Eric Trager has returned to the States from a trip to Egypt, where he met with democracy advocates and their opponents, investigated media culture, and examined other aspects of contemporary Egyptian political life. This is the first in a series of posts on his trip there.
Among the plethora of traditional coffee shops throughout Cairo, a number of much more expensive, Starbucks-like chains have arisen in recent years. In addition to providing air-conditioning, cleaner amenities, and a greater variety of food and drink offerings, these chains invariably provide free wireless Internet service. For this reason, upon arriving in Egypt on the evening of July 2nd, my first stop was to the Cilantro location near the American University in Cairo, where I hoped to check my e-mail and call my wife via Skype. When I lived in Cairo during the 2006-2007 academic year, Cilantro had been a common destination for this purpose.
But when I arrived at Cilantro, I noticed a major change. Rather than simply turning on my computer and automatically connecting to the network, I now had to register my computer through MobiNil – one of Egypt’s leading telecommunications companies – by providing my e-mail address, as well as a secret access code from the back of a complimentary scratch-off card. Each access code was good for two hours of Internet use, after which I had to log in again using a new access code. As I made my way to similar coffee shops throughout Cairo during my stay, I found that all of them had adopted identical Internet policies, with their networks requiring users to register with MobiNil for two-hour increments of service.
As I soon found out, however, this was no coincidence. According to a source with a high-ranking contact at MobiNil, these coffee shops are suddenly regulating use of their networks as a consequence of governmental pressures. Apparently, in the aftermath of the regime’s arrest and torture of several dissident bloggers, Egyptian bloggers began using the open networks formerly available at these coffee shops to upload posts anonymously. As a handful of upscale Cairo coffee shops emerged as an unlikely frontline between the Egyptian government and its domestic opponents, the state’s security service located a new mechanism for tracking and stifling its web-based critics.
The takeaway is simple: even while it fails to provide its citizens with adequate health, education, and other key services, the Egyptian government is disturbingly agile when it comes to adapting new strategies for addressing new sources of opposition. Such is the skill set of a truly authoritarian regime.