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Rocking the Casbah

Social mobilization and the role of the Internet in the Middle East

In the midst of massive street protests, Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NDP) decided to pull the plug on about 3,500 border gateway protocol (BGP) routes to Egypt, thereby cutting off the country from the Internet.  A significant step, because much of the mobilization for the disobedience movement occurred through social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

My colleague at the Takshashila Institution, Srijith, writes on the importance of importance of an open, unfiltered Internet to any democratic setup.

For reasons beyond merely Egypt’s ability to control information flow, this blog had previously articulated why Egypt will not go the way of Tunisia.  Even as Cairo simmers, The Filter Coffee stands by that argument.  But the Egyptian experience raises interesting questions on the role of the Internet as a tool to mobilize and sustain social movements in the Middle East, more so the Arabian Peninsula. It also raises questions about the scope for a Tunisia-style social upheaval in the Peninsula.

Consider this excerpt from Bogon Monitoring (via Vyūha)

Yesterday there were 2903 Egyptian networks, originated from 52  ISP’s. Transit was provided via 45 unique isp’s. Today at 2am UTC, the numbers look quite different, there were only 327 Egyptian networks left on the Internet. These were originated 26 by ISP’s.So 88% of the Egyptian networks is unreachable! [BGPmon]

Social upheavals are few and far between in the Peninsula.  Certainly, no precedence exists in the modern history of the states that form the GCC of any such upheaval.  There have been occasional bouts of unrest in Bahrain, but those are largely on sectarian grounds.

So hypothetically, if social, political and economic circumstances in any country in the Peninsula came to mirror those Egypt or Tunisia, could a popular uprising even be mobilized?  The NDP was able to render 50% of Egypt’s ISPs (some, presumably, privately-owned) inoperable in a relatively short span of time.  In the Gulf, of course, there are but a handful of ISPs in each country, and even that is a charitable numeration.

The UAE, for example, has 5 (1 major, 4 minor) ISPs.  These are either wholly-owned by the regimes or operate at their will.  As telecommunications companies, these operators also provide a variety of other services — cable TV, telephone and mobile communication.  If there is the slightest probability of a popular mobilization in the Gulf, it is almost certain than there will be a virtual information blackout.  Western governments will, of course, pressure these regimes to restore communication, but only to a point, for they too understand the implications of instability in that part of the world.

Therefore, if social media is to be  a vehicle for the democratization of the Middle East through social movements, what hope does it give those who romanticize of a “liberated” Middle East?  The answer should worry such proponents.

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3 Responses to Rocking the Casbah

  1. Mohan Ram S January 30, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    BGP is Border Gateway Protocol and not broad gateway protocol.
    Nice article..

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