Internet blackout was an act of 'psychological terror'

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

While the former government blamed the Tahrir protests for the decline of the economy, ‘unprecedented’ communication shutdown cost Egypt hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to complete Internet blackout in Egypt from January 27 to February 2 resulted in economic losses of between $90 and $110 million. Although experts have yet to determine the exact figure, the estimate indicates that the five-day shutdown cost Egypt a loss of over $18 million a day.

The blackout, which included Internet and phone services, was the former regime’s attempt to curb the role of social media and technology in the revolution. Over 88 percent of Egypt’s population had no means of communication for a week, according to a CNN report. It was the first time in history that a government had completely blocked its citizens from access to the web.

One of Egypt’s main cell-phone service providers, Vodafone, later admitted that the government forced it to shut down, and once restored, to send pro-Mubarak text messages to its subscribers.

“The government called the managers and told them what to send,” said Sara, a customer service employee at Vodafone who asked that her surname not be quoted due to the sensitivity of the issue. “They pressured all mobile phone companies to cut off services on everyone. They also told Etisalat to send messages from the army to the people.”

Many said that the communication blackout added anxiety and fear to an already volatile situation. Nadine Zohair, a theater sophomore, described the blackout as “pure psychological terror.”

“I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t get in touch with anybody,” she said. “I had no phone, no internet, and I was hearing gunshots, seeing tanks and people with knives, pipes and chains. It was like you were isolated from everything and were out completely alone in the world.”

AUC, originally scheduled to reopen for its Spring semester on January 30, was closed until further notice. Unable to communicate with students and staff in Egypt during the blackout, the administration continued to update its website for those outside the country, untill it went offline.

“It was a big problem, of course. We never expected it,” Ashraf El-Fiqi, the Vice-President of Student Affairs, said. “We do have an emergency management team that we meet with on a regular basis. We had daily meetings to discuss security.”

He added that phone calls were the only way for the administration to update the AUC community on university matters. Commenting on the government’s decision to shut down means of communication, El-Fiqi hoped that “no one will take a stupid decision like this again.”

Many AUCians relied on landline phone calls and word of mouth to spread the news of when classes will resume.

“For some reason, I had Internet access all of that week,” Jilan Tobar, a political science sophomore, said. “I would look at the website for however long it was that they were posting the updates and then tell my friends.

”When limited cell phone coverage and landlines were restored on January 29, many AUCians called friends whose parents are employees at AUC or would know someone who is.

“It was just easier that way,” Hoda Saleh, an economics junior, said. “They would know if the university was closed.”

Service provider TE Data said it had no comment on the story when it was contacted for a statement by The Caravan.