Egypt is no longer boiling, but the country’s future is still uncertain. Hosni Mubarak ruled the country for 29 years without a single honest, democratic election. However, he also created growth and stability. How do young Egyptians view the future now that they must shape it themselves? We met some of the young demonstrators at the first boot camp for web entrepreneurs in Cairo.
The noise from the many diligently used car horns surrounds this otherwise ordinary square like an insistent tune. The area in the middle of the square was once covered with grass, but now there’s only dirt and thousands of footprints that bear witness to the revolution. We are at Tahrir Square, which became world-famous on 25 January 2011 – also known as the Day of Wrath – when Egypt’s police opened fire on the demonstrators and killed two.
On this warm June night, there’s a nervous mood among the many people in the square. Once again, there are demonstrations in Tahrir Square, because after five months no new government leader has been appointed, and the Egyptians are demanding immediate action. The revolution isn’t over, even though the world’s attention long has subsided and is now directed at events in other countries. On 29 June, the day before my visit, about 1,000 Egyptians were reported wounded in this very square.
Nextgen2011, which is my goal, is a serious attempt to avoid forgetting what the young Egyptians fought for this spring. This initiative is the result of an international effort headed by Barack Obama, and the purpose of Nextgen2011 is to cultivate entrepreneurship based on Egypt’s largest asset – the 40 million or so young people under the age of 30. I arrived in Cairo on 28 June with ten other web entrepreneurs. Our task was to serve as mentors and guide around 50 Egyptian internet enthusiasts who are already busy creating digital companies on the Arab market – a market of almost 300 million people worldwide. So now I’m part of the first digital boot camp on Egyptian soil, with the revolution still under way.
In 1979, the cassette recorder was the supporting media in the revolution in Iran. 30 years later in 2009, the social media played a crucial role in a similar situation for the first time – the demonstrations against the election results in Iran. In 2011, they played a part in toppling the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who for a number of years had created a stable growth rate in Egypt of 7.2 per cent a year. Egypt’s steep growth curve is strangely enough also the cause of the currents that made the revolution possible. Due to consideration for trade with foreign companies, the government had not closed access to the internet or censured the use of social media. This meant that Egyptians could freely use the digital infrastructure to spread messages, organise meetings and involve the world in the historic events directly from the streets where the violent events took place.
I had seen the many young people demonstrate on the streets in a YouTube video clip, and I’m familiar with Egypt’s history. But I really didn’t know much about the country I’ve now arrived in, and I knew nothing about the internal social relationships, the demographic conditions or the relationship between the sexes. My taxi stops at a huge building, and after having walked through a hall of mirrors worthy of a Pharaoh, I meet the Egyptian entrepreneurs for the first time. The first thing that strikes me is the many women, compared to similar European boot camps. Even more surprising is that a lot of them are system developers. They speak fluent English, are well educated and obviously impassioned.
The morning of my arrival there’s unrest in the hall. Some of the entrepreneurs have not showed up. An embassy employee tells us that they may have been involved in the demonstrations of the previous night. In spite of the uncertain fate of their friends, those attending still manage to focus on their business and on the five-day boot camp. They are open and enthusiastic to learn more.
Behind the humble façade I meet youths who have managed to say no more to an old and tired regime. They have acted as one people, but with noticeable scars on their souls. Many of the young people are directly involved; they have either demonstrated themselves or have lost friends or family during the revolution. Their pain and hope for Egypt’s future are the source of the unusual drive we experience – they are ready for yet another victory. It is up to the 30 million or so young Egyptians to lead their nation from dictatorship to democracy and make use of the opportunities for growth they have. In spite of the revolution, Egypt is still number five on the list of most rapidly growing economies in the Middle East – Qatar is number one – and everything suggests that Egypt will again have reached growth rates of as much as 6 per cent before the end of 2012.
The conditions for digital entrepreneurs are good. The supply of developers is good and the wages low, so the leap from getting a good idea to launching it isn’t a big one. However, the greatest asset is the will of these young people to carry the country forward. They know it will be difficult, and they are touched when they speak about it, but there’s no doubt that they will be the generation that can transform Egypt into a free society. On the last day of the boot camp I met 11 of these young entrepreneurs, and they tell me about the role of the digital media before, during and after the revolution and not least of their hopes for the future.
“The government saw us as children playing around with the new media and let us have our ‘entertainment’ in peace,” tells Mostafa, a young Egyptian man, and goes on:
“But the Egyptian blogger community took the media seriously, and it was they who began writing about the problems in our society. Through their accounts we, the population, could share our experiences.”
“The government didn’t realise the power of the media until too late,” a woman named Zeinab, explains.
“When the regime at last closed off access to the internet, social networks like Twitter and Google helped us get our message out through mobile phone text messages instead. The digital platforms enabled the population to share their personal stories and experiences, and this means we are constantly reminded how important it is to maintain the pressure on the new rulers – through digital technology.”
Yasmine, another female entrepreneur, chips in:
“Technology is all-important to us in the future, because through it we can influence the processes that will rebuild our nation, such as initiatives to systematically report corruption, collect the people’s suggestions for a new constitution, and not least news coverage. The most credible news are still based on stories from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. In Egypt, mobile phone penetration is 89 per cent, and with a tech-savvy generation of young people we have only seen the beginning of the development, which hopefully will never again lead to a closed, non-democratic, despotic regime.”
“In the future, we also think that technology will help us connect people across Egypt and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, and not least to keep tell the people’s stories. We spread the message through social networks, and people all over the world listened in. The revolution was possible because of the domino effect the media created. Because people all over the world supported us, it created an outside political pressure that supported our cause and contributed to making the revolution succeed,” she concludes.
The full names of Mostafa, Zeinab and Yasmine are known to the editors.