The protests that started exactly a decade ago against Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, then 30 years in power, were widely seen as driven by the internet, which was considered unusually open there for an autocratic government. In the days before the protest, word spread via social networks. More than 90,000 people signed up to participate through Facebook, surprising the authorities and giving the movement momentum right from the start.Once the Egyptian government figured out what was going on, it tried to block access to Facebook and Twitter. And when that proved less than successful, it took the extraordinary step two days later of “turning off” the internet entirely. An expert quoted in WIRED at the time said it looked like people at ISPs were “getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air.” No wonder people began to believe the internet had magical, democracy-spreading powers—here was an autocratic government treating the entire project as a threat to its survival, rather than as something to twist toward its own ends.
This desperate decision, which came on January 28, pushed me to write about the protests for The New York Times. I had been to Egypt for a tech conference in Alexandria a few years earlier, so I called people I’d met to ask what was going on. When the shutdown ended, their shocked accounts landed in my inbox. “It was the first time for me to feel digitally disabled,” a 26-year-old computer science graduate wrote. “Imagine sitting at your home, having no single connection with the outer world. I took the decision, ‘This is nonsense, we are not sheep in their herd.’ I went down and joined the protests.”Boosted this way, the protests grew rapidly in strength over the five days of the internet blackout and remained on the same course after the internet returned. By February 11, Mubarak was out. There were elections, a new government, and a heady feeling of change. Then a suspicion that perhaps the change was only superficial, with the same elites still calling the shots. Two and a half years later, there was a military coup, whose leader is still in charge today.
In recent days, the experience of these Reddit-based speculators using inexpensive, easily accessible trading apps like Robinhood has tracked the Tahrir Square experience quite neatly, from shocking early successes, a sense that the whole world is watching, right down to a sweeping crackdown that may end up further promoting the movement.
Places like Ethiopia that have relatively limited internet proliferation typically have just one government-controlled internet service provider, perhaps alongside some smaller private ISPs. But all usually gain access from a single undersea cable or international network node, creating "upstream" choke points that officials can use to essentially block a country's connectivity at its source.