Outrage over exoneration of Egypt telecom giants in communications shutdowns

Salma El-Wardani , Wednesday 1 Jun 2011

According to an Egyptian court, telecommunications companies were not surprised by Mubarak's orders to shut down services; they first practiced shutdowns at the request of government officials during the 2008 Mahalla uprising

(Photo by Mai Shaheen)

"My sister lost her life in front of my eyes that day," says Hala Galal, political activist and filmmaker. She was recalling the night of 28 January, the day internet and mobile services were shut down in Egypt. "Her blood pressure rose suddenly. No mobile phones to call a doctor. Bullets were showering everyone in the streets and we had to find a doctor."

Hala says her younger sister was denied hospital care. They ran to a nearby hospital after being turned away, and tried one hospital after another. She died along the way. Overnight on Friday, 28 January, all broadband and mobile networks in Egypt had been shut down.

In April, the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of other plaintiffs against the three telecommunications companies (and a number of current and former Egyptian officials) seeking compensation for the damages they suffered due to the shutdown of communications.

According to a summary of the verdict issued by the High Administrative Court on Sunday and obtained by Ahram Online, the decision to cut telecommunications was not made “spontaneously” or “overnight,” as authorities have claimed.

Rather, the court said, "as early as April 2008 the ministries of interior, telecommunications and mass communications, in association with telecom companies and internet providers operating in Egypt, conducted a series of experiments to practice how to cut connections."

The first experiment was conducted on 6 April 2008, significant in that it was a day when workers in the industrial Delta city of Mahalla began a major strike over work conditions that escalated to chants against Mubarak, taboo at the time. Mubarak’s security forces cracked down violently on the strike using rubber bullets, tear-gas, and live ammunition, leaving two dead and hundreds injured. Eight hundred activists and workers were detained that day.

The ministry of interior established an emergency room in Ramses Central and practiced how to cut off internet by city and governorate, how to block particular websites, obtain user information and how to shut down mobile phone and bulk-SMS services. They aimed to ensure the telecommunications companies could respond quickly to requests by security.

The second experiment was conducted in October 2010, with a simulated emergency room which experimented on how to deal with technology in the case of mass uprisings.

All of these experiments were conducted in coordination with the telecom companies.

However, the court ruling excluded them, imposing fines only on former regime figures Mubarak (LE200 million), former Minister of Interior Al-Adly (LE300 million) and ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif (LE40 million).

In fact, the companies stand to benefit from the ruling. Communications and IT Minister Maged Osman announced in a press conference Sunday that the ministry would pay domestic mobile-phone operators LE100 million ($16.8 million) in compensation for the five day disruption of services.

The ruling triggered more anger among people who feel betrayed by both the multinational companies and the Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

"This announcement is actually very provocative for the public," said Manal El-Teeby, manager of ECHR which filed the lawsuit. "The current government seems to care only about their relationship with multinationals and not about the people who lost their lives as a result of such brutal decisions."

"It's time for the government to recognise that the people should be the top priority in any decision they make, at least to avoid another revolution," she added.

Mobile operators, who didn’t even apologise to customers after the communications were turned back on, said the terms of their operating licences left them little choice but to agree to the government’s demands.

“All mobile operators in Egypt were instructed to suspend services in selected areas,” Vodafone said in an earlier statement. It runs a joint mobile venture in the country with Telecom Egypt.

“Under Egyptian law, the authorities have the right to issue such an order and we are obliged to comply with it. The Egyptian authorities will be clarifying the situation in due course.”

France Telecom the majority owner of Mobinil told customers: “The Egyptian authorities have taken technical measures which prevent Mobinil from serving its customers. We do not have any information at this stage on the return to normal.”

"I can't absolve any of these companies from responsibility for the killing of many protestors and for harming the interests of the public," Hussam Youssef, lawyer and coordinator of the Egyptian Coalition for Human Rights (ECHR) told Ahram Online in a press conference today. "Vodafone, Mobinil and Itisalat were partners in implementing the government’s decisions."

The Egyptian communications law stipulates that authorities can instruct service providers and mobile operators to cut their services in the case of any disaster or situation jeopardising “the national security” of the country.

"Citizens should be aware that the legal structure in Egypt is corrupt and hollow and contains many loopholes by which citizens' dignity and safety can be violated in compliance with the law," said Mohamed Abdul Meta'al, the legal advisor to ECHR.

"National security” was and is still used by the authorities as a scarecrow to justify any violations against citizens' freedoms and liberties," he added.

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