A scene from a nameless Cairo street in a chaotic, Manichean battle. Stones are flying amid scattered debris. Pro-Mubarak forces advance. A shot zings across the space between two ideals and a youth falls in a dead heap. Probably one of the reported 300-plus Egyptians to be sacrificed by the relentless intent of the government to quash them, this young man's tragedy also raises questions about the real relevance of electronic social networking as a revolutionary force.
Soon after, and because this dramatic footage was aired by a news wire, on January 27, Egyptian government authorities managed to shut down the internet for five days. This has never happened before, at least not on such a scale. While few in Egypt have broadband access, many of the protesters were relying on internet-based social media to communicate as the anti-government movement burgeoned minute-by-minute.
The next day, the government sent in thugs, some on horses and on camels and many from the feared special forces known as the "Amaliya Khassa", to change the shape of what had been a protest marked by not only its size and sponteneity but by its non-violent, civil-based nature.
Advertisement: Story continues below The severing of internet lines was not, however, the Egyptian government's last word. By far the most prominent electronic communication tool in Egypt – as elsewhere in the Middle East – is the mobile phone. Egypt has more than 100 percent usage rates and, post-internet shutdown, mobile phones, using cheap, low bandwidth SMS in particular, became not only a tool of immediate communication between individuals, but a means of getting images and words out from in the middle of the movement itself to the watching world.
On February 1, the Egyptian authorities informed major phone networks in Egypt, including Vodafone, France Telecom and Etisalat to send the following message to all its text customers on behalf of the reigning dictatorship; "The Armed Forces urge Egypt's loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honour and our precious Egypt." All apparently did as they were told.
It was a message that effectively said: "We own your phones." It is possible also that the authorities are now tracing phone use to identify the ring leaders in the protest with the view to shutting them down too.
The world's mainstream IT infrastructure is essentially owned by a handful of private corporations and government-run enterprises. For all its vaunted game-changing culture and equalising potential, social media, as embodied by mobile- and internet-scapes is relatively easily controlled and managed, often by political elites and by private corporations.
An internet "kill switch" is feasible and is being discussed not only in the halls of dictatorial elites but in the US, where proposed legislation to cut civilian access to the internet as part of a security shut-down is being debated. LINK
While mobile phones in Egypt still operate, that may be more to help security forces track down protesters and to intimidate them, rather than evidence of any liberal-minded largesse. Moreover, should the government take the far more drastic action of switching off the similarly owned and controlled electricity grid, most mobile phones would also cease to operate after a few days. It's not likely, but neither is it unimaginable.
While savvy tech-heads can find ways to circumvent internet clamp-downs, they too, invariably, require a lifeline to electricity.
New media technologies and applications have their place as social and political tools and warrant some of the excitement they generate. But Egypt reinforces the fact that we should see them in their political context and ensure their limitations are acknowledged. They are not, as we are sometimes led to believe, the ultimate in real-time people-power. The fact is that technology needs human interaction far more than the other way around. By the same token, social activism,despite the unending pile-up of each new technology upon the last, does not need new media to be effective nor can it be relied upon.
Short of a globally agreed and monitored legislative act that ensures internet and phone services can never be arbitrarily closed down – as unlikely as President Hosni Mubarak donning a tutu and waltzing down Tahrir Square – then a renaissance in old media technologies should perhaps be considered. Old techniques such as typewritten samizdats or anti-government messages written on legal tender (as was used by the suffragettes and has been used in Iran more recently to navigate around government restrictions) perhaps need resurrecting.
The democratic potential of social media has been shown in Egypt – as if it needed to be proven — to be undermined due to its undemocratic power dynamics. There is no equality when not only the message but the means can be so readily dissembled and nullified. That young man dying in a street in Cairo took a symbolic bullet for the seemingly liberating communications revolution, shot from the time-worn barrel of illiberal power's backlash.
James Rose is founder of Random Ax Media, a PR and media advisory specialising in social justice issues.