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This Too is Egypt

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I am reading a wonderfully moving post on Wamda – one of the leading platforms helping entrepreneurs in the Middle East. But this post is not about yet one more amazing startup expanding or raising capital in the region. It is about Assem el-Gamal and Amr Abd el Rahman. They are Egyptian pioneers in the tech ecosystem – brave, brilliant, forward thinking, all about the future of that great country.

And they both were taken from us in the violence of last week. El-Gamal was killed, el Rahman is in critical condition and unlikely to recover.

As the writer Omar Aysha notes, el-Gamal was the cofounder at Silminds, an Egyptian start-up I have long admired, working in the "semi-conductor field of standard floating point arithmetic" – where its only serious competitor is IBM. El Rahman is the managing director of MiMV, best known for cutting-edge iPhoneIslam. "He and MiMV practically forced Apple to Arabize iOS, and they were the only company worldwide that enabled the first iPad to function as a phone," Aysha writes. Ahmad Shalaby, a great engineer at SysDSoft – which was acquired by Intel not four weeks after Mubarak fell – was also attacked with machetes at a funeral and is in critical condition.

Omar Aysha notes, and I agree:

"These men dared to be different, to forge their own path, to make this country and this world better. These entrepreneurs are our real heroes, they’re forming the future. We need more of them, not less."

We in the West view Egypt today in one lens. It has been amazing to me to watch experts in my city of Washington, DC almost trip over themselves to note how they had been right all along about Egypt; that a generation may be lost in the terrible days they – we all – face today.

But this generation I have gotten to know so well doesn't give up that easily.

From my vantage point, Egypt and Egyptians are in the throes of a struggle the entire world finds itself in: 20th century, top-down command and control policies that too often favor too few, vs. 21st century, bottom-up problem solving and innovation that technology has enabled at an unprecedented level.

Everything we see in Egypt today is very real.

But so is this.

Egypt has the largest population of Internet and mobile users in its region, with one of the largest youth populations in the world. It’s a large consumer market in the early days of e-commerce, and one day it will be once again a global tourist destination. Last month, in great uncertainty, exports rose — rose — nearly 25% year over year.

I cannot tell you what will happen tomorrow or in six months, but I can tell you that within five years there will be significantly more people with technology than now. Experts in Egypt in the mobile space told me that there will be 50% penetration of smartphones in that country – half the population walking around with super computing capacity in their pockets. It is already over 50% among many of their neighbors.

When I see startups like Nafham, which now has over 8,000 crowd share education videos on their platform; KarmSolar who is bringing solar-powered pumping to agriculture sitting on top of the largest collection of fresh water in the world; Instabug which is the leading debugging capability for app development anywhere; RecyloBekia who have a vision to eliminate computer and consumer electronic waste for profitably; Sweety Heaven, helping parents raise their kids; Ogra helping Cairoinians find safe taxis in chaotic travel and on and on – I see a very real and remarkable future.

When I was in school in the early 1990s the conventional wisdom was: 1) Japan had won and was unstoppable; 2) India, in the throes of riots that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded was in chaos for decades and 3) China, post Tianamen, was lost for a generation. Obviously, within five to ten years, no one was saying any of this.

I, for one and perhaps with some time, bet with the entrepreneurs and the future they see.

First published on LinkedIn on August 21,2013.

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