Egyptians get most of their news from TV, rather than the Internet or newspapers, so when the local government scrambled the satellite TV signal earlier this week for the region's dominant independent news channel, Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based network found a way to subvert that censorship: it used a tactic of frequency-switching to continue to reach its viewers.

That wasn't not the only trick Al Jazeera had up its sleeve, either. It also aired the new frequencies where people could tune their receivers in order to watch the network, in Egypt and beyond, as well as the names of competitor channels where viewers could watch Al Jazeera broadcasts. Viewers with clear Al Jazeera signals elsewhere in the Middle East or beyond passed the new frequency data via word-of-mouth and other means.

Such solutions are typical work-arounds that locals, supporters and media watchers abroad have used to stay informed of the political developments and unrest in Egypt in the past two weeks, says Moez Limayem, an information systems professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

In fact, TV and Internet service outages may have effectively ejected viewers and users out of their chairs and into the street where they could engage in face-to-face conversations and organize, in some ways circumventing any communication shutdowns.

"People who were e-demonstrating and behind their computers and Facebook—they had no other options but to go and demonstrate," Limayem says. "When you have people who have been suffering for 30 years, nothing will stop them," he adds, referring to Hosni Mubarak's reign as Egypt's president since 1981. "You can block whatever you want. If you block one 'highway,' they will just make another 'highway'. You block the whole thing, they will find a new way."

About three-quarters of Egypt's households have a color TV, whereas only 3.7 percent possess computers and only about one-quarter owns a mobile phone, says Jeannie Sowers, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who studies environmental politics in the Middle East.

Landlines and modems
For the rare Web users, some locals overcame the government tactic of shutting down Internet service providers earlier this week by resorting to dial-up modem service, Limayem says. People in Europe gave their Egyptian friends phone numbers, some of them toll-free, to call for dial-up service based in Europe.

Tech-savvy activists also set up proxy or mirror sites to enable access to Web sites that couldn't be reached directly.

Google's "speech to tweet" service launched this week, allowing Egyptians to leave voice-mail messages that were then transcribed via speech-recognition software and posted to Twitter with the #egypt hashtag.

"I think this will have even a bigger impact," Limayem says. "It's using the old technology. You're not using your laptop or 3G or 4G or desktop, you are using basic phone technology to post on the Internet."

A more sophisticated but also phone-based approach to circumnavigating communications roadblocks involved Egyptians in the U.S. who pooled their Skype credits to call random numbers in Egypt just to make sure people were okay, or to collect field reports for posting to social media, Limayem says.

Al Jazeera's role
The media's framing of the Egyptian protests as driven by recent posts to social media is mistaken, a point that has been made by George Washington University political scientist and Abu Aardvark blogger Mark Lynch on Foreign Policy.com. In fact, a key factor behind the rapid emergence of the protests stems from the creation of a trans-Arab identity in recent decades, Sowers says.

Satellite television and Al Jazeera in particular play a major role in the development of political identity, Sowers says. Broadcast television in Egypt is largely government-controlled, with Al Arabiya News Channel being another notable exception. Satellite transmissions, then, have become the main avenue for independent TV journalism in Egypt and much of the Middle East—and Al Jazeera has been the dominant player.

"When you go into a coffee shop, any kind of supermarket, the tailor's, if something is happening in the world, they will have it tuned to Al Jazeera," Sowers says. Its role in the media landscape is analogous to that played by CNN during breaking news events in the U.S. Al Jazeera's Arabic channel reaches some 40 million to 50 million viewers.

Limayem agrees that Al Jazeera played a bigger role than social media. "What is unique about Al Jazeera—whether we agree with it or disagree with it—it is the first Arab satellite channel that allowed Arabs to speak freely about their regimes, where people can go and discuss, and they realize the news as it is happening without any filtering," he says.

Even in buildings where perhaps only one family or a handful of families subscribe to satellite TV, they tend to let neighbors huddle around the TV with them. And when Al Jazeera is unavailable directly on local receivers, viewers can try to tune to competitor Arab-language channels in other countries, such as Lebanon, which have started airing the network's news due to the current crisis, Limayem says.

"When everything fails, people form their own physical networks," Limayem says. "They establish new ways of trusting each other. You find neighbors talking to each other when they never used to talk to each other."