Egypt cuts internet in attempt to silence protests

15 February 2011 |

Following widespread protests across Egypt, the Egyptian government took the unprecedented step of cutting off the country’s internet access.

Each of the country’s four major ISPs were ordered to shut down all international connections to the internet, in what is the first time in internet history that a country has been entirely cut off. At the time of going to press, critical European and Asian fibre optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected.

Fearing the threat of dissent spreading online, the country’s president Honsi Mubarak ordered Egyptian ISPs to cease service via their international providers on 28 January, cutting off an estimated 20 million users and rendering all Egyptian internet addresses unreachable worldwide. Internet restrictions were lifted on 2 February but the situation is highly liable to change.

The president also temporarily ordered all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country on 28 January. Coverage was partially restored a day later.

Vodafone, one of Egypt’s three mobile operators, issued a statement shortly after the suspension that read: “We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers. It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.”

The Egyptian government’s actions were heavily condemned worldwide, with the White House, social networking giants such as Twitter and Facebook, and digital rights groups all voicing criticism. Jawad Abbassi, founder and general manager of analyst firm Arab Advisors, believes that the Egyptian government’s decision to partially restore the internet indicates that the move was counterproductive.

“The negative publicity that came about from cutting the internet was not in favour of Egypt, and I think that restoring it is part of the acceptance that even if you do cut it, people will still find other ways to communicate what they need to do,” said Abbassi.

The majority of internet connectivity between Europe and Asia passes through Egypt, and the neighbouring Gulf states are particularly reliant on the Egyptian fibre-optic corridor for connectivity to global markets. “It was an orderly shutdown of services according to security measures. Egypt realises it is a connectivity hub for the region and when the army was deployed following the protests, it would ensure vital infrastructure is protected and that, of course, includes telecoms,” said Abbassi.

Abbassi also added that events in Egypt would prove “detrimental to many industries” there, particularly online and e-commerce businesses.