.

These new revolutions start in the blogosphere, and the biggest change we have seen has been in terms of organization and operation.

The confrontation between any given endangered regime and the protesters not only occurs at the physical level, but also through the electromagnetic currents sent from one place to the next and which represent the hidden front of the revolution.

The bottom line is that even though the clash is virtual, it is also real in every respect.

In revolutions over the past few decades, the media, led by radio and TV, have been at the forefront. In the first phase, opposition forces would try to reach the governmental power centers, first radio and then TV. It was clear that whoever held the microphone or video camera transmitted the message first. Therefore, regimes would often protect these centers and, where necessary, suspend them lest they slip away from their control.

But this scenario is now a thing of the past. Starting in 1980, the year CNN started broadcasting, the media industry underwent monumental changes.

In addition to national radio and television channels, often controlled by governments and hence in the service of regimes, global networks with satellite broadcasting abilities started to appear. They crossed geographical and national boundaries and united the world into one big territorial unit.

These broadcasts were independent of the various ruling entities and exposed, for the first time, a new reality to the people living in those countries.

The media was the driving force behind the fall of the Berlin Wall and the whole East Bloc, and as a result, societal, political and cultural changes occurred all over the world.

THE “CNN effect,” as it is called, came to an end somewhere at the beginning of this century when the news organization lost its exclusivity to dozens of similar international and local networks, including Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based network, which began broadcasting in 1996 and has a budget of half a billion dollars a year, has already taken things a step further and generated an “Al-Jazeera effect”: no more informative and objective (as much as possible) broadcasting, but cohesive and agenda-driven, and aimed at harming other Arab regimes and undermining their stability.

Al-Jazeera’s unique slogan was “the opinion, and the other opinion.” In its new incarnation, it has primarily become the “other” opinion.

The relationship between Al-Jazeera and Egypt has been marked with numerous confrontations and attempts by the government to stop the hostile network in its tracks. The stronger Al-Jazeera grew, an indication of which included the establishment of its English satellite channel in 2006, the more Egypt felt pressured.

Last May, the government accused the Qatari network – together with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah – of planning a revolution in the country and disrupted its broadcasts as a form of punishment. But Al-Jazeera later continued to broadcast and, more recently, stood out in its coverage of the events in Egypt last week.

As events escalated, President Hosni Mubarak tried to disconnect Al-Jazeera from the Egyptian satellite Nile Sat under governmental control.

But it soon became clear that the technological capabilities of the government were inferior to this new, influential player. Mubarak was amazed to find that he longer holds a monopoly on the information disseminated from his country.

This was a new dawn,and Al-Jazeera found alternative means for continued broadcasts.

But the crisis runs even deeper. In an instant, the Egyptian Internet infrastructure and with it the gradually formed social networks, were now exposed for all to see. Internet use in Egypt is relatively low, just 21.2 percent of the population or 17 million users; 4 million have a Facebook profile. It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Arab world has become hungrier for digital communication over the past decade. Online users in the Arab world grew by 1825%, compared with 430% in the rest of the world.

Just last month, WikiLeaks documents revealed that “Egypt’s bloggers are playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse, and self-expression.”

One document showed that the Egyptian blogosphere includes some 160,000 bloggers, writing in Arabic and English, most between 20 and 35 years of age and 30% of whom write mainly about politics.

This new ‘enemy,’ as the government perceives it, caught it off guard. Rapid moves were taken to restrict Internet access and on Friday, Mubarak gave orders to shut it down altogether, along with cellular networks. Internet traffic went down by 88%. This turned out to be a double-edged sword as the government and its supporters who were also cut off.

But the Egyptian government failed not just to evaluate its technological ability to disrupt Web access, but to anticipate the international reaction to the move.

The international media regularly covers Egyptian events, not in the same scope as Europe or North America but also not as little as Africa and most of Asia. Therefore, the media presence in the country grew as the uprising gained momentum. The media were shocked to find their activities blocked and thus prevented from doing their work – mainstream media and social networks like Facebook and Twitter alike.

From that moment on, the move became a stain on the Egyptian government, outraging media outlets and strengthening Western governments’ reservations – led by the US – about Mubarak. After all, they could not let a blow to the freedom of the press go unanswered.

As an aside, it should be noted that when China acted in similar ways to block Google, for example, Western countries, for economic and even cynical reasons, settled for weak rebukes and did not apply the same amount of pressure as they did on Egypt.

AT THE moment, Egypt is largely exposed on television channels and social network sites. The media help recruit the masses and channel the message of rebellion from one place to the next.

How can the government – or for that matter, any government – deal with a challenge of this nature? It’s almost impossible. But if it insists, it must operate by the motto “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

In other words, governments can also participate in social network activity. They can plant “worms” among users, disrupt communication and even motivate them to act on their behalf. Because users are anonymous, the infiltration can certainly poison the atmosphere of solidarity prevalent in these forums. That’s one way to go. But only one.

Every government in the world, no matter its agenda, must prepare for the Cyber Age. Not just to deal with riots and demonstrations, but also to prevent terror and sabotage and, most importantly, to protect digital networks essential to daily life: those relating to energy, water, transportation, communication and so on. The US has already established such a military system and in Israel, we see some movement on that front. But for now, it remains a vision for the future.

At the moment, it’s clear that Mubarak and members of his government are facing a test to their leadership and rule, and it seems that on the media front at least, they have already lost.

The writer is a Kadima MK and a former IDF spokesman.

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