Forced to comply with a government order to disrupt their own services, mobile operators have looked far from comfortable in Egypt. Last Friday, the Egyptian government ordered the country’s three mobile operators – Vodafone Egypt, Mobinil and Etisalat Misr – to blackout their services in selected parts of the country. The government’s objective was to stifle the opposition that has rocked the regime in recent days. Protesters used mobile networks (as well as the internet and social networks) to organise the large-scale demonstrations that have threatened the position of President Hosni Mubarak. By Saturday, the three operators were able to resume service, although there have been subsequent rumours that another suspension might be imposed by the government.

The mobile phone networks have fared better than the internet which has been closed down for longer by the government. In fact, Google has announced a special service that allows Egyptians to send Twitter messages by voicemail. However while bypassing the blocked internet, the new service would still be undone by another phone blackout.

Vodafone emphasised how it had no choice – either technically or legally – but to follow the government’s order last week. The company said in a statement: “We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network…It has been made clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.” The company also introduced another dimension to the debate by mentioning its staff whose “safety” is the company’s “other priority”.

It should be noted that although Vodafone Egypt is 55 percent owned by the operator itself, the remaining stake is held by state-controlled Telecom Egypt. France Telecom, which is the largest shareholder in Mobinil, spoke to its Egyptian customers rather than an international audience, when it emphasised how the authorities had taken “technical measures” to prevent it from offering a service. Etisalat, the majority shareholder in Etisalat Misr, made a statement too that it had been told to suspend service by the government.

At other times, Egypt has been a less stressful place to work. In the third quarter of 2010 (the most recent period for which figures are available) Vodafone led the market with record-breaking net additions of 2.4 million, according to figures from Wireless Intelligence. Mobinil, also breaking its quarterly record, made 2.3 million net additions, said the research firm. Meanwhile Etisalat had to settle for merely gaining its best results for nearly a year, a total of 260,000 net additions.

Now the country is a less benign place to run a mobile network, at least for the moment. How the mobile operators must wish the current upheavals would pass. They have been quick to emphasise how they had no option but to comply with government instructions to close down their networks. They want to be seen by both domestic and international audiences as having had no choice but to comply with the order. That is probably a wise move. The difficulty in such situations is if the regime is overthrown then a foreign company could be seen as having colluded with its unpopular predecessor. Better to suffer a public humbling. Being bullied could turn out to be a small price to pay in the long run.