Egypt asks mobile firms to bar anonymous users

Mon May 5, 2008 1:02pm EDT
 
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By Cynthia Johnston

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt has asked mobile phone companies to block service to anonymous subscribers as a public security measure, and at least two firms have begun efforts to comply, Egyptian officials and mobile firms said on Monday.

The move comes as Egypt tries to combat a wave of public discontent over rising prices and low wages that have sparked a series of labor and anti-government strikes, organized largely by mobile phone and over the Internet.

The move is expected to affect several hundred thousand customers who did not register their names and addresses when they acquired phone lines -- still a small portion of overall subscribers in the most populous Arab country.

"Everyone who uses the telephone must be known," Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid told a news conference, adding that the move was needed for "public security."

Vodafone Egypt, one of three mobile operators in Egypt, has started disabling text messaging capabilities for anonymous subscribers, and was asking them to come forward with their details, a company spokesman said.

Rival operator Mobinil linked the move to government plans for mobile number portability, which would allow subscribers to change service providers while keeping their original phone numbers.

"We are contacting our subscribers to update their data in order to avoid future suspension or disconnection," a Mobinil investor relations official said.

Both providers said they were acting based on an Egyptian government request. Egypt's third mobile operator, Etisalat, was not available for comment.

TIMING "RAISES EYEBROWS"

Cairo-based political analyst Elijah Zarwan said there were "legitimate security reasons" for the move by telecoms regulators but expressed skepticism over the timing.

"The timing raises eyebrows because it coincided with the calls for a strike," Zarwan said. "I think it is worrisome."

"In the last strike, the organizers took out new cell phones just for the occasion and were very, very careful of talking on their own phones with the assumption that their phones were already tapped," he said, referring to an April 6 action.

Political activists, mainly liberals and leftists, had called for a new strike on Sunday against rising food prices that coincided with President Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday, but most Egyptians ignored the call in another sign the opposition lacks the power to mobilize large-scale public protest.

Egypt's financial daily Al-Mal has linked the move over subscribers to fears that anonymous lines could be misused in "acts of terror." The National Telecoms Regulatory Authority, which made the request, had no immediate comment.

Islamist militants carried out bomb attacks on tourist areas in the Sinai peninsula between 2004 and 2006, prompting mass arrests and a security crackdown. The attacks have not recurred.

Egypt has also tried to quash peaceful political dissent in recent years, launching waves of arrests that have primarily targeted the opposition Muslim Brotherhood but have also netted bloggers and activists opposed to the government.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Wright, Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Boyle)