When the Egyptian government shut down internet access over a week ago in order to compromise the opposition movement’s ability to communicate there were several press reports that ham radio operators were stepping in to fill the information void. On the surface it seems a very credible story. Amateur radio operators have stepped in to assist with most major natural disasters, providing a communications lifeline with phone, cell and internet lines are down. But things get a little murkier when the circumstances are a political, rather than natural, emergency. Furthermore, while ham radio has a strong history in much of the West, it is not necessarily so pervasive in all nations.
The Amateur Radio Newsline decided to investigate the claim of ham action in Egypt, and fails to find evidence to support it. First off, reporter Norm Seeley, KI7UP, notes that none of the reception reports of Egyptian hams have been attributed to a named licensed amateur operator with a call sign. Moreover, Seeley says that technically skilled hams in nearby countries like Israel would certainly be filing reception reports if there were transmissions from the Egyptian opposition, but none have surfaced.
Finally, Seeley reports that there are only about two dozen amateur radio operators licensed by the Egyptian government. While it is certainly plausible that there are unlicensed transceivers in the country, Seeley posits that someone familiar with shortwave would be associated with the military and therefore not necessarily sympathetic to the opposition, and also aware of the risks involved in being detected.
On the broadcast bands it is also true that we’ve seen unlicensed broadcasters take to the air during both natural disasters and political crises. So one might also wonder if there are any unlicensed broadcasts supporting the opposition in Egypt.
At this point there is just one report of any kind of unlicensed radio activity in Egypt, coming from a report by the Russian Federation state news agency RIA Novosti. An article dated Friday says that the opposition movement has started a single-sheet newspaper called Maidan Tahrir and is setting up a radio station.
I must admit that I do not know enough about RIA Novosti to critically evaluate the quality of its reportage. Furthermore, I know nothing about Egyptian broadcast regulation. In particular, given the Egyptian army’s strong role in national affairs, I don’t know if it would involve itself in shutting down unlicensed stations, regardless of their political persuasion.
As a believer in the power of radio to help mobilize in times of crisis, it would be romantic to think hams or unlicensed broadcasters were stepping up to support democracy in Egypt. However, it may also be true that doing so may be riskier than other types of action.
At this point, especially as the opposition enters talks with the government, I think the best we can say about whether radio has been employed by the opposition is, “maybe.” I’ll stay on the lookout for additional reports, and we would certainly appreciate any tips our intrepid readers can pass along.
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