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Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2011-04-15

Telecoms engineer Ousama Abushagur believed he could restore Libya’s mobile phone network after the Gaddafi regime pulled the plug to undermine rebel communications. The trick worked – and the rebels are grateful.

Mobile telephone service has been restored in rebel-held areas of Libya after state telephone networks shut down in February were hijacked by anti-government insurgents.

In the last week, a new telephone company has sprung up in the eastern rebel city of Benghazi. Free Libyana is run by a small group of formerly expatriate Libyans who have hijacked the national operator’s lines and restored service.

“All communications on the Libyana network were controlled by the authorities in Benghazi,” 31-year-old, US-educated engineer Ousama Abushagur told FRANCE 24. “In February the whole service was shut off.” The Libyana network was run by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Mohammed.

Without a working mobile network, rebel leaders were unable to coordinate their actions.
A few of them had satellite phones, but the majority had to resort to far more rudimentary methods – including flags – to communicate among themselves, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The lack of working phones meant that political and economic appeals to the wider world became extremely difficult. It also prevented Libyans from calling their loved ones abroad.

Many millions of dollars

“It was the appalling humanitarian situation that made us decide to act,” said Abushagur, who has lived in the United States and formerly worked for one of the first Internet browsers, Netscape.

Abushagur knew that it was perfectly possible to hijack the existing network and give the rebel movement its voice back. But doing so involved putting theory into practice by putting a strike team together and securing the considerable funding it would need from generous donors.

According to the Wall Street Journal, most of this funding came from the Dubai, Qatari and Saudi Arabian governments.

“We bought all the necessary equipment for a satellite connection,” Abushagur said, adding that this had cost many millions of dollars.

He also got support engineers working for the state operator, who communicated the data – codes and the national database of telephone numbers – that Abushagur’s team needed to pirate the Libyan operator.

Plugging in

Then began the work in the field. The costly equipment had to be shipped to Benghazi, running a gauntlet made up of nervous customs officials.

Egyptian customs agents almost scuppered the project, but they eventually relented and let it through.

Once the equipment was in Benghazi, it was simply a case of plugging in.

“We reconfigured the equipment in Benghazi to create a second mobile network that is totally independent from Libyana but uses its infrastructure,” Abushagur explained.

On April 2 he made his first mobile phone call, to his wife in Abu Dhabi, using the Free Libyana network.

Since then people in rebel-held areas in the east of the country can make and receive calls within the country – something that has been a massive boon to the rebel forces.

“It is a huge reward to see families speaking to their loved ones from abroad,” said Abushagur, who added that some 750,000 connections are up and running.

But not everyone can call abroad yet. “We still haven’t finalised a payment method,” said Abushagur, although “VIP” passes have been given to members of the rebel Transitional National Council, granting them unlimited free international calls.


Date created : 2011-04-15


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