By Whitney Jones
Social networking sites in Egypt have a nobler purpose than hash tags, pokes and Farmville.
They were a platform for political protest until the Egyptian government shut down the country’s Internet access with a few phone calls Jan. 28.
President Hosni Mubarak flipped the “kill switch” on the country’s largest Internet providers, hoping to weaken street protests in Cairo, where people were calling out for free and fair elections and an end to government corruption.
Although Internet access was restored less than a week later, the protests continued to escalate even to the point of violence.
The protests began Jan. 25, shortly after a revolt in Tunisia that caused the country’s former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee.
Dr. Greg Ryan, visiting assistant professor of political science, said the unrest in Tunisia sparked the unsettled Egyptians into action.
“Tunisia has certainly affected what is going on in Cairo right now,” Ryan said. “I don’t think it could have happened without that.”
He said there has been much discontent in Egypt long before the riots, but the results of the Tunisian protests sparked the Egyptians into action.
Egyptians are calling out for a fair democracy. Although elections are held for the Egyptian presidency, Ryan said opposing parties have been unable to run for office during Mubarak’s three decades as Egypt’s president.
In addition to government corruption, the Egyptian people are crying out against unemployment, poverty and government inefficiency.
The United States has had good relations with Egypt in recent years, but President Barack Obama said in an address Feb. 1 that while the United States supports the country’s government, it is time for a change in Egypt.
“Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation,” he said. “The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.”
Mubarak said he would not seek re-election in the scheduled election in September, but the conflict has intensified as the protesters called for the president to step down.
The protesters’ efforts succeeded when Mubarak left his position as president and the Egyptian military assumed control over the nation Feb. 13, which marked the beginning of Egypt’s democratic transition.
The military suspended the country’s constitution and said a committee will be formed to draft amendments.
In addition to the fall of Mubarak, Egypt’s parliament dissolved and the military is making steps for fairer elections, which will be held in six months.
In the first days of the conflict, Ryan said the protesters used social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to spread their message, causing the street protests to grow from a few thousand participants to more than 100,000.
“Once more, we’ve seen the incredible potential for technology to empower citizens and the dignity of those who stand up for a better future,” Obama said in his Feb. 1 address.
In response to the escalation of conflict, Mubarak contacted Egypt’s major service providers and shut down cell phone and Internet service, shutting out social networking sites that helped fuel the street protests.
Although the services were turned back on Feb. 2, Mubarak’s ability to shut down these services left some people wondering if President Obama had the same power.
In June 2010, senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill to protect cyberspace that would allow the president the ability to shut down Internet access in case of a cyber attack.
However, unlike Egypt, the United States has a more complicated infrastructure that runs the Internet, and the providers of the service “would be allowed to propose alternative security measures to respond to the national cyber emergency,” according to a fact sheet put out by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.
While Americans may be worried about the power government has over the Internet after Mubarak’s action, it would take much more than a few phone calls from Obama to silence the continuous flow of status updates and tweets.