Saturday, January 29, 2011
Egypt Sans Internet
Word is that Egypt has not simply shut down Facebook or Twitter, but that the Egyptian government took the bold step of actually shutting down the Internet. I was in Egypt for a few days when a ship had dropped anchor on the Internet cable buried in the Mediterranean. That's right, there is actually a cable buried in the Med upon which entire swaths of the Middle East depend for Internet access. The government hasn't cut the cable (yet). The country faces potential financial ruin if businesses open on Sunday without access to the Internet.
I know that Egypt has advanced under Mubarak. I know there was a controversial liberalization of the banks, unpopular with many, and an increase in tourism. And I know Egypt is better than a lot of other despotic regimes. There are institutions of government, and those do operate, even if they are riddled with petty bureaucrats who work an average of 15 minutes per day, the tasks of governance squeezed around Al Arosa tea and Cleopatra cigarettes.
All the same, I know about a police state that crushed dissidents, stifled political opponents, and robbed the democratic process of any integrity. I know basic goods and services haven't always been provided. I witnessed some of this (when I wasn't finding my own little things to complain about). But I also knew that public apathy wasn't the same thing as private discourse, of a talk among friends at the Horreya or the ubiquitous, tiled sheesha cafes. After all, Egyptians are famous talkers. They are lovely, social people at their core. I think they love the world, I really do, despite what you're seeing now, the pent-up anger blasting. They have their thoughts about Hosni Mubarak, as we can see by now. But there has always been a reticence to address it publicly, perhaps because no public platforms existed. So you would see frustration manifest in other ways--the physical assault of a former student, an attack on women by a mob at Eid in 2006, bread riots and strikes in 2008, silent protests in Alex last year when a young man was allegedly beaten to death by police. I wondered how a populace absorbs these blows, absorbs the attack on Christians (by the way, Christians have been protecting Muslims who are praying in the face of police, literally bowing to the illiterate young men wielding batons)--how it maintains its equilibrium in a city that is already tilted sideways, veering on a fine brink. These blows matter. They are felt. They reverberate. They are remembered, and they return when called upon by events like those in Tunisia.
I think I knew this could happen. I remember reading about revolutions in undergraduate history classes, from the brutal tyranny of the Soviets in Hungary and the Chinese in Tiananmen, to the toppling of the Soviet bloc. The governments ignore, then try to appease. Do they wait too long to appease, allowing a fire to go unchecked? Or does appeasement only elevate their opposition, embolden it? What happens when appeasement fails?
We are at that point now. The protestors may be happy with Mubarak's false promises and go home. They may rail until he finally rescinds the emergency law under which he has governed since 1981. They may go home when free and fair democratic elections are held, and the unpopular Mubarak is voted from office. They may not wait for any of this, believing it will never materialize, and continue pushing. And then what happens? I remember that from my history classes too. What happens? Who fills the void? What will result from the scrum? Could it be worse than what they've got? Mubarak seems to be betting so, by trying to drive a wedge between sympathetic but housebound middle class families and those who have taken to the streets.
In the meantime, I have colleagues and former students there. I wonder about them, worry about them. We've heard reports from them downplaying the riots. One colleague breezed through Tahrir Square, seeing nothing. Another, who lived in Lebanon during their bloody civil war, puts the Cairo riots in context: they are nothing in comparison. AUC students sequestered in Kattameya wonder how the events "way in Midan Tahrir" actually impact them. Some don't see the relevance; perhaps they have not yet realized that their ways of life will be altered if regime change comes. They might view it as suffering, or unfair, if this happens. But it's not. As I've learned of late, fairness is about knowing simply that it is possible that you may or may not get your way, and that if you live in a place where the same people get their way all the time about everything, then you have others--most of the people--who never get their way about anything. I think that is how Egypt has operated. It's perhaps why we've seen a conservative backlash during the Mubarak years, a holding dear of celestial justice for a lack of the temporal variety.
That may be beginning to change.