While not exactly a haven of free speech before, it looks like Egyptian authorities are cracking down on communications technology in the lead-up to parliamentary elections:
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.
While Egyptian authorities also indicated that the text shutdown was meant to reduce ethnic tensions between Copts and Muslims, both the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties are expected to make use of texting in the upcoming parliamentary campaign.
On the one hand, this is a clumsy attempt, a reactive effort that could force Brotherhood and other campaign efforts a bit more underground, but is unlikely to stop their get out the vote efforts. After all, we’re talking about a group that won nearly a fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, despite the group being officially banned in the country. And despite official recalcitrance, as the article notes, former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaredei has been able to gather millions of signatures on his petition in favor of reform. Trying to repress such broad-based movements will only strengthen the hands of opposition forces, without much actual benefit to the government.
On another note, this attempt to limit the influence of newer technologies is part of a disturbing broader trend in the Middle East, one exemplified by recent threats to ban Blackberries in Dubai and the continued or past imprisonment of reform-oriented bloggers in Bahrain and Tunisia.
There are many in this country who would, no doubt, not object to a suppressed vote for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Yet if the U.S. does not speak out more forcefully against attempts to limit democratic processes in the region, we risk a further entrenchment of autocracy and repression that will only serve to cripple the reform so desperately needed in much of the region. While we may not always like the result, it is more important that we, as a country, side with freedom.
— Andrew Lebovich