Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Egypt Protests, Part 1: Communication Blackout

Note to governments worldwide: if you want to freak out every expat living within your borders, turn off all mobile phone networks and cut off all Internet access. Hey, it worked in Egypt and it could for you too.

I never knew how much I relied on these two relatively insignificant things to keep me *plugged in* to the rest of the world.

Friday morning we woke up to a very normal feeling day. Everyone knew that protests were being scheduled after Friday prayers (which ends around 1:00PM Cairo time). Usually we're up earlier and off to the international church around 9:30AM but I forgot to set my alarm so we got up a bit later and went out for breakfast.

Cairo is always a quiet city early on a Friday morning and this Friday was no different. The streets are mostly empty (as in fewer cars that don't have to stop because of traffic, we're still talking about a mega-city of approximately 20 million people here).

First thing on Friday I noticed that the service for my mobile phone was down. It surprised me, and I thought at first there was a problem with my phone.

So I called for my husband. His phone's service was down too.

Then we pulled out another mobile phone (I think we have them coming out of our ears in our house) with a line for another mobile company to see if it was working.

It was not.

I tend to think worst-case scenarios here. I don't know if it's the result of being married to an insurance guy for over 5 years or just my own life experience so far of how often Murphy's law comes into play when you live in a foreign country.

The questions started running around in my mind. What happened if I got separated from my husband? What happened if his mother (who lives across town) needed something? What about hospitals, what if there was an emergency and we needed to go to the hospital, how could we reach them?

Let me just interrupt to say that landlines stayed working through all of this.

But, seriously, who uses an actual phone these days?! Certainly not in Egypt. Even the poorest of the poor somehow manage to have mobile phones in Egypt.

In our house I don't even bother to plug in our landline phone anymore because (and I do not exaggerate here) we got more wrong number calls to the house than we did legitimate calls looking for us. I think the only people who know our landline number are the delivery guys from Papa John's, McDonald's and Peking.

So like I said we went out for breakfast but we were on our way home long before prayer time was over.

We all knew something was coming. We just didn't know how far and how long it would last. Protests (of any kind) plus the Egyptian police never equals a very safe environment for everyone. And with the Muslim Brotherhood announcing on Thursday that after officially sitting out of Tuesday's Jan. 25 scheduled protests that they would be joining in on Friday, we knew that was NOT a good thing.

So protests plus the Egyptian police PLUS the Muslim brotherhood had the potential to be a very volatile situation.

And after protests in downtown Cairo on Tuesday had gotten out of hand and had spread to other neighborhoods on Wednesday, we had no way of knowing how close the situation would get to us.

Even as far out as we live by the Cairo airport. It's not that we live that far from downtown Cairo. In fact, on a good traffic day you can reach downtown within 20 minutes or less. But there's still a whole lot of Cairo between downtown and us.

Somehow during the course of the morning we had realized that all internet service had been cut as well. Now block Facebook... block Twitter... I can live without them... at least for a little while. We can go retro here and go back to email (I'm kidding).

But cut off my access to the outside world... that's a WHOLE different situation.

As I write this from our hotel room in Cyprus tonight internet access in Egypt is still down. There have been various rumors that it's been up and running. And it seems that some places like embassies (or at least the U.S. embassy) and hotels have had intermittent over the past few days.

I won't comment on the privileged few.

I'm talking about the humble masses out there without internet access here.

People like me. People who have iPhones and Blackberries that are never beyond arm's reach. Bloggers. Facebook and Twitter junkies. People who live and breathe having access to the world at their fingertips. People who actually enjoy the information overload of the Internet.

I wear this badge proudly.

Because I could've cared less at this point what was going on downtown. All I was thinking is when this began to hit the news (which got turned on in our house the minute we stepped in the door after getting home from breakfast Friday morning and didn't get turned off for about 48 hours), what is my family going to think? How was I going to get word to them that we're okay? Would my mother have another mild heart attack wondering and worrying where we are and how we're doing?

So, yeah, thanks for that. I appreciate the fact that you were trying to stifle the protests by cutting off communication in Egypt.

Oh, and look where that got you anyways.

It certainly made MY life a little more enjoyable in Egypt.

Image courtesy of ITN

Stay tuned for more on an expat's perspective of the protests in Egypt.


  1. Thanks for posting it. Makes me think about my own expat life in China. Everyone has a mobile here; not everyone has a landline. I didn't have one in my last house. Like you, I hardly use the home phone in my current house. We get more telemarketer calls than ones for us. I think I only use it to order food delivery (and still use my mobile for that sometimes anyway). And as for the internet... I only ever contact my family by email or skype. I can't imagine how frightening it would be to be without my sole source of information on the world at large. I know this happened in western China during protests there quite some time ago - cell phone coverage and internet were gone completely (the internet didn't return at all for months and then in a very limited capacity). Yes, cutting cell coverage and internet limits the ability of would-be agitators to coordinate their efforts. But it does so by ridding ALL residents of the ability to communicate with ANYONE. Quite a price to pay...

  2. Did you use the US gov't to get out or did you leave on your own? We're American living here still not sure if we're going to go or not...

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Tanya.

  4. We were able to catch a flight Monday to Cyprus courtesy of the US gov't. We sat all afternoon Sunday for a flight to Dubai that got cancelled... for the long hours waiting at least we knew we could get on a plane at the end.


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