cisler on Fri, 26 Mar 1999 00:06:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> a report on an Internet conference in Egypt

A report on Cainet 99, the 4th Egyptian Internet conference in Cairo
March 8-10, 1999.
Copyright  1999 by Steve Cisler

Most countries have some kind of Internet connection, but most places do not.
The Internet Society used to publish a map that ticked off country after
country, once it was connected to the Internet, even if most of the population
had never even heard of the Internet. In Silicon Valley, most people do not
have access in their homes, and public access points in libraries and community
organizations are crowded because of the need for more connectivity. Though the
world is growing more stratified, many enthusiasts are trying to remedy that.

Egypt is a country where the connections are growing, and the awareness of the
importance of the Internet has reached new levels of penetration.  Government
officials who were skeptical or unaware a couple of years ago are now attending
conferences such as CAINET which took place at the Marriott in Cairo.  The city
is built along the Nile but spreads far from the banks. It's a huge city, with
polluted air, grand views, a mix of poverty and wealth, grand monuments and
buildings and a young populace that seems to be in the street on the way to
school, drinking tea, hawking wares, and taking part in some of the wildest
traffic this side of Bangkok.

I confined myself to the conference because I had so little time for anything
but a couple of walks in the morning. I had been invited to talk about wireless
Internet services, community networks and community technology centers. The
latter seems to be the strategy to extend access to the population, especially
the youth. At present the connections are following the population centers
along the Nile, but new technology and government efforts will help to spread
the availability of Internet access to distant oases and small towns far from
the urban areas.

The organizers, including Tarek Kamel who is very active in the Internet
Society, planned a very full program. They were fortunate enough to get Suzanne
Mubarek as a keynote speaker. Hisham El Sherif, head of the Internet Society
for Egypt introducted the president's wife who made the point that the
treasures of Egypt are its youth, and they have to be prepared to use ICT as a
basic literacy.  She saw the Internet as dividing people into those with access
and those without. Other pressing problems were the lack of information in
Arabic, lowering costs, and establishing what she called a digital museum. Mrs.
Mubarek sees a continuum of research to development to business to job
opportunities for youth.

Egypt has an estimated 120,000 to 200,000 users (more than one per account),
about fifty ISPs, and a $20/month subscription rate in Cairo. For those who
don't have access at school, home or work, there are some public access centers
in public libraries, eight Child of the 21st Century Clubs (now the world
"Child" is being dropped because so many adults use the facilities), and the
United Nations Development Program just opened two new telecenters outside of
Cairo after the conference ended.

Al Weiss of ThinkQuest (64 countries and 50 million hits a day) was there to
talk about the success of his international grant program which is being
extended to higher education. An international team of teenagers had won the
competition for the best web site, Little Horus, the first Egyptian web site
for kids. I stepped out of the meeting hall as they were starting, and because
security was so heavy because of the president's wife, I was not allowed back
in until she left, so I missed their demo.

There is certainly a lot of worry about illegal or harmful material for
children, so various speakers talked about online rating systems (Nigel
Williams, Childnet Organization of the UK), about new initiatives for
educational technology, and about the connection of community centers if
Egyptian governates (sort of like states). Phil Bossert from Hawaii talked
about where kids are getting their education: more from the screen (television,
game devices, and the Internet) than from the classroom and books. He saw less
of a role for the "classroom" in learning than for new media.

However, I talked with a middle class brass factory owner whose three kids are
in public schools with 50 to a class.  He spends about $150 a month for tutors
to help them learn what the class size prevents them from doing. They are not
using computers right now, so a lot is going to have to happen to the education
system for this technology to be introduced, not to mention be integrated into
the goals of the education ministry.

Another big theme was e-commerce. The Industry Canada representative talked
about their programs, and another noted that the Egyptian government accounts
for over 58% of the purchases in the country. Clearly, the government will have
to adopt ecommerce for it to suceed. There has been an e-commerce task force,
and I met people who had put all the stock brokers and banks online recently.
He and others said that Egypt was still very much a cash economy, and that
instruments of credit were rare. Combined with language problem, the generation
gap, territorial behavior, progress has been slow. Even with e-commerce
networks and technology, the culture of cash and no credit will inhibit the
spread unless it's a business that does international trade.  One computer
importer heard I was from San Jose and recounted his tale of being ripped off
by a small computer assembler here after receiving the Egyptian letter of
credit and not filling the order. As a risk taker, he has benefitted more often
than not.

All during the conference video crews wielded big Betacams and bright lights to
capture rows of listeners sitting quietly and watching the stage.  Later in my
hotel room, any time a government meeting or conference was shown on
television, they invariably showed people watching the stage as the announcer
did a voice over. Let's face it, conferences can be terribly boring for
television producers.

I found the people I met at the meals and on the breaks to be the best part.
These are the people for whom the Internet has been life-changing.  A
middle-aged police official said that he used the Internet for five hours a
day, two for business from home and three hours on other activities.  His wife
yelled at him for spending so much time and driving up the phone bill. He asked
me about his command of English (quite good) because he knew he had to go to
America to learn the latest about computer technology in some kind of year long
course. His ideas of how wonderful it is here in the U.S. were a bit excessive,
but I admired his enthusiasm.
A young Muslim woman whose arms and head were covered with an apricot pastel
cloth described her work as a web designer. She certainly knew the technical
tools, and we talked about web sites whose pages were too big for the average
user with a modem. Here in Egypt it rarely goes faster the 28.8.  She asked
other women at the table about American women and if they were able to balance
family life and professional life.

After I gave my talk on U.S. community networks and public access centers,
several people came up to disucss how they could get involved in such projects
in Egypt. I was impressed with their knowledge of community organizing, and one
computer technician was much more familiar with the works of Paolo Freire than
I was. It was good to see the mix of networking expertise and public spirit.

The conference was held in the Marriott which is located in the Khedive's old
palace dating from the 19th century (young by Egyptian standards), and
everything worked great.  The Internet connection was faster than I experienced
at Apple (because of congestion), and when my 1 mb Adobe pdf. file did not
work, I ftped another copy in just a few seconds. The hotel is an island of
luxury that insulates the guest from some of the harsh realities of Cairo and
admits the charming parts. I took a long walk to the Khan El Khalili souk
through the early morning traffic of Cairo.  I've never seen so many drivers
who ignored both the traffic lights and the police. In a way, the Cairo traffic
works like the Internet: it's a best effort network, with packet losses
(crashes), frequent rerouting, lots of honking (ping), and network congestion.

I was told that Cairo was completely different from the rest of the country.
One woman said that when people come to the capital they say the are "going to
Egypt." It felt a little like Delhi or Mexico City but more orderly. It felt
safe, not just because of the heavy security in place since the tourist
massacres of the recent past. The street life in the crisp early morning air
was the clusters of school kids heading for class, a bicycle loaded with six
compressed gas tanks, with the rider beating on them to attract customers
needing a refill. A cart driver whipped the legs of his horse as it strained at
the load of thousands of carrots stacked up. Another pickup was filled with
cilantro, and another merchant arranged clusters of garlic for transport
through the narrow streets of the souk. A lot of men were already gathered in
shops taking tea, coffee, and smoking water pipes. One cyclist balanced a door
on his head. On top of the door were hundreds of pretzels, and he pedaled
slowly onto an expressway on ramp.

I entered the market area and was immediately engaged by a middle aged fellow
who established rapport quickly and then began to show me around.  I usually
deflect touts for shops, but I decided to follow him because he seemed
interested in more than money.  He knew everyone in the area and he walked at a
very fast pace to show me brass, spices ("Saffron so cheap the Germans and
Swiss come to buy it by the kilo!"),  food ("Egyptians eat too much oil for
breakfast. Bad for health"), cloth, ouds (the precursor to the lute), and
finally pefume. We sat in a 1 by 3 meter shop smelling essence of jasmine,
mimosa, violet, heliotrope, lotus, black narcissus, chypre, lilac, and rose as
well as blends (Arabian Nights, Christmas Night, plus a bunch of others). The
owner explained that his grandfather owned fields in upper Egypt where the
flowers were grown and processed. I bought 20 grams of one, and resisted buy
other samples, small bottles, or other gifts, and then I headed back to the
conference by taxi which cost about $1.75 to go across town.

In the Internet governance section there was a talk by a Belgian lawyer on
trademark versus domain names, and Bill Manning of IANA gave a talk about Jon
Postel's long and influential career which led up to the current situation with
ICANN and all that it is charged with. He asked if the new structure would be
too rigid to handle some political issues and to deal with the enormous growth
(3-5 orders of magnitude) that is forecast over the next ten years. He ended
with a curious statement that "technology changes should drive government, not
the inverse." Spoken like a true technologist!

The next day we had a session on satellite and fiber networks.  Teleglobe uses
both, and Sesh Simha gave a talk on satellite Internet, and I talked about
Tachyon, spread spectrum, and this was followed by Hassan Al Abdouli who gave a
strong infomercial for Emirates Internet Exchange, EMIX, a large hub and
regional network growing in the United Arab Emirates.  He pushed their present
and anticipated fiber connections to FLAG, FOG, SMW3, and other acronyms for
large cable systems.

The session was chaired by Mrs. Azza Torky, Chair of the International Sector,
Telecom Egypt.  She repeated that Internet telephony was not allowed, that it
was cutting into the profits of the existing telephone networks.  However, I
was unsure how any group can monitor packets to tell if someone is using
telephony or not. What does "banned" mean in this case?

We heard from Safwat El Sherif, Minister of Information, who focused on the
broadcast capabilities of Nilesat which can handle data but is mainly being
used for television at present. Salah Hamza, chief of engineering for Nilesat,
gave a technical overview. The bandwidth available on this satellite (another
is being launched) could provide a lot of connectivity to remote areas of the
region.  One ISP told me that anytime you bypass the telephone network, you pay
Telecom Egypt a fee, so the use of more efficient technology for Internet
access is, in effect, penalized.

The closing comments were made by Hisham El Sherif, and awards were presented
to Little Horus web design team, the e-commerce task force, Mrs. Azza Torky.
The crowds at the start were not quite a large at the end, but most sessions
had between 200 and 500 people. It seemed to be successful from a political
standpoint. Many senior officials were exposed to new development in the
country and from other places. I suggested that the organizers try to measure
the kinds of projects and initiatives that arise from this meeting, in order to
show the tangible effect of such an event.  I think more local and more
frequent meetings that allow for more group discussion of Egyptian projects and
problems would be useful.  We, the foreign guests, make our pitch and then go
home. Most everyone else stays to deal with the next steps, purchase decisions,
and local politics.

After speaking in a number of other countries, I wish that some of the leading
Internetworkers who bridge the world of local developments and the
international projects that are higher speed and more advanced in some ways
would collaborate on a paper that would explain to somewhat clueless networkers
in Silcon Valley and the rest of the developed world what the issues and
possibilities are in countries and cultures where there is a mix of trained and
illiterate youth, some funds for special projects but not enough for all the
needed changes.  An essay from people like Tarek Kamel, Mohamed Omran, and
Hisham El Sherif on "What You Should Know about the Internet in Egypt" (or
Peru, India, Thailand, Mexico...) would be incredibly helpful to all of us
interested in seeing it spread in a way that will help the countries, not
undermine their fragile economies.

Steve Cisler
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