Egypt this week seemed to be both poised to truly enter the 21st century and plunged back to 1980.
As protests have swelled, the Egyptian government methodically shut down almost all of the country's cell phone and Internet connections. All of the digital nerves that connect Egyptians to each other and Egypt to the world — e-mail, mobile phone calls and social networks — were suddenly severed, and with astonishing ease, though there are reports that some service has returned today.
There are apparently only four Internet service providers in Egypt. So, just a few phone calls from the government were all that were required to make phones go dead and screens go dark. The United States, by contrast, has thousands of Internet routes and providers. That can be maddening when you're trying to get a question about your monthly bill resolved. But a central shutdown here is unthinkable, if not impossible.
If the Egyptian government hoped that shutting down mobile phones, e-mail, text messages, Twitter and Facebook would close Egypt off from the world and choke the cries of protest, they were as naive as powerful people who sit in palaces surrounded by armies can be. Citizens were past tweeting and flickering anyway, and took to the streets. A confident, popular regime doesn't try to keep its citizens in the dark, and Egyptians picked up a scent of fear in the government's repression.
A professor of engineering at Cairo University named Omar Mohamad joined the protests this week, and as he told one of our reporters, "The regime used fear to control our nation for decades. That fear is gone right now."
In a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is. But authoritarian governments know that news, and even the nonsense and misinformation that goes with it, can be insurrectionary. That's why they try to hold news back, contain it, strain it and dole it out to their citizens after it's been sugar-coated, like treats to obedient children.
It would be comforting to say that suppressing news and information never works. In fact, it often works well enough for countries to spend decades under one kind of authoritarian regime or another.
But the instinct for people to connect is strong, and these days, it can span oceans as well as neighborhoods. Governments can try to take it away. But if they do, people still take to the streets.