Five years later: the internet shutdown that rocked Egypt

Only five years ago, activists in Egypt carried out protests that inspired the world. The movement forged a new link between on- and offline action, where networks could converge and come alive in the streets in a powerful new form of political activism.

After three decades of authoritarian rule, thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to express solidarity and chart a new way forward for Egypt. The government responded with a heavy-handed attack on fundamental human rights. It ordered telecommunications companies in the region to cut off access to the internet, voice, and SMS, directly interfering with Egyptians’ right to seek, receive, and impart information. It also forced the companies to send pro-regime propaganda messages.

The internet shutdown lasted for five long days, but no one gave up. The protests continued on the streets until President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011. Egyptians prepared to usher in a new government, and a new era of democratic discourse and participation. These movements were mirrored in Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain, with differing results, in what became known as the “Arab Spring.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  

The struggle for free expression in Egypt and across the MENA region is not over. The government in Egypt has not fulfilled the promise of the uprising five years ago. Instead, it has cracked down on journalists and members of civil society, in some cases leveraging social media to identify dissidents.

Two of the telcos involved in the 2011 shutdown — Vodafone and Orange — learned from the experience and helped create the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue to help prevent future abuses. Yet many telecommunications companies in the region are failing to push back. When they get government orders to shut down internet services or allow access to people’s private information, they often comply without complaint or delay — abandoning their responsibility to respect human rights. Earlier this month, in what some speculate may be in response to government pressure, the telco Etisalat shut down access to internet services including Facebook’s Free Basics in Egypt, just before Morocco’s leading telcos killed Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications.

January 25 will mark the fifth anniversary of the uprising. We’re calling on the Egyptian government to keep the internet on, and we’ve reached out to telcos in the MENA region.

Internet shutdowns do not restore order, protect rights, or keep people safe. They are a blunt instrument that should never be wielded by a democratic regime that protects human rights. Yet they are on the rise worldwide. In 2015, there were nearly 20 recorded shutdowns across the globe.

Last year, experts at the U.N. issued an historic statement declaring that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict. This means that whether they take place in Cairo or Baltimore, shutdowns to quell protests or silence dissent are not just ineffective. They are a clear violation of our fundamental rights.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting examples of internet shutdowns around the world, and sharing information about how to stop them. If you want to stay updated, join us on Twitter or“friend” us on Facebook.