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Egypt on the brink: riots, internet shutdown, stock exchange closed: what’s going on?

The Egyptian President Mohamed Hosni Mubarek has essentially turned off all telecommunications in Egypt. Schools are closed, trading on the stock exchange has been suspended and people are rioting on the streets. Could this be a tipping point in the middle east? And what does this mean for the world?

Media Professional and popular Mamamia contributor Rick Morton gives us an insight into what is happening.

If you spend even a little bit of time on the Internet, visiting the most popular sites in the world, you would be forgiven for thinking its creators receive a dollar every time somebody posts a cute video of a cat and then starts a flamewar in the comments section about the virtues of religious imperialism, or the size of their wang, or whatever.

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There’s a fairly good reason for this (apart from the fact some people just don’t realise there should be a natural disconnect between adorable kittens and the politics of race relations) and that is this: the Internet is increasingly for everyone because it’s increasingly easy, and economical, to sign up.

Look at it this way. Knowledge is power. Certainly if you live in a society populated with trivia buffs. But definitely in normal life as well. When people know things, they know what they want and how to get it. This stretches way back to the days when peasants were peasants and priests and kings backed each other up on the dubious platform that the priests spoke to God directly and the King’s ruled by divine blessing. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press and the mass production of books that people called bullshit on this ridiculous premise and started to branch out for themselves.

Fun fact: British pubs often are called names like ‘Elephant and Wheelbarrow’ not just because they are a quaint and amusing folk but because people knew their local by the symbol on the pub, not the bloody words. Have you any idea how easy it is to fool someone who cannot read? The ruling class knew it and that’s how they tried to keep it, until, you know, books.

The Internet is the new book except it reaches even further and wider and all for cheaper. It’s for everyone.

Yes that means every resolute nutter with a phoneline and the capacity to hate can get online and vomit on to the keyboard. It does. But it also works in reverse.

In the TED video below Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explains that the Internet magnifies and amplifies the quality of the individual. Each individual. Using this power on the world stage is like crowd sourcing politics and human rights. Anybody who thinks the Internet is impotent on this grand scale need only look at Egypt, one of our most fascinating countries with a rich history dating back thousands of years.

Nobody can tell me that the Pharaohs of old could have milked the people for what they were worth if the Internet had been around. More than likely the subjects who had to haul giant stones to the pyramids might have seen what life was like in Australia, screamed obscenities at an online cooking forum and then bolted for greener pastures. Of course it’s equally likely the pyramids might never have been built because everyone was busy being witty on Twitter. I can’t prove it either way.

Let’s take a look at the situation.

So, people are clearly pissed at the Egyptian President?

Egyptian protester kisses a riot police officer

That’s an understatement. President Mohamed Hosni Mubarek has been in charge and ruling autocratically since 1981. A child born at the beginning of his rule would have completed university and be preparing a family and a 30th birthday party filled with tears and monologues about a third-life-crisis. Australians tend to get tired of Governments after 11 years. And we get the special privilege of electing them. But you’ll note Mubarek has also broken a lot of promises in his time, principally for democratic reform of the country. He’s been promising free and fair elections (ones where he doesn’t tweak the rules to eliminate his most popular opponents) for years now and people are fed up. You know those domineering ladies with 10 kids who have treated the parents association at the local school as their own personal fiefdom for decades? Yup, it’s kind of like that and now there’s been a throwdown.

But why now?

This is where the power of the Internet comes in. Just weeks ago the same protests led to regime overthrow in Tunisia because people were informed and thought there was a better way to do things. Also because they weren’t busy looking up porn and decided to get their shit together. Egyptians took notice and they followed suit. Remember the Domino Theory from communism scaremongering 101? Well, it works brutally when the Internet comes into play. A butterfly flaps its wings in Tunisia and protestors looking to overthrow an autocrat turn out in Egypt. Chaos Theory is so the Rottweiler of the Internet.

Crikey, the Internet is quite useful for the oppressed isn’t it?

Correct. If you didn’t believe in its power before, take note only of the fact that Egypt tried to shut down the entire Internet to stop the protests. Human beings self organise. We communicate and the web allowed Egyptians to do that which is why the President essentially pulled the plug on all telecommunications. But the Internet is like a cockroach. Filthy. Oh, and hard to kill. Those organising the protests have found crude but so far operational workarounds to continue letting the world know about their struggle. Coincidentally, putting a kill switch on the Internet (as absurd as that sounds) was a desirable goal for some United States congressmen and women. Having witnessed the events in Egypt one can only wonder why they might have wanted it. I make no assumptions. For all I know they are just very conscious of protecting themselves against Terminators and SkyNet at some point in the future. As we should be.

So where are we up to, who’s in charge now?

Scenes of the riots are still being sent through on Twitter. The people in the front rows are praying and bowing while being sprayed with a high pressure hose, possibly with tear gas added into the water

Essentially, the military is. They have always been regarded highly by the people and exercise greater power in some respects than the President himself. Although you would too if you had access to an airforce the size and technological equal of Israel’s, the largest number of western tanks in the Middle East and other military tech, some of which is funded to the tune of $1.2 billion a year by the United States of America.

Wait, what? Why is the USA buying Egypt explosive things?

Without getting into the complexities of military aid, let’s just say this: because Egypt is kind of like your mad uncle who treats his own family like shit but whom helps you negotiate the unfettered quagmire that is your relationship with your trigger-happy aunts at Christmas. The trigger happy aunts being Israel and the rest of the bloody Middle East. We cannot delve into the history of it all here but let’s break it down. The Arabs do not like Israel and Israel is an island in a sea of Arabs. Israel does not like any of the others either. It’s like the A Current Affair neighbour from hell story times a thousand and instead of tossing broken bottles into each other’s yard they all have access to rockets.

Keeping a lid on that simmering paella of tension requires a juggling act of International diplomacy and aid that would weave such a wicked web Horatio from CSI: Miami would be forced to take his glasses off several times in just a few seconds while trying to work it out. Several times. So the US redirects foreign aid and military aid all across the region, often to its friends and enemies and then to the enemies of its friends and then to Margaret who had only gone down the road to get some milk. This means Egypt is a massive western ally and was also the first Middle Eastern country to sign a peace treaty with Israel and has worked with the USA in the past to broker deals between Israel and the rest of the Arab countries with as little hissing as possible. Phew.

That was actually tiring to write. Imagine what it’s like being the US right now.

So what does this mean for the stability of the region?

The most excellent of questions. You can appreciate the meekness of the United States here who are tasked with incubating some sense of stability in the region and to do that they need Hosni Mubarek – better the devil you know and all the rest. But they can’t be seen to condone a regime that imprisons political activists or tortures citizens and so forth. Add to that the fact that Hosni is a good friend of the Clintons. Ouch. Egypt isn’t perfect and it certainly isn’t doing a stellar job for its citizens. But it is a powerful cornerstone in the shitty brickwork that is the tense and riddled-with-problems Middle East. That might be an over-simplification but this has to be brief.

So where do they go from here?

Only time will tell. The revolution in Tunisia was successful. Pressure is mounting on Mubarek. Let’s not forget the role of the web in all of this. The web is the pulsing vein of communication that links us all instantly. It is a force to be reckoned with not only in Egypt but across the world as a way to show people that the grass can be greener on the other side of the fence. It’s also stunningly useful as a tool to organise. You can bet your bottom dollar during the French revolution that no matter how well the word got around about the insurgency there was always one guy who showed up a day late on his horse because he couldn’t double check the date on Twitter.

As long as the Egyptians self-organise then this revolution will only gain momentum.

There’s more where this came from. And maybe a LOLcat as well.

UPDATE: How can I find out more about the on-going situation in Egypt?

Try here and here.

UPDATE #2 AND MORE BACKGROUND:

So, we come to Egypt. This is why – for purely selfish reasons – the States has supported Mubarak for so long. He is a tremendous ally to their ‘cause’ in the Middle East. Israel wants him to stay too because America and Israel old allies fighting against the perceived instability of the Muslim world. That’s how they see it, mind you, not necessarily my view of things. It’s no surprise of course that America was the first state in the world to recognise the legitimacy of Israel when it formed in 1948.

Bear in mind also that the revolution in Egypt is not a religious one. It’s a revolution against autocracy and lack of freedoms. Egypt is ranked 138th of 167 countries in the Democracy Index. That’s just seven spots ahead of Tunisia, which fell.

Mubarak is clutching to power but according to Barack Obama he realises the situation is untenable. The last of the Internet proper has been switched off In Egypt which has led to an army of people ringing a special service where their voicemail messages have been turned to Twitter messages. Check it out here: http://bit.ly/dYKPKt Life will find a way.

If you’re in to the technical detail of how the Internet has been switched off, essentially, then you can read all the nerdy goodness right here: http://www.renesys.com/blog/2011/01/egypt-leaves-the-internet.shtml

So what’s happening now?

1. Egyptian protesters have massed in the streets, chanting ‘not enough, not enough’ and Obama has fronted the media claiming he has spoken to Mubarak. He says he has explained to Mubarak that a peaceful transition must begin now, though makes no mention of whether he has told the leader he should step down now.

2. The Australian Government has remained preoccupied with getting Aussies out with PM Gillard explaining they will charter a jumbo a day if need be. Australia is an ally of the United States so its interests, while not nearly so influential, lie approximately with the States in the Middle East.

3. China has blocked searches of ‘Egypt’ and ‘Cairo’ in its own state because it knows the Internet can lead to an infectious urge for the revolutionary. That’s precisely how these protests got kick-started in Egypt by the people, having watched the success in Tunisia. China doesn’t want even a hint of rumblings and it will help ensure this by censoring the Internet as it does.

That’s why the Internet is such a keystone in all of this. Yes, people can protest without it. They can organise without it. But it makes it much harder. Just remember, we could do most of the jobs we do today in Australia without the Internet. We did it in 1950, and 1970. But the Internet makes it faster. It makes it easy. It causes sentiments and information to go viral. That’s why a dictator who seeks to control millions upon millions of people mustn’t let the Internet work its magic because sometimes you just can’t stop the snowball effect. This also explains why Egypt cancelled the press passes of journalists and shut down the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo.

4. Egyptian Christians and Muslims have been guarding each other on the streets and during prayers. They’ve also been forming human chains to guard museums and the antiquities for which Egypt is so well known.

The momentum continues to build.

Brett Solomon is co-founder and Executive Director of Accessnow.org – a global movement for digital freedom born out of the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian election. Brett recently spoke about Citizen Journalism and the democratisation of news coverage at  TEDdx in Sydney.  Given what is going on in Egypt –  you should watch this

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