SMS messaging restricted in bid to preempt pre-election activism

Egypt's National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) has imposed new restrictions aimed at tightening control over the SMS messaging services provided by mobile phone companies and media institutions in an apparent effort to preempt possible anti-regime activism in the run-up to next month's parliamentary elections.

On Monday, a number of private media institutions–including Al-Masry Al-Youm–were notified by SMS news providers that they must now obtain approval from the Ministry of Information and the Supreme Press Council before sending news alerts out to subscribers.

A source at the NTRA denied that the new restrictions had a political aspect, insisting that they had been put in place to regulate 30 companies currently operating in Egypt without a clear legal status.

It remains unclear whether the new regulations will stipulate the suspension or cancellation of phone subscriptions for those found disseminating anti-regime text messages. It is also unclear how the new regulations will affect private newspapers' capacity to generate profits from SMS-based news services.

Vodafone Government Relations Department Director Khaled Hegazi, for his part, stressed that mobile phone companies had nothing to do with the new regulations.

According to informed sources, the government hopes to restrict the use of SMS messages in light of sectarian tensions stemming from a recent exchange between a Coptic bishop and a prominent Islamic thinker, and an ongoing crisis involving the wife of a Minya priest said to have converted to Islam.

Officials reportedly believe that mass mobile phone messages concerning both issues had played a role in inflaming tensions between Egypt's Muslim and Christian communities.

The same sources also attribute the new regulations to next month's parliamentary elections, since it is believed that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) opposition movement–along with certain businessmen–had planned to use SMS messaging as part of their electoral campaigns.

The CEO of one messaging service provider, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that the NTRA had in recent weeks met with officials of the three mobile phone companies operating in Egypt–along with state security services–to inform them of the new regulations. He also said that special "controllers" had been mandated with monitoring text messages disseminated by the MB and by opposition youth movements.

The NTRA will reportedly take 3 percent of companies' SMS-generated revenue with which it will pay the salaries of the special controllers.

Well-informed sources also noted that operators in Egypt providing SMS services without the appropriate license would now have to obtain permits in order to maintain the service. Such companies are expected to pay LE500,000 for the permit and a further LE500,000 in insurance in case they are found violating the new regulations.

SMS service providers based overseas, meanwhile, will be prohibited from offering the service in Egypt.

Some observers believe the new regulations aim to hinder the logistical capabilities of Egypt's political opposition, which has come to depend on SMS messaging to mobilize supporters for public protests and demonstrations. Over the course of the last year, both Internet and mobile-phone technologies proved central to efforts by Mohamed ElBaradei, a would-be independent presidential candidate, to collect millions of signatures in support of political reform.

The new restrictions are not dissimilar to those recently enforced in other countries, such as Iran, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, all of which have banned SMS messages in an effort to curb popular mobilization and collective action on the part of their political opponents.

International and local media watchdogs, meanwhile, have voiced concerns about what they see as diminishing press freedoms in Egypt following the dismissal of Al-Dostour Chief Editor–and vocal critic of the government–Ibrahim Eissa last week. And in early October, Egyptian authorities closed down Salafi-affiliated satellite television channel Al-Badr for allegedly inciting sectarian hatred.

What's more, authorities late last month closed the studios belonging to the Saudi-owned Orbit satellite television network, which had broadcast a popular political talk show–"Cairo Today"–hosted by Amr Adeeb, who is also known for openly criticizing senior Egyptian officials. Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi, however, said the cancellation of the program had "no political dimension" and had only been due to to the network's failure to pay its bills.

According to government statistics, mobile phones constitute the fastest-growing means of communication in Egypt. In December of last year, the total number of Egyptian mobile-phone subscribers stood at 55.35 million, representing a 34-percent year-on-year increase.

The total number of Internet users in Egypt, meanwhile, has also increased markedly, from 14.9 million in mid-2009 to a current 19.7 million, according to figures released by the Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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