Egypt Leaders Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet
Shut down or else
The most telling bit of evidence was that some Internet services inside the country were still working, at least sporadically. American University in Cairo, frantically trying to relocate students and faculty members away from troubled areas, was unable to use e-mail, cellphones — which were also shut down — or even a radio frequency reserved for security teams. But the university was able to update its Web site, hosted on a server inside Egypt, and at least some people were able to pull up the site and follow the emergency instructions.
“The servers were up,” said Nagwa Nicola, the chief technology officer at American University in Cairo. “You could reach up to the Internet provider itself, but you wouldn’t get out of the country.” Ms. Nicola said that no notice had been given, and she depicted an operation that appeared to have been carried out with great secrecy.
“When we called the providers, they said, ‘Um, hang on, we just have a few problems and we’ll be on again,’ ” she said. “They wouldn’t tell us it was out.”
She added, “It wasn’t expected at all that something like that would happen.”
Told to Shut Down or Else
Individual Internet service providers were also called on the carpet and ordered to shut down, as they are required to do by their licensing agreements if the government so decrees.
According to an Egyptian engineer and an international telecom expert who both spoke on the condition of anonymity, at least one provider, Vodafone, expressed extreme reluctance to shut down but was told that if it did not comply, the government would use its own “off” switch via the Telecom Egypt infrastructure — a method that would be much more time-consuming to reverse. Other exchanges, like an important one in Alexandria, may also have been involved.
Still, even major providers received little notice that the moves were afoot, said an Egyptian with close knowledge of the telecom industry who would speak only anonymously.
“You don’t get a couple of days with something like this,” he said. “It was less than an hour.”
After the Internet collapsed, Mr. ElShabrawy, 35, whose company provides Internet service to 2,000 subscribers and develops software for foreign and domestic customers, made urgent inquiries with the Ministry of Communications, to no avail. So he scrambled to re-establish his own communications.
When he, too, noticed that domestic fiber-optic cables were open, he had a moment of exhilaration, remembering that he could link up servers directly and establish messaging using an older system called Internet Relay Chat. But then it dawned on him that he had always assumed he could download the necessary software via the Internet and had saved no copy.
“You don’t have your tools — you don’t have anything,” Mr. ElShabrawy said he realized as he stared at the dead lines at his main office in Mansoura, about 60 miles outside Cairo.
With the streets unsafe because of marauding bands of looters, he decided to risk having a driver bring $7,000 in satellite equipment, including a four-foot dish, from Cairo, and somehow he was connected internationally again by Monday evening.
Steeling himself for the blast of complaints from angry customers — his company also provides texting services in Europe and the Middle East — Mr. ElShabrawy found time to post videos of the protests in Mansoura on his Facebook page. But with security officials asking questions about what he was up to, he did not dare hook up his domestic subscribers.
Then, gingerly, he reached out to his international customers, his profuse apologies already framed in his mind.
The response that poured in astonished Mr. ElShabrawy, who is nothing if not a conscientious businessman, even in turbulent times. “People said: ‘Don’t worry about that. We are fine and we need to know that you are fine. We are all supporting you.’ ”