When Hosni Mubarak Shut Off Cell Phones and the Internet in January 2011 Was the Moment When More Egyptians than Ever Went Out into the Streets
By the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism An Oral History of the Egyptian Revolution
October 29, 2012
Publisher’s Note: As we were preparing this page for publication on October 29, the post-tropical storm that ravaged the east coast of the United States caused massive power outages and put more than eight million people in the dark. The New York City building that houses Narco News’ Internet server lost electricity, our server was successfully transferred to
This manual-in-progress is for journalists, community organizers and practitioners of civil resistance to help ourselves and each other develop better skills, strategies and tactics.
an onsite power generator, but soon after that flooding downed the fuel pumps to the generator, and all our websites were no longer available online until 6 a.m. this morning. It was an experience eerily relevant to the title of this page: The Day the Internet Died. One of the reasons we didn’t panic is that we had already heard the testimony of the Egyptians who speak on this page about their own experience – during the revolution of 2011 – when it was a regime, and not the weather, that shut down the entire Internet and cell phone system throughout the country. They triumphed in toppling a dictator not just in spite of the attack on their main communications systems, but also, paradoxically, at least in part because of it. If you doubt that, or think it incredible, you’ll probably find their testimonies about their own lived experience very interesting, or at least very challenging to the assumptions of many that technology – and not people – is what makes change happen today.
Since 2000, Narco News has reported about many social movements, community organizing and civil resistance campaigns. Some succeeded in their goals. Others did not. In this work we have found common practices shared by many victorious struggles, and common errors or missteps shared by many that did not succeed. The sum of lessons learned through reporting thousands of these stories in many lands today becomes the basis for a massive, free, online and multimedia resource that Narco News, with the scholars and professors of our school, have begun preparing for The School of Authentic Journalism’s Manual to Change the World. This page you are reading right now is the very first lesson presented of many to come. The Manual will feature more pages, like this one, with the testimony of the Egyptians on how they accomplished the first step of their revolution – toppling the dictator – and continue advancing toward the longer-term goal of toppling the dictatorship. The Manual will also include stories of how civil resistance and organizing battles in other lands were won, and also checklists and “how to” lessons from authentic journalists who reported them to share their skills and experiences so that anyone can learn and apply them – in writing and reporting, video and audio, and use of the Internet – to report on the social movements in the present and the future. With this Manual, we are taking another step forward in making the lessons and curriculum of the School of Authentic Journalism available to the entire world, gratis.
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Egypt: The Day the Internet Died
In March 2011, just weeks after the Egyptian Revolution brought the fall of the dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism went to Cairo to interview key participants about their direct lived experience during those historic moments.
We asked each of them these questions:
On Friday January 28 the regime turned off the Internet. Did that change your experience of the revolution?
If you are someone who had spent a lot of time online before then, how did you spend those newly free hours during the four or five days that there was no Internet?
And what do you think about claims by some international media that the Egypt resistance was a “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution”?
Did the shut down of the Internet hurt the cause or did it help? Why or why not?
Hosam El Gohary (member of the Youth for Justice and Freedom Movement): What happened that day was really strange. We were surprised by it. Starting Thursday at nine pm all SMS services were cut off and no one could send any text messages to any mobile network and no one could receive text messages. The regime and the Interior Ministry in particular announced that on Friday all communications would be cut off for emergency reasons. That meant that all mobile networks would cease operations: there wouldn’t be any mobile communications. There wouldn’t be Internet. There wouldn’t be anything and of course we wouldn’t be able to communicate. The regime did not want us to gather together and by turning off the Internet and cell phone systems they thought they would prevent us from reaching each other. They assumed that they would be able to separate us and keep us away from each other and that no one would be able to get to the others and therefore everybody going to the protest would not know where to go. They thought people would go all over the place and they would then be able to arrest them in groups or individually.
Ibrahim Mohammed (26-year-old communications worker, not affiliated with any organization or party): I work in one of the communications companies so of course I found out that the Internet would be cut, SMS services would be cut, the networks would be cut. So I started calling all my friends. That day, I had met people from various parties and movements, and also independent people, so I called them regardless of whichever one they were involved with. I started calling them and saying guys, take care, the internet will be cut at 12 o’clock, SMS services will be cut at 10 p.m. and cell phone networks will be cut at 6 a.m.,so whoever wants to send a message to someone should go ahead and do so. And whoever wants to get to someone or to specify a locations should get to them before this happens.
Azza Soliman (homemaker): First, the Internet was cut off at night on January 27th. We felt afraid and worried, what will communication be like between people? And will we know how things are going? It was difficult, even the cell phones were cut off. But that didn’t scare us or make us say that we will not go down to the square. We said, “We will go down. We will go down!” My daughter and son went down by themselves and from early morning, they were in Tahrir Square.
Mohammed Abbas (youth organizer in January 2011 for the Muslim Brotherhood): We had of course the biggest support tools in Twitter and Facebook and we have to be clear about that. I mean, we had a million members on one page and 300,000 on another. The Rasd Network gets 50,000 user hits daily because it is solely a news network. People who report news from all over the world send it to them and they publish it. We were expecting cuts in communications in terms of the Internet and telephones. We knew it would happen. It first started with Facebook: They blocked Facebook and Twitter in Egypt. People of course began downloading alternate programs.
The Egyptian people are tireless and the message they gave is “whatever you do, we will still do what we want, and we won’t leave.” We also expected mobile communications to be shut off because anyone who would shut off the Internet would have to be so backwards it wouldn’t be a big leap at all for him to shut off mobile phones for everyone. And he (the person or people that shut off the internet) didn’t know who exactly was behind the protests. We did the utmost possible to be invisible, not to appear and not to reveal our identities. Who was moving things? The invitations were very organized but they didn’t know who was organizing them. The Muslim Brotherhood paid the price. I say this not because I’m part of the Brotherhood but because it’s a fact. The regime from Tuesday onward kept saying that it was the Brotherhood that was behind this simply because they couldn’t imagine that something so well orchestrated and large could be the work of just young people. They couldn’t imagine at all someone besides the Brotherhood carrying out something so large and organized, because it is the most organized group on the street. So they said it was the Brotherhood and on Wednesday all the leaders of the Brotherhood in Cairo and in all the other municipalities received threats. Some were threatened with being killed. They would summon them and then threaten to kill them. So we said everyone could make their own decision. Then the Brotherhood sent out a directive on Thursday, January 27, calling for obligatory participation for all members of the Brotherhood in Egypt on January 28th. The Brotherhood membership was required to go out into the main squares of their towns. The people who were not able to come to Cairo were told to go to their city and town squares. That was something we all knew. We started Friday morning the 28th at 9 a.m. with communications broken and the Internet cut off and the media was absent. Those who would be marching would only be those who had already been invited and responded to the invitation and those who would be there would participate with us while we walked down the streets. It was an epic day in every sense of the word. People were sacrificing themselves. I am not talking about the other people who were organized or us. It was everyone. And people were moving while they were chanting “peaceful” and they were met with tear gas bombs, rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Aalam Wassef (video maker, blogger, musician): Already there was a rumor that this would happen, and then it did happen indeed. We had taken all sorts of precautions on what kind of communication systems we would have. Then the Internet got cut off and that, I remember, lasted for six days. It was a very bad period but at the same time I think it really encouraged people to come out of their homes. Strategically it was probably a very wrong thing for the regime to do, because people were literally squeezed out of their homes because they had no access to information.
Marwa Farouk (attorney, Socialist Revival Current): It was a problem when the Internet and phones went down, but we had planned for this scenario. We had planned our meetings not over mobile phones but in groups that would meet in the mornings in separate places. And these groups would gather in a specific place that we had determined the night before. That night, the morning area of Imbaba was agreed on and we went around and informed more than one group about it and when the movement actually began I didn’t need my mobile phone. I had the people with me on the street so I didn’t need to call people.
Nadia Banhassi (24, pediatrician): The Internet was cut off at dawn then around 10 a.m. all communications failed. No cell phone network was working. I moved with the medical team that was with me and we left the downtown area and moved toward the rest of the people in our group. And because of the cuts in communication, we couldn’t find the group so we had the alternative of moving to the next station where perhaps I might find one of them. So I moved and found some of them and we began to gather ourselves.
We were in Sudan Street and after that we went straight to Imbaba via public transportation right after Friday prayers. We started to gather people around us to march from Imbaba and we succeeded in doing this. The people in the street, coming out of their homes, were responding to us in a completely unexpected manner. People were angry. They even protected us from police and security forces that were in Imbaba. We continued in the march from Imbaba until we reached the Kitkat Bridge. There we were met by the first batch of central security forces. They didn’t even wait for us to approach them. They started throwing tear gas canisters from the top of the bridge. It was like rain and people began to disassemble because of the gas so went in from Agouza Street so we all left and gathered ourselves again. So we continued until we reached Tahrir Street in Dokki and at the beginning of the Galaa Bridge another confrontation with Central Security Forces began but we succeeded because we had staggering numbers of people in the march. We succeeded in crossing the Galaa Bridge and entering the Cairo Club and the Cairo Opera House areas. This was around four pm and the beatings began around then. We were trying to cross the Kasr El Nile Bridge and the Central Security Forces pushed us back. Then we would cross again to be pushed back once again and so forth until around 8 p.m. Around then, people began to end up separated from each other so that you couldn’t find the people you know and you don’t really know the people around you. I had my first aid kit so and we were trying to provide emergency help for any injured person and we put in a lot of effort in helping all the injured people on the bridge but the wounds were serious because they were using live ammunition.
The cutting of the communications systems made it worse because most the event invitations that were sent to people were sent on Facebook and Twitter. So was the news that was released and sent to the world. All the networks and all websites were cut off completely and no one able to send anything. On January 25th at least we were able to send information on the spot about what was happening in Tahrir Square until midnight. So the world knew what was happening to us. But on the 28th the situation changed, we were totally cut off from the world. The whole world was detached from the butchery that was taking place.
Sayed Fathy (attorney, Halali Institute for Freedoms and the Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters): My assessment is that it had a positive effect. There was great stupidity and foolishness in cutting off the Internet and communications. It created a kind of curiosity for many families so they went down into the street, and many youths went down because they cant just stay home and become isolated from such an important and singular moment. They went down and participated.
Mahitab El Gilhany (Journalism student and medical engineer): Look, Sir, we are the reason this revolution succeeded: Those who went out into the street and the people who joined those who went out. Cutting off the Internet and Facebook is what caused people who only share things on the Internet to go down to the street. And that was a great success. The cutting of mobile cell service meant that those with kids or husbands or fiancées or anyone they know who was in the street – after the phones were cut they had no idea if they were alive or not – they then went down to the street. And that is the biggest proof that this revolution did not succeed because of Facebook. It succeeded from the street.
This is part I of An Oral History of the Egyptian Revolution, from March 2011 interviews conducted in Egypt by Gregory Berger, Al Giordano, Joe Rizk and Naglaa Younes.
The oral history project is one section of The School of Authentic Journalism’s Manual to Change the World, a larger multi-media encyclopedia, available free of charge, for journalists, community organizers and practitioners of civil resistance to help ourselves and each other develop better skills, strategies and tactics while doing these kinds of work, which often overlap with each other.