August 15, 2022

Arab Spring, Start-Up Summer?

Then came Tahrir Square.

Six months after an uprising led by people like her ousted Hosni Mubarak and overturned the established order of the Arab world, Ms. Mehairy has joined the ranks of Egypt’s newest business class: the entrepreneurs of the revolution. Instead of leaving Egypt as she had planned, she is staying to nurture a start-up called SuperMama, an Arabic-language Web site for women that has 10 local employees.

“The revolution really made my generation believe in ourselves,” Ms. Mehairy, 30, says. If Egyptians can topple Mubarak, she wonders, what else might they accomplish?

That is a sobering question for educated, affluent Egyptians like Ms. Mehairy — people who, unlike most Egyptians, have other options. She has a master’s degree in interactive media from the University of Westminster in London and hoped to move to Britain or Canada.

The revolt now known as the Arab Spring placed Egypt on an uncertain course. After years of corruption, its hidebound economy is reeling. Tourism and investment have plunged. Mass unemployment — which fed Egyptians’ anger — has worsened and protests in Tahrir Square continue. The nation will elect a new government in September, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen then.

Yet for all the uncertainties, some of those who embraced Facebook and Twitter during those heady days in Tahrir Square are now busily trying to start or continue working on Web sites and Web applications that they hope will yield profits and jobs.

“This is an unusual revolution in that it was led by a very educated and economically conversant, forward-looking group of people,” says Khush Choksy, executive director of the United States-Egypt Business Council, which is part of the United States Chamber of Commerce. “But to secure what they really went into Tahrir Square for, there needs to be economic growth, a modern set of thinking, and a more diversified economy.”

Ms. Mehairy wants to seize the moment, and she and Zeinab Samir, the co-founder of SuperMama, have been on the move.

In June, the pair applied for a spot at the NextGen IT Boot Camp, which took place in Cairo in late June. The program was sponsored by the Global Entrepreneurship Program, a collaboration between the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development.

During the five-day program, which was also sponsored by the Danish and Egyptian governments, six American entrepreneurs — including Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline.com; Ryan Allis, chief executive of the marketing site iContact; Shama Kabani, chief operating officer of Marketing Zen; and Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council — helped 38 Egyptian entrepreneurs hone their business plans. On the last day, four winning teams were chosen. Two will go to North Carolina this fall for a three-week internship at iContact, and two will attend a three-month training program in Denmark. (Ms. Mehairy and Ms. Samir will be heading to Denmark.)

Most of the entrepreneurs in the program are well educated, have jobs, and are from middle- and upper-middle class families. But they still face much uncertainty.

“Everyone is worried about what will happen next,” said Marwan Roushdy, 20, a student at the American University of Cairo who is developing an app called Inkezny to locate hospitals anywhere in the world. The name means “rescue me” in Arabic.

Despite the political situation, Mr. Roushdy, who participated in the boot camp and won an internship at iContact, is working on his app. He is trying to block out his worries about the future and focus on his business. After all, what else can he do?

“Part of being an entrepreneur is being an optimist,” says Steven R. Koltai, senior adviser for Global Entrepreneurship at the State Department, who has visited Egypt a dozen times in the last year. “Entrepreneurs are like the crab grass that grows up in the city: they are going to make it through the cracks in the sidewalk.”

Still, these young entrepreneurs eventually will have to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of registering their company with the Egyptian government, a notoriously difficult step that Ms. Mehairy says she won’t take until a client or business partner insists.

“The paperwork is a nightmare,” she said. “And in the past, prerevolution, you needed bribery to get your paperwork through.”

Ms. Mehairy has heard some encouraging stories, however. “My friend finished the registration for his company in a day and half,” she says, “because the person handling it was ‘all fueled up with the values of the revolution,’ as we say.”

Mohamed Rafea, 30, and his cousin Ali Rafea, 23, are also optimistic. They along with three other young relatives co-founded Bey2ollak, an app that lets users warn each other about congested traffic routes. “We are lucky that we don’t need the support of anything except good wattage, as opposed to manufacturing goods or opening a store. Those kinds of businesses need the support of the government,” Ali Rafea explained.

In a city where commutes can average two hours each way, their app found an instant audience. As of this month, it had more than 50,000 subscribers and a strategic marketing and advertising partnership with Vodafone, one of the largest mobile phone operators in Egypt.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/global/egypts-entrepreneurs-look-beyond-the-revolution.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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