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Egypt and the Arab Spring: What happens when you try to turn off the internet?

by on December 1, 2013

Image(Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, During the Arab Spring.)

State violence is the last resort barrier to cultural, mental and political change. The state’s monopoly of violence legitimate or not would be supported by the police and judiciary. The social movement is reinforced and the regime is dramatically weakened when repression fails. In Tunisia and Egypt, the issue with repression was the important role the armed forces played by not supporting the police or the government thugs. Between the movements, the key similarity was that there was no form of central leadership, therefore repression couldn’t be selective, as there weren’t any leaders to select and harm, as there were no suspects when it’s everyone. The internet has become the fundamental stage of networking, debate, mobilisations and coordination.

The United States and other states are considering the “killing switch”, a technological way to have a switch which shuts off the internet, as there is significant concern within the political class of the world. “If people can organise and debate among themselves regardless of any legal consequences established by the government, that’s very dangerous, politicians fear they will be occupied themselves.” (Manuel Castells)  The Egyptian government were direct and non-sophisticated when turning of the internet off, as there are only four providers of the internet who were called and threatened to either shut it off or they would be killed by the government. Resulting in 93% of the internet being turned off.  A new form of ICT social movement formed online, locally and globally. This will happen from now on, as the global internet community aimed to keep communication open via numerous innovative technological systems. Which has sends a powerful message to regimes who try to shut off the internet. ICT networks and high-level hackers created numerous connections with the intention to keep people connected, keep the flow of messages running and restore communication. The internet community was doing this systematically for five days in Egypt until the internet was turned back on. This is occurring in Libya, Syria and any other country where the internet is being shut down. There are many sophisticated hackers with good equipment which are challenging anyone trying to turn off internet.

For example:

Landlines: worked, landlines can’t be turned off in any country otherwise the police won’t be able to function.  

Onion router: Organised by anonymous hackers who provided a direct connection between telephones, landlines and mobiles in Egypt via the onion router which provided connections between people in Egypt.  

Hand radio: was used widely. 

Google and Twitter: Organised a system called ‘speak to tweet’, where an international telephone number could be called from a landline and then with a voicemail recording transformed into a tweet automatically that would reach all the tweets in Egypt, which was used by 14% of the Egyptian population.

Telecomics: a Swedish hacker group’s highly sophisticated programme consisted of a system of receiving messages through smart phones used as modems, messages would be to be sent back to Egypt. Google helped them find all the fax numbers in Egypt, resulting in each message was automatically everywhere, including government offices.

Turning the internet off runs the risk of suffering significant functional and financial consequences for said country. The action was far too late in Egypt as Tahrir Square was already occupied with the national and international media. The movement was not going to stop even if internet was shut off, “it would find networks and connections at the urban space level” (Manuel Castells) and keep progressing. Due to the damage of losing $100 million day from the Egyptian economy, the Egyptian government restored the internet after 5 days, which is unsustainable for long period of time as many industries were thoroughly disrupted, such as Egypt’s large data processing industry and tourism sector.

Overall to a significant extent, ICT and new social media has formed an original type of social movement within the Arab Spring social movement, with the focus on keeping open and flowing communication. Those in power cannot sustain their power once the movement has already started.  The important shift is that internet is indefinitely a part of the infrastructure of our society, not just for revolutions but also you risk economic damage if you turn it off.





1: Spring Awakening, How an Egyptian Revolution Began on Facebook, By Jose Antonio Vargas, The New York Times, February 17, 2012.


2: Egypt blocks social media websites in attempted clampdown on unrest, Facebook, Google, Hotmail and Twitter among services blocked by government, report users. By Charles Arthur, The Guardian, January 26th 2011.


3: ‘Social Movements in the Internet Age’, Professor Manuel Castells, Cambridge University, November 2011.

4Tahrir Square Redux: Could This Be the Tipping Point for Democracy in Egypt? By J.J Gould, July 1st 2013, the Atlantic.


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