CAIRO -- When I received a Facebook invitation to an event titled ‘Revolution’, I was surprised. Can a revolution really be organised as an ‘Event’ on Facebook? On the day of the planned event 90,000 Facebook subscribers had already clicked the “I will attend” button. My initial thoughts were that the majority will not show up. But then I thought, even if only 5% did show, that would still equal thousands of people…
On the days following the first demonstration, we started to prepare for the worst. We sent reminders to essential staff to test their connectivity at home. We also prepared local VPN accounts on our server in Cairo as an additional precaution in case the essential staff needed direct connections to the office from their homes. By Thursday 27, we had also activated additional satellite phones from our local supplier. We were ready for the worst, but then came Friday 28 and everything went blank… The GSM network over Cairo and all major cities went out. All internet access, not just the social networking sites, was totally blocked and we were suddenly plunged into chaos.
I was in a town 100km away from Cairo at the time but, because I’m subscribed to Vodafone, my mobile phone still worked and my USB modem was still connecting to the office too. I was able to route all the traffic on our proxy server to VSAT instead of ISP and make necessary changes to ensure internet and email was operational in WFP. I was one of the very few “connected” users in Egypt at the time. Stranded in a remote location with no TV and no links to home, I was only able to contact others on land lines or through satellite phones. It was a scary night when we discovered that we could not return to Cairo due to new curfew rules.
First thing I did the next morning when I was back in Cairo was to ensure everything was up and running in the office and the satellite phones were operational. I did not realise the amount of chaos that Cairo had seen the previous night until I saw the aftermath on the streets. We had a long week ahead of us - no internet, no data communications, no SMS. We had no modern communications and were essentially cut off from the world.
Michael Dirksen, Senior Telecommunications specialist from FITTEST flew in during the height of curfew and movement restrictions, to carry out an assessment for the UN Community on how agencies can be better prepared and propose a solution for common Data network and an independent Security Telecoms Network. On our way from the airport to the WFP Office, we had our first brush with an army tank.
The internet was back after six days and after affecting the lives of millions of people and the business of thousands in the booming Egyptian IT sector. Mobile data services, followed by SMS, were back a few days later. WFP was one of the few agencies that remained connected amidst all this.
The rest is now history and we look back at all this from our new Egypt. Lots of lessons were learned about being prepared and ready, and the necessity of having dependable yet independent means of communications. We also learned just how powerful the internet and technology is and the key roles they play in the new Revolution 2.0 - a revolution triggered by Facebook, Twitter and Activist bloggers, fuelled by the loss of connectivity, and broadcast to the world through YouTube and mobile phone cameras.