Egypt's digital revolution

The revolution in Egypt has given way to a new sense of ICT entrepreneurialism
Egypt's tech start-up scene is thriving in the wake of Mubarak's ousting.
Egypt's tech start-up scene is thriving in the wake of Mubarak's ousting.


If there was one surprise outcome of last February's Egyptian revolution, it was the role of the internet as a catalyst for political change.

With social networks like Twitter and Facebook, Egyptian internet users were able to orchestrate popular protests under the radar of the government's surveillance apparatus. Within a matter of weeks, the movement had unseated the three-decade old Mubarak administration.

One year on and a group of high-profile technology investors is trying to leverage Egyptians' appetite for the web and social networking into viable business prospects.

Tahrir 2, a high-tech incubator named after Egypt's revolutionary focal point, was founded in the weeks following Mubarak's ouster. The Alexandria-based collective says the number of high-tech start-ups in the country has flourished in the past 12 months.

"People started to think that bringing down a regime is much harder than bringing up a company," says Samer ElSahn, the project's founder and CEO. "So many have started to seek their dreams and started projects."

Alongside co-founder Mohamed Gawdat, who is also Google's emerging markets vice president, ElSahn has poured US$2 million of his own cash into the incubator. In return for a stake, Tahrir 2 provides ‘mentoring' services to entrepreneurs before pairing them with local venture capitalists.

One early project to benefit from Tahrir 2 is Zabatak, an online platform that allows Egyptians to anonymously report cases of fraud in the country's ongoing elections. Another, Blue Flare, allows users to track the location of their vehicle online if it is stolen.

ElSahn says that Tahrir 2 seeks to invest in applications that makes people's lives easier, such as online bill payments software or applications that solve traffic problems. "What we ask for is that it has an impact, [entrepreneurs] need to show us how they will change the lives of the people who use their products," he explains.

Tahrir 2's eventual goal, however, is to discover the ‘next Google' within Egypt's borders. "I'm a dreamer - I think the next Google could come out of here. This is our wildest dream for somebody to build something that can have an impact like Google," ElSahn adds.

ElSahn says that his country has discovered an entrepreneurial spirit that was not present prior to the revolution. "It was really hard in Egypt to start a local business, because of government regulations and getting clearance from different authorities," he says. "People before the revolution thought that keeping things as they were was better - so they would just stay in their jobs and work on their career path."

Since 2011's revolution, ElSahn believes the number of web consumers in the country has risen exponentially, giving internet start-ups a significantly broader audience than was previously the case. "People who had never used Facebook or email, or even interacted with the internet, started to become curious about these technologies that had changed the face of their country and have started to adopt them more."

Not everything has been plain-sailing for the country's post-revolution tech entrepreneurs. ElSahn says that the pool of venture capitalists in the country remains shallow. "The number of angel investors in Egypt is really low - we have something like five VCs working in the region. So raising funds might be a little bit hard, but on the other side it might be much easier because all these VCs and angel investors have lots of money and they want to invest it." He adds that Tahrir 2 is in the process of "building bridges" with investors in the US and eventually hopes to attract funding for projects from across the Atlantic.

One factor that could determine the future of Egypt's high-tech economy is the as yet undecided outcome of the country's national elections. But even with the spectre of a Muslim Brotherhood or other hard-line Islamist government looming, ElSahn says that he does not expect his country's new-found entrepreneurialism to be dampened anytime soon.

"It will take us some time to learn the real way of democracy and politics, but whoever comes in the next round [of elections], they will be learning with us," he reckons. "I believe the power of youth and the power of entrepreneurship have shown their strength and I don't believe anybody can stop this movement."


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