For the next time your local dictator shuts down the internet

The most traffic this blog ever got was on January 28. Shortly after midnight, I posted that the internet had been shut down in Egypt. The news spread on technology sites like Slashdot and Reddit, eventually bringing down the site. I had internet because I was not in Cairo: I was in the middle of a reporting trip in Tunis, but was spending all my time after the curfew still in place then making calls to Cairo. I had landlines for friends, and quickly confirmed that at least three major ISPs had been simply shut off. It confirmed my gut feeling that something big was coming, and as I flew back to Cairo the next day what became an uprising had begun, defeating the police state.

I still feel that shutting down the internet (and mobile phones) was the key, pivotal tactical mistake of the Mubarak regime that pushed so many to join the protests. It took several days for the internet to be re-established, but in those few days a sense of urgency had been created, galvanizing the protestors' spirit and giving the whole Egyptian uprising story a new angle.

All of this was brought back to mind by this Wired story (via Boing Boing) about a State Department-funded project to quickly deploy, basically, the internet in a suitcase:

The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.

In those early days, even a rapidly deployable intranet would have been useful — especially if you were able to use a Twitter-like service that was decentralized, working like P2P, and advertise services on it so they would be found automatically (like a central repository of some sort that would act as the intranet's home page). Even more useful would be a suitcase satellite internet, like a Bgan on steroids, that could immediately deploy wifi over a sizeable area and handle, say, 100 simultaneous users.  

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.