The old media look to a square in Cairo when they want to understand the political turmoil in Egypt, but perhaps it is now the Internet, or the lack of it, that offers a more complex picture of the power shifts inside a country.

As Arbor Networks noticed last week from its Atlas system that monitors key ISPs around the globe, Egypt ‘disappeared’ from the Internet on Thursday 27 January, a technical way of saying that the government had asked ISPs to pull external links to stop opponents using social media as an organisational tool.

The Egyptian government, it was said, has learned the lesson from similar turmoil in Tunisia earlier in January, and Iran in 2009 - don’t ignore cyberspace until it’s too late.

Suddenly, on 2 February this policy changed, which suggests a turning point of sorts, with Internet traffic suddenly reappearing, Arbor has now documented. Exactly how this came about is still a mystery. In a one-party state who really controls ISPs?

“Put simply, we have never seen a country as connected as Egypt completely lose Internet connectivity for such an extended period,” comments Arbor’s Craig Labovitz. This is not an understatement.

We’ve seen countries isolated from the Internet for short periods thanks to DDoS attacks from outside, but never a country voluntarily unplug itself from the global Internet. Because of the Internet’s design, it is impossible to hide a traffic blackout, or even a reduction.

The Internet is vulnerable to interference but it tells its own story in the hard numbers uncovered by Arbor.

That the Egyptians took the blackout course communicated weakness - what were they afraid of?- and the fact that access later returned compounds this lsense of lacking the ability to control events.

This type of event will become commonplace in future but you wonder whether unstable regimes the world over will ponder Egypt’s approach. Unplugging the Internet does not stop your opponents; and at best it buys you time. But semi-permanent disconnection is extremely hard to pull off. When the re-connection happens, the effect can work against you even more powerfully.

On the Internet, everyone can hear you scream...