On 27th January, President Mohamed Morsi declared a “state of emergency” in three of Egypt’s canal cities. The next day, on the two year anniversary of the “day of rage” which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the revolution, the mood was tense. Deadly clashes between protesters and security forces had continued in the week leading up to Morsi’s announcement and showed no sign of letting up. That day, in an internet café in Cairo, I met with eight young Egyptians who used codenames like “Fire-breathing Dragon,” “The Ghost” and “Hohoz.” They were recruiting men in Alexandria and choosing their leaders in Cairo. They were planning an attack.
These men, however, did not belong to one of the mysterious anarchist groups that have appeared in recent months. They were devotees of a new Arabic computer game called Knights of Glory, a “massively multiplayer” online game set in the seventh and eighth centuries during the Arab conquests and made by a company called Falafel Games.
It was the first time most of these fans had met each other outside the game but they descended upon a small row of computers in the Nasr City district like old friends. As they started to play, screens which normally displayed western games like FIFA and World of Warcraft filled with Arabic script. Some gamers, like “Hohoz” (real name: Hani, a computer science student), have been playing Knights of Glory since it was released two years ago. Others, like “The Ghost” (real name: Bassem, employee at an Islamic Bank), had only just started. They are united by this game created “by Arabs, for Arabs,” in the words of its designers.
Videogames are becoming big business in the Arab world. The market is estimated to be worth between $1bn and $2.6bn. (With such an active grey market there are no exact figures.) Technology analysts Discover Digital Arabia (DDA) estimate that the average Saudi child spends $400 a year on videogames. Even the King of Jordan has been snapped gaming on his private jet. The internet has helped turbocharge the gaming industry. Whatever the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring, far more people across the region use the web to play games than to plan revolutions. According to DDA, 65 per cent of Saudi internet users play online games, as do 56 per cent of Egyptian internet users.