By: Mona Abdel-Fadil, Senior Researcher, Fafo Institute for Applied Research.
Two years have passed since the ousting of Mubarak. Since then, many analysts have cast a retrospective glance back to the dramatic 18 days and shared their understanding of what the decisive push factors were – what was it that led to Mubarak actually stepping down?
I’d like to address several of these proposed factors, in time. Here, I’d like to concentrate on the shutting down of the internet.
Many an analyst point to the defining moment when the Mubarak-regime made the mistake of shutting down the internet, in an attempt to curtail the usage of Facebook and Twitter, and thereby control its population and curb participation in pro-democracy street demonstrations. Many activists and scholars alike consider this a miscalculation on the part of the regime.
The claim is that in fact, shutting down the internet, led to an increased mobilization to the streets – because that was now the only place where you could get reliable information about what was going on in the country. Put differently, people who would have been more than happy on their sofas, surfing for online news – now had to make it out to the real world, thanks to the regime’s strategy. While, I believe there is some truth to this claim, I think it misses a very important point – or two.
First, the mobilization to participate in pro-democracy street demonstrations all over Egypt – was never a purely online phenomenon. Paper flyers, face- to- face invitations, word to mouth, calling via landlines and mobile lines, played an important role long before the Mubarak regime cut off access to the internet in addition to crashing many landlines and mobile phone lines. The combination of cutting off internet and phone may of course have been one of those decisive factors, not only because it forced people to go to the streets – to find out what was happening – but, also because it showed how manipulating and authoritarian the Mubarak regime was – to both oblivious Egyptians and the world outside of Egypt. I’ll never forget the impersonation of Mubarak on Saturday night live, where the fake Mubarak talks of how he has not intention of oppressing his people, it was just that the internet dude had such odd hours that he could not get the net up and running. Priceless. To view, see for instance: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/30/fred-armisen-egypt-president-mubarak-snl_n_816005.html
Another element I find missing from a number of discussions about the decisive factors during the 18 day drama… was what happened when the internet came back.
Hardly anyone talks of what in my opinion was a rather decisive factor – namely the infiltration of a number of websites including the Facebook pages of various prominent groups pro-democracy activists. This was extremely noticeable for those of us who had been online during the internet shut down. For – as soon as internet was re-opened Egyptian users’ Facebook pages flooded over with pro-Mubarak propaganda and hundreds of fake ‘friends’, and fake Facebook pages.
This infiltration was so blatant that it did not take long before these attempts at hijacking Facebook and other web pages with pro-Mubarak propaganda were removed by competent activists. The interesting thing, was however that the strategy might have worked to sway certain people to be more softhearted towards Mubarak. For the reopening of the internet was the day after Mubarak’s very emotional speech to the Egyptian people. This does not seem to be a coincidence.
In his emotive address, Mubarak evoked images of how he was a father to the nation trying to do good for his people, loving Egypt, and wishing to simply finish his presidential term in dignity. Tropes designed to tug at the heart-strings of most Egyptians. This speech, was followed up by the reopening of the internet the next morning. The timing was impeccable.
The day after – slightly emotional, exhausted and confused Egyptians went online again for the first time in a long only to be bombarded with the extremely nationalistic and propagandistic pictures of Mubarak smiling in a string of images and posters. In consequence, some Egyptians were starting to feel that Mubarak’s speech was reasonable – and discussions about calling it quits featured online that morning.
In my analysis then, the switching the internet back on combined with emotional speech the night before, and the heavy pro-Mubarak propaganda might have actually worked in splitting the people– had it not been for the Battle of the Camel. I’ll have to write more about the Battle of the Camel next time. For now, let me end with this point, the regime’s decision to not only switch off but also to switch on the internet may have been among the deciding factors that led to the ousting of Mubarak.