For all the talk of mergers and buy-outs, entrances and exits, little has actually changed recently in mobile communications in North Africa.

The rancorous struggle between France Telecom and Orascom for control of Mobinil seemed destined to end in one party or the other beating an ignominious retreat from Egypt. Instead, after closed door meetings and $300 million changing hands, the two will continue to share control of Mobinil. Business goes on exactly as before.

  • No, I tell a lie: FT can consolidate 100% of Mobinil’s revenues, versus 70% before the deal, which would have added 1% to operating revenues in 2009. Orascom has an option to sell out in a year or so, but then FT once had a court order to buy them out and look how far that got them.
  • Elsewhere in Egypt, Vodafone indicated that its 55% stake in Vodafone Egypt might be available. This aroused interest from Telecom Egypt, the state-controlled wireline operator that owns the other 45%, but it turns out they only wanted to get a controlling interest, not take the whole thing off Vodafone’s hands. Talks terminated.
  • ­But not to worry. Others were interested. Like Orascom. That’s right – the Orascom that still owns a big chunk of Vodafone Egypt’s largest competitor. Even a liberal interpretation of anti-trust might have some issues with that deal, but it had a certain superficial plausibility, particularly if Orascom left Mobinil and wanted to do something productive with all the cash it was to get from MTN for the sale of Djezzy in Algeria.
  • Not so fast!, says the Algerian government, already miffed at Orascom. (See “Orascom: Growing, Shrinking, or Becoming Something Different.”) “Algeria refuses to continue being a market where other countries sell their products” according to a member of the governing FLN party. So South African MTN isn’t welcome. If Djezzy is sold, it will be to the Algerian government. Just don’t expect that to happen quickly or to produce mountains of cash for Orascom to buy out Vodafone Egypt.

Beyond the obvious – “it ain’t over til it’s over” – what’s the message here? With a population of 162 million, relatively high personal incomes, and a subscription penetration around 80%, North Africa’s mobile markets are worth fighting over. We expect continued interest and eventually some done deals. After all, Orange Tunisie finally launched as Tunisia’s third operator, after quietly plugging away for a year or so.