The role of the United States is, basically, to try to smooth the way behind the scenes for something approximating a South Korean-type endgame, where a transitional regime affiliated with the old powers agrees to play by new rules, paving the way for an opposition coalition to win in the future. Is that possible? I don’t think anybody can say for sure. But we don’t need to know, because second-best outcomes follow the same path.
The worst-case scenario would be for Egypt to arrive at a truly revolutionary situation, with the collapse of the government and the seizure of power by a temporarily united opposition. This is the most likely scenario to lead to an Islamic regime, precisely because the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized non-state political force, which privileges it in a situation of political chaos.
Nearly as bad would be for the army to side explicitly with the Mubarak regime and crush the Egyptian people by force, as this would make the Egyptian regime transparently illegitimate, and would make it practically impossible for the United States to continue its relationship with Egypt as it has in the past (and the Egyptian regime would, undoubtedly, look for other sponsorship to shore up its position). The only way to avoid either scenario would be to rely on the military to ease the current regime out, and do so in a context of some dialogue with the opposition. This appears to be pretty much what the United States is quietly nudging the military to do behind the scenes.
(Picture: A relatively recent screenshot of Tahrir Square, Cairo, where fighter jets scrambled over earlier today and people are making preparations to stay during the night, from this live-blog.)
While we don’t know exactly how the Egyptian government choked off Internet access, there’s no centralized red button that the government—or anyone—can push to turn it off. Evidence suggests a government official called Egypt’s four biggest Internet service providers—Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, and Etisalat Misr—and told them to halt connections. (Vodafone has said it cooperated because the regime has the legal authority to order such a halt.) An engineer at each ISP would then access the ISP’s routers, which contain lists of all the IP addresses accessible through that provider, and delete most or all of those IP addresses, thus cutting off anyone who wants to access them from within or outside the country. That doesn’t mean each ISP had to physically power down their computers; they simply had to change some lines of code.
Egypt didn’t shut down the entire Internet. About 93 percent of Egyptian networks have been disabled, according to Renesys, a company that monitors global Internet activity. One major ISP, Noor Group, is still up and running. Perhaps not coincidentally, Noor happens to host Egypt’s stock exchange. Web connections used by the government and military are also likely still operating on their own private ISPs. Some Egyptian users might also be able to use old-fashioned dial-up connections.
Withholding the Internet in Egypt is relatively easy, compared with other more democratic countries. For one thing, there are only four major ISPs, each of which has relatively few routers connecting them to the outside world. By comparison, anyone who wanted to shut down the Internet in the United States would have to deal with many different companies. And while Egypt can legally disable telecom companies by executive decree, American companies might fall under various regulatory umbrellas that limit the government’s power to disrupt communication channels. Members of Congress have proposed creating a “kill switch” that would shut down the Internet at the push of a button in the case of a “cybersecurity emergency,” but erecting such a blockade would be logistically difficult.
Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa is considered by many to be the first disco song. The 1970 album with the same title is a great Afro jazz album that I have recently discovered. This is a very low-paced, dreamy track and therefore perfect as this week’s Sunday Chill Track: