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Mobile Phone Credit Shortages in Cairo May Affect Safety

The demonstrations have caused Egypt's economy to come to a grinding halt, and as a result Cairo is running out of mobile phone credit. Why is this significant? Notably, for safety reasons, the neighborhood watches require the efficient communication that mobile phones provide. Lines of communication will further be severed on top of the already-cut Internet access and text messaging. This leaves fixed phone lines and the public address systems that mosques normally use to announce the call to prayer as the only way to communicate information.

Most Egyptians have mobile phones on prepaid plans whereby they top-up phone credit as need be. Mobile phone credit can be bought in Egypt three different ways: top-up cards, mobile phone operators, and the internet. Most kiosks and markets sell top-up cards. Thugs, policemen, and protesters looted and ransacked many small businesses. Those who haven't been looted are running out of them. There are also businesses that have chosen to not reopen. As a result, there is limited access to top-up phone cards, which is the primary way to recharge one's phone. The shops that are open in my downtown neighborhood had completely run out of Vodafone and Mobinil top-up cards as of this Monday, yet my corner store still had Etisalat top-up cards. This store was hoping to restock phone credit in the next couple days, but the transportation of goods such as phone cards has stalled since Friday's demonstrations.

Mobile phone operators have stores throughout the city that allow one to buy phone credit using the operator's computer system. Giving them your phone number enables the sale of phone credit without obtaining a phone card. These stores have been widely looted throughout the city because they contain not only valuable phones, but also computers and cash as well. The one on my block was looted and trashed by the end of Saturday. Additionally, not having access to working automatic cash machines, which also have been looted, is yet another obstacle. Egypt is a cash-based economy; most establishments do not accept credit and debit cards. Further, the majority of Egyptians are too poor to have credit or debit cards which are required by Vodafone when buying credit through their website online. Of course, even those with debit and credit cards have not been able to use since Thursday night, the 27th, when the Egyptian government cut access to the internet.

When seven men in a group of seven new, freshly-looted vehicles shot at my friend at the end of his neighborhood watch shift, a mobile phone was the best way to communicate with other neighborhood watches to warn them. Rumors that the Egyptian government will shut down mobile phone operators again like they did on Friday the 28th are disturbing. Mobile phones are important to the safety of people in Cairo. The inability to use them whether because of a lack of available phone credit or because of the government's shutdown poses a real danger to neighborhood watches and communities that maintain them.

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