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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

News from Egypt: The Rocks Have Started Flying

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 2:55 PM

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The Snowpocalypse here may have amounted to just a few inches, but the news from Egypt is really just as bad as you've heard. Daily RFT just got off the phone with Alix Dunn, an American who lives in Cairo and works for an NGO. Dunn wrote her masters thesis on social networking under autocratic governments and as far back as May predicted in an essay for openDemocracy that there were changes afoot in Egypt. Here's what she had to say:

Today was the first scary day. Rocks started flying. I'm back home now. As a white person, I'm allowed a certain amount of observer privilege. We're flies on the wall. There's no animosity toward us. They want to keep us safe.

How has the Internet caused the revolution? That's a really tough question. Internet penetration in Africa is very class-based, not broad-based. Only 16 percent of Egyptians have Internet, and that's urban people and people with money. The organization of the protests has been very top-down. Last week, it was the same 300 or 400 people at all the protests. They'd go to meaningful buildings like Parliament or the courts and the riot police would surround them and shut them down. The bigger protests have been tied to workers movements. Facebook has been channeling anger from the poor.

The idea that Mubarak had to leave came from what happened in Tunisia. Now there's a coherent message and people can channel their anger toward that. Then they took to the streets. Nobody thought this big. There was constant talk and speculation -- in Egypt, you drink a lot of wine and talk about secession strategies -- but it was never tangible. To be honest, people thought nothing would happen.

Then last Friday the government cut the Internet and phones. Egypt is an incredibly social country. If I go out on the street, I have to say hi to at least twenty people. Egyptians are on the phone constantly. Cutting off the phones forced them into the street so they could talk to each other and find out what was going on.

Some of my friends say the phone were cut because of an internal dispute. Someone high up in the government wanted to overthrow Mubarak and cut the phones to create more momentum.

It was a huge mistake cutting the Internet. It was very, very surreal. I'm glad it's back on.

A lot of foreigners are leaving. If I didn't have Egyptian friends, I would be scared out of my mind. I know foreigners who are cowering in their bathtubs. For me, being outside is like being at [New Orleans] Jazzfest without the music. Families are hanging out, eating together, talking. I'm going to stay here. There are too many people I'm close to and I'm too invested to leave. It's like being in New Orleans when Katrina hit and going to Europe.

I feel safe. I've got plenty of food. I live next door to U.S. embassy housing. The doormen have set up roadblocks. They're armed with revolvers and they ask for your id. I feel completely safe. At the airport, the toilets are overflowing and there's no food. I'd rather be here than the airport.

I have to say, though, that the State Department has been handling this horribly. They closed the embassy. It's the second largest embassy in the world, behind Baghdad. They've got so much staff. If you call the embassy hotline, they tell you to look at the website. When the Internet is down! As a U.S. citizen, I pay taxes for government services. And the second we needed help, they completely withdrew. When you move here, you register your passport number and mobile number with the embassy, so they've got this huge list of Americans and they haven't used it. But we've been getting SMS messages from the Egyptian police!

I'm not sure how long this is going to go on. The business leaders could have gotten Mubarak to step down, but they all left last week on their private jets. The first time we've actually needed corruption! This has brought down the entire economy. Without the Internet, the international companies couldn't do business. The government has squashed its own economy and blamed it on the protesters.

This is going to be a war of attrition. People will fight to the death. Most people here don't have much money; they live day-to-day. It might end when the people start starving.

Today was the first violent day. Tonight's a pivot point. It's hard to tell where this is all going.

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