Egypt's telecommunications regulator has set new rules for companies sending text messages to multiple mobile phones, in a move activists say will stifle efforts to mobilize voters ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
Reform groups in Egypt, as well as elsewhere in the region such as Iran, have increasingly relied on the internet and mobile phones to organize, mobilize and evade government harassment.
Mahmoud el-Gweini, adviser to the Egyptian telecommunication minister, told The Associated Press Tuesday that companies sending out text messages _ known as SMS aggregators _ must now obtain licenses.
The decision was not meant to curb political activity, he said, but was spurred by concerns that "random" text messages concerning sensitive issues such as religious tension or the stock market could be sent to consumers.
"There are over 60 million users. The mobile phone has become a tool in everyone's hand. There is very easy access," el-Gweini said. "People can misuse the tools in the hands of the 60 million and send the wrong messages for one reason or another."
He added that content providers _ whether news services or political parties _ will also need to get approval from the concerned authorities. Some 15 companies each need to pay $88,000 by next week for registration licenses and an equivalent amount as a letter of guarantee.
"We are not making life difficult. We are making life organized, that is all," el-Gweini said.
Text messages were an effective campaign tool for the outlawed Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2005, which stunned the regime by winning 20 percent of the parliament seats in the last elections.
El-Gweini said only registered political parties can register to use mass text messages in the upcoming elections and the ruling party has already been granted a permit, he said.
"We have already told the aggregators, or the mobile operators, that for the licensed parties, just go ahead and implement. You don't have to come to us," he said.
Though Brotherhood members are allowed to run as independents, they are not considered a licensed political party.
In Egypt's tightly controlled political environment, a government-run committee approves who can form parties and some of the country's most vibrant opposition trends are not licensed.
Activists say targeting the text messaging market constitutes veiled censorship and is just the latest measure to curb independent voices ahead of the heated elections set for the end of November.
Parliamentary elections are taking place this year against a tense backdrop of increasingly disgruntled people, rising food prices and new reform groups who say their demands are ignored by the government.
Gamal Eid, a human rights activist, said groups such as his use the mass text messages to spread the word about rights violations.
"The authorities will never give us a license to spread this kind of news," he said.
Moustafa el-Naggar, a member of a new reform movement led by Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, said his group was contemplating using mass text messages to mobilize its members.
"They are trying to strip the opposition of all its tools. But we will find new ones," he said.