Egypt Turns Off the Internet As Al Jazeera–Fueled Protests Rage [Updated]

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Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt's decision to turn off the Internet last night, denying users access to Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, couldn't stop thousands of protesters from taking to the streets of Cairo Friday morning, with similar demonstrations in Suez, Alexandria, and Al Arish in northern Sinai. Supporters of pro-democracy leader Mohammed ElBaradei, who called for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, flooded out of mosques after noon prayer. Police greeted them with tear gas and rubber bullets. According to the AP, who has raw footage of a man being shot, they used a water cannon on Nobel laureate ElBaradei and beat protesters who tried to shield him. Egyptian protesters have been particularly effective at utilizing social media to organize and mobilize — this past Tuesday's demonstration was largely arranged via Twitter. Egypt can turn off the Internet — but it can't stop satellite TV. Although news-media efforts to report on events on the ground have been hampered by the communications clampdown, Al Jazeera has moved to fill the vacuum.

The Qatar-based satellite channel has helped galvanize insurgents across the Arab world this week even before Egypt's planned "Day of Unrest" — or "Day of Rage" depending on how you translate it. Earlier this month, reports from Al Jazeera helped topple Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine. The Times reports:

In many ways, it is Al Jazeera’s moment — not only because of the role it has played, but also because the channel has helped to shape a narrative of popular rage against oppressive American-backed Arab governments (and against Israel) ever since its founding 15 years ago. That narrative has long been implicit in the channel’s heavy emphasis on Arab suffering and political crisis, its screaming-match talk shows, even its sensational news banners and swelling orchestral accompaniments.

Answering questions during a YouTube town hall on Thursday, Obama said this of Mubarak: “I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform — political reform, economic reform — is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.” Obama also urged the government to refrain from violence, adding, "I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances."

Joe Biden told PBS last night that Mubarak shouldn't step down:

“Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with — with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”

*This post has been updated. Stay tuned for more as the story breaks.

Egypt's Internet Shut Down, According To Reports [HP]
Protests in Egypt - live updates [Guardian UK]
Rubber bullets, water cannons: Violent clashes erupt in Cairo [MSNBC]
Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Galvanizes Arab Frustration [NYT]

Update: Apparently you can stop satellite TV. Al Jazeera is reporting that state security is trying to enter the building where their Cairo bureau is located. NPR's Andy Carvin tweeted, "Al Jazeera streaming live video from their office window; police are banging on the door trying to get them to stop." Followed by a quote from Al Jazeera, "We've been streaming live for 5 hrs and the police are clearly not happy about it." The Raw Story reports that the station may be shut down, but the live feed from Al Jazeera English is still streaming, with reporters breaking the news from Egyptian state media that Mubarak has ordered police reinforcement for the curfew set from 6 p.m. local time, now in place, through to 7 a.m. on Saturday. "It's not having any effect."

Egyptian security officials have also put El Baradei under house arrest. According to the AP, police are stationed outside his home in Cairo and have told him that he cannot leave.

Al Jazeera English: Live Stream [Al Jazeera]

Update: Through its Twitter account, the White House has issued a statement echoing Hillary Clinton from earlier this week. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote, "V concerned about violence in Egypt - govt must respect the rights of Egyptian people & turn on social networking and internet."

But the Internet blockade hasn't stopped protesters from disseminating real-time information. Along with Al Jazeera English, which has received orders that it may be shut down as part of a media blackout, Egyptians have been using landlines and other means to call friends and relatives outside the U.S. to tweet eyewitness accounts, on their behalf, of the protests and police brutality. International reporters within the country are also using alternate access points and outside bureaus to get the word out. According to Global Voices, it's a departure from the Iranian protests in June 2009, which used networked media like Twitter to organize protests in the absence of mass-media coverage:

In some ways, the Egyptian use of internet and cell phones as a tool for reporting is exactly opposite to the Iranian protests in June 2009. In this case, mass media have continued to function, at least for audiences outside of Egypt, but networked media have been severely curtailed. Finally, despite the shutdown, the networked nature of Egypt's society has connected people to the point that a shutdown is primarily reactive. Street protests will now have their own momentum.

As promised, WikiLeaks released a tranche of diplomatic cables on the United States' relationship with Hosni Mubarak, whose decision to groom his 47-year-old son, Gamal, to follow his own near-30-year reign sparked the demonstrations. Al Jazeera's live feed reports that crowds in Cairo chanted, "Illegitimate! Illegitimate!" even after curfew. The cables reveal that the U.S. predicted Mubarak was likely to win if he ran again in 2011. And that Gamal, who talked to Senator Joe Lieberman back in 2009 about Saddam Hussein's role in stopping Iran's ambitions, was his likely successor.

Another cable exposed close military ties, including the fact that the U.S. provides Cairo with $1.3 billion annually to purchase American military gear."The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez canal and Egyptian airspace."

Egypt: Information getting out despite information blackout [Global Voices]
[Jan25 Voices/Twitter]