Egypt Pulls Internet Plug to Silence Dissent

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by Leonard Kniffel

Originally posted January 29, 2011 on American Libraries 

Egypt, a nation with a major internet economy, has pulled the plug on the World Wide Web in an apparent attempt to silence dissent. The Associated Press reported that at a half-hour past midnight in Egypt, January 28, the internet went dead. “Almost simultaneously, the handful of companies that pipe the internet into and out of Egypt went dark as protesters were gearing up for a fresh round of demonstrations calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule,” experts told AP.

The report goes on to say that “it’s unlikely that what’s happened in Egypt could happen in the United States because the U.S. has numerous internet providers and ways of connecting to the internet. Coordinating a simultaneous shutdown would be a massive undertaking. “It can’t happen here,” said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Renesys, a network security firm in Manchester, New Hampshire, that studies internet disruptions. “How many people would you have to call to shut down the U.S. internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough internet here that we can have our own internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the internet, us or the rest of the world?”

In fact, the AP report goes on to say, there are few countries in the world with all their central internet connections in one place or so few places that they could be severed at the same time. But some American lawmakers have pushed for the power to cut off the internet in a national emergency.

The Egyptian government also ordered all mobile telephone operators to suspend services in selected areas” of the country, telecommunications company Vodafone said in another report.

American Libraries spoke with Illinois State University Dean of Libraries Sohair Wastawy, former library director at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, who said had communicated with her family in Egypt and been told "the situation was very serious, with the army taking over the streets." All communication means such as internet, cell networks have been cut off, but land lines are still working, Wastawy said. After repeated tries, she had spoken with Bibliotheca Alexandrina Director Ismail Serageldin, who issued the following statement:

"Egypt is currently passing through a crisis and I believe that the anger and demands for better living conditions and jobs are fully justified. While some looting and lawlessness is going on, this by no measure is the behavior of the vast majority of demonstrators. Young demonstrators have been acting responsibly protecting their own public institutions, including the library. The Library of Alexandria continues to be a platform for democracy and has, since its inception opened its doors to all Egyptians to participate in open dialogues about reform in relation to education, economy, journalism, political life, health care system, and others. It has held a countless number of conferences and issued many publications in relation to  youth participation in reform, job opportunities, women participation, peace and civic life. This is in addition to its offerings of information literacy programs where young people learn all about information technology including usage of social media and searching Internet resources."

"I have no doubt that once life returns to its norms, the Library of Alexandria will continue its peaceful dialogue and civic responsibility as an institution of learning. The Library doors are still open with reduced hours as the curfew imposed mandates. Egypt has always emerged from such crisis stronger than before and we are certain  it will continue to grow and advance. Our faith in the people of Egypt and our country is boundless ."

Serageldin posted a new statement dated January 30 on the library website "to our friends around the world," explaining "The Events in Egypt":

"The world has witnessed an unprecedented popular action in the streets of Egypt.  Led by Egypt’s youth, with their justified demands for more freedom, more democracy, lower prices for necessities and more employment opportunities.  These youths demanded immediate and far-reaching changes. This was met by violent conflicts with the police, who were routed.  The army was called in and was welcomed by the demonstrators, but initially their presence was more symbolic than active.  Events deteriorated as lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs, appeared and looting began.  The young people organized themselves into groups that directed traffic, protected neighborhoods and guarded public buildings of value such as the Egyptian Museum and the Library of Alexandria.  They are collaborating with the army.  This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.

"The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.  I am there daily within the bounds of the curfew hours.   However, the Library will be closed to the public for the next few days until the curfew is lifted and events unfold towards an end to the lawlessness and a move towards the resolution of the political issues that triggered the demonstrations."

Watch a 2008 video about the Bibliotheca on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of its opening.