Editor’s Note: This commentary was dictated via telephone from Cairo, as the Egyptian government has shut down Internet access across the country.

CAIRO—Things in Egypt are not as loud as they may seem on TV. The Egyptian government took the unprecedented steps Friday of shutting down Internet and mobile phone access across the country. While protests are rocking part of the Egyptian capital and other cities in the nation, disabled communication networks have rendered many other parts of the country dark and hushed. By 4:00 pm January 29, most major cell phone networks delivered at least some service. Internet networks across the country were completely incapacitated.

Internet access in Egypt can be shut off by the government with the flip of a switch. Like other nasty regimes, the Egyptian government has a taste for controlling all things communicative. It is illegal in Egypt, for example, to conduct any kind of public opinion research without the regime’s blessing; journalists cannot report the news without government permits; and the constitution gives the government power to directly censor news when the country is operating under emergency law (which, as it happens, has been in effect for the last three decades).

I didn’t think that Mubarak’s machine would go the way of Iran, though, and incapacitate Internet and cell phone access for more than 80 million people. The government first attacked Facebook and Twitter last week but, dissatisfied by what
those measures yielded, eventually crippled the country’s main communication networks.

The Egyptian government is doing everything in its power to blind the world to its brutality. CNN reported that Egyptian security forces are not only confiscating and destroying cameras of journalists and activists, but also those of the few remaining tourists in the country who happen to be spotted in public areas. Upon arriving at Cairo International Airport last night, I was asked by customs agents if I had any cameras. I lied and said I had nothing but clothes and books. I also did not volunteer that I am a journalist.

Television and land telephone lines are still operating—for now. Nilesat, Egypt’s main television provider, operates at the pleasure of the government and could be disabled as well. Nilesat was derided in June 2010, when its infrastructure failed during the first match of the World Cup in South Africa, and tens of millions of Egyptians missed large chunks of that historic event. That blockage was due to Nilesat’s incompetence, but I’m confident that the outfit could purposefully shut down satellite TV access across the country if it puts its mind to it. This will not likely happen, though, because the regime knows that idle TVs will give bored masses greater reason to swarm the streets.
The government could easily shut off telephone access, too, but this is probably not necessary from the regime’s point of view; land lines are easier than cell phones for authorities to bug, and they’re not particularly useful for galvanizing large crowds.

As a large but underdeveloped country, Egypt has many well-established nongovernmental institutions that are nonetheless unprepared for the current communication blackout. I teach at The American University in Cairo, and I called the university switchboard early January 29 for assistance in placing a call to relatives in Seattle. I was told to call back in four and a half hours, because that’s when the person who could assist me would arrive.

In my employer’s defense, I called the switchboard at 6:30 am. Nevertheless, the American University is an institution that has an endowment of over $300 million—more than plenty of well-known universities in the U.S.—and it has existed for more than ninety years. If my employer is unprepared in such a communication crisis, other nongovernmental bodies must be close to hopeless.

The backward steps the Egyptian regime has taken are emblematic of the archaic dictatorship in Cairo, which will spare no measure to preserve itself. Hosni Mubarak’s orders to march on his people, to shut down communication for over 80 million citizens, and to direct tanks at Egyptians with Soviet-style sadism are among the desperate last acts of a disgusting old wretch. The opposition is calling for Mubarak to step down, but he will fall down soon enough, ailing as he is. And his legacy will not be that of a quiet dictator, which is the best he could have hoped for, but that of a blood-soaked ruler who gave nary a damn for anything other than his own power and bloated pockets.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin