On 27 January, President Hosni Mubarak took the decision to shut down Egypt’s internet and mobile services in a bid to prevent the demonstrators  calling for his resignation from communicating with one another.

US-based social networking websites Facebook and Twitter and other messaging services had been used by organisers of the protests to gather support and coordinate meeting points.

But by then lack of communications was no barrier to the momentum of the people, the demonstrations continued without the internet.

Facebook and Twitter played a vital role in enabling organisers to reach out to the wider population, to organise support for the protests, but whether they were the reasons for change is questionable.

“Technology can facilitate change, but the situation has to be ripe for change to begin with,” says Giacomo Luciani of Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre Foundation.

Frustrated unemployed youths in the Middle East

The Middle East suffers from some of the highest unemployment rates in the world, with a young and literate population. Of the 450 million people across the region, 45 per cent are under 21, a frustrated demographic that requires 100 million new jobs by 2020.

Technology can facilitate change, but the situation has to be ripe for change to begin with

Giacomo Luciani, Gulf Research Center

Tunisians were the first to take to the streets and demand change. On 17 December 2010, unemployed graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid after police confiscated his vegetable cart. It sparked riots and that escalated across the country. Twitter was used to keep protestors informed of what was happening, and in doing so opened a window for the rest of the world to see the events unfold.

It attracted widespread media coverage and the subsequent resignation of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali encouraged low-level demonstrations throughout the region, including in Algeria, Oman, Libya, Jordan and Egypt. Until 25 January, however, many analysts remained adamant that a popular uprising would not take place in Egypt. “The Egyptian mindset is different, what happened in Tunisia will never happen here” Hani Saad, head of Egypt office of UAE investment bank Rasmala told MEED in Cairo on 20 January.

The monopoly of information by traditional mass media has been eroded by the internet

Jawad Abbassi, Arab Advisors Group

Less than a week later, Egypt’s youth had organised a mass protest that has fundamentally destabilised the regime of Mubarak. The call for change began through a few Facebook pages set up by the organisers, appointing 25 January as the day for rage. Thousands of Egyptians joined them on the streets.

“The broader picture is the phenomenal growth in mobile use and mobile broadband use, which has been driven by licensing of new services, more competition, lower costs and better access to devices,” says Matthew Reed, senior analyst at US-based Informa Research. “This has been driven by the demographic of the region, a young population with an appetite for new services.”

Mobile penetration levels in the Middle East are close to saturation. There more than 60 million internet subscribers. About third of them are frequent users of Facebook, with more than five million subscribers based in Egypt. Egyptians are the world’s second most active internet users after the Chinese.

Internet power

The internet has become the platform for expression for frustrated youths. The long-standing authoritarian regimes in contrast seem uncertain with the new technology. They hail from an era of centralised mass media, where censorship of television, radio and print was simple. The internet however, cannot be as easily controlled.

“The monopoly of information by traditional mass media has been eroded by the internet through email, blogging and social media,” says Jawad Abbassi, chief executive of Jordan-based research firm Arab Advisors Group.

The Egyptian government has also attempted to control international coverage of the events. Authorities prevented journalists from leaving their hotels and joining the rallies. On 31 January, four members of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera production team were arrested and the government shut down Al-Jazeera broadcasts in the country.

Such attempts, however, have done little to stop the outside world from following events. Facebook and Twitter were used by protesters not just to communicate with one another, but as a platform to show the demonstrations in real-time. Youtube, a Google-owned video-sharing website, was used to upload videos of the rallies and of police attacking the crowds.

U-steam, another US-based video-sharing website, which allows users to stream videos live from their mobile phones, was also used by protesters to provide feeds that traditional news agencies were unable to produce after the government refused them entry into Cairo’s central square. Such tools were a direct link to what was happening on the ground.

Clearly, Mubarak’s clampdown on communications has done nothing to prevent the protests, but it could have other unintended consequences. “It will have a huge economic impact if they continue to shut everything down as it is crippling many forms of economic activity,” says Reed.

The economic impact will undermine Egypt’s position as a communications hub in the region. In recent years, the government has been working to establishing itself as a destination for multinational technology firms. The Smart Village established in Cairo in 2003 has attracted US majors Google, Microsoft and IBM. Government-owned Information Technology Development Agency was seen as a driver for innovation, helping Egypt become the top outsourcing destination in the Middle East. But Egypt’s services are now offline, crippling numerous sectors and damaging this reputation. Most international technology firms have urged employees to leave the country.

Other states in the Middle East also have been investing in the technology sector, improving infrastructure and increasing internet penetration levels in a bid to boost economic activity.

“The irony is that some of these authoritarian governments thought they could undergo economic liberalisation without political liberalisation,” says Reed.

The Arab world was a late and slow adopter of the internet compared with the West. It was eventually introduced to aid commerce and economic development. Associated Press archives from 1997 quote an Iraqi newspaper denouncing the internet as an “American means to enter every house in the world … and the end of civilisations, cultures, interest and ethics”.

Governments in the region have moved on from this view, but some are still unsure of how to manage technology and regulate the internet. Levels of censorship vary across the region. According to the Open Net Initiative – a site that tracks internet freedom worldwide –  there is little or no censorship in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. The GCC states along with Morocco,  Libya and Syria have high levels of internet control, most forbidding access to material deemed politically or religiously offensive. But even then, there are ways around government filters through proxy servers and virtual private networks.

One of the main challenges facing governments is the rapid speed at which technology has developed and penetrated the region. “The paradox for governments that do not tolerate freedom of information is that they cannot funnel the information once there is access to the internet,” says Abbassi. “It is a culture shock for these governments, which have not been able to keep up with the speed of access.”

Global village

The use of these social tools to bring down governments is an unintended use of the internet. The internet has created a global village, without the restriction of geographical boundaries, where people can communicate freely with one another.

The uprising in Tunisia and Egypt are likely to encourage others in the region to voice their discontent and demand change. Already opposition leaders in Syria have used Facebook to call for a day of rage on 5 February in Damascus, even though the site is banned in the country. Similar events are being planned in Sanaa and  Amman. How governments react will depend on the leaders. Some may restrict access to communications as Mubarak has done, others may realise they cannot have complete control over the internet and will not risk the economic implications in the process.

“All the states in the Middle East are open to the outside world and investment and they cannot afford to end up like North Korea,” says Luciani. “Governments can use the internet to observe what the people are doing and seeing online. They can get a better feel for the sentiment of the people and target specific elements that cause trouble and control it. But when it becomes such a wide movement of politics, there is no chance to be repressive.”

These tools alone will not be able to bring democracy to the Middle East or bring about regime change. Twitter became a vital part of Iran’s Green Revolution in 2010. But besides informing the outside world of events within Iran, it did not force the government to resign. The internet does, however, contribute to public debate, articulating the concerns of the ordinary man that the ruling elite have so far been unable to silence.