Where Einstein Meets Edison

Egypt’s Twin Forces for Change: Tech-Saavy Youth and the Region’s Entrepreneurs

Egypt’s Twin Forces for Change: Tech-Saavy Youth and the Region’s Entrepreneurs

Mar 6, 2011

“The government didn’t understand the change that had come to Egypt in the form of new technology: internet, satellite, mobile devices, and social media,” says Dr. Iman Bibars, Vice President at Ashoka, a global organization of social entrepreneurs, and founding director of the Ashoka Arab World program. Ashoka has supported over 2000 leading social entrepreneurs, known as Ashoka Fellows, who address critical problems in areas such as economic development, health, and education in over 70 countries. Since its founding in 2003, Ashoka Arab World has supported 55 social entrepreneurs and spread to 7 nations.

Dr. Bibars, based in Ashoka’s Cairo office, witnessed and participated in the recent events in Egypt. She says, “Facebook helped the youth become a united generation. Over the last five years, they learned and trained on how to organize and how to go to the street without violence. They waited until this year, when what happened in Tunisia triggered them. The government didn’t see this coming. Most government officials were over 70 – they might not have known what Facebook even looks like!”

Shortly after the country’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down from power, we took the opportunity to speak with Dr. Bibars about the Egyptian youth movement and its implications for entrepreneurship in Egypt and the region.

MITER: Dr. Bibars, thank you for joining the MIT Entrepreneurship Review today.

Given your unique vantage point, I want to get your perspective on the recent changes in Egypt. First, I’d like to take a step back and talk a little about how we got here. What in the context of the last 30 years shaped the aspirations of the Egyptian people, particularly the youth, in the protests?

IMAN BIBARS: There were several factors that led to the protests. First, the regime had become corrupt and conceited in their attitude towards the people. Mubarak and his regime stopped even pretending to cultivate public opinion, and took a blatant, oppressive, disrespectful attitude towards dealing with the Egyptian people. The fact that the last elections were rigged was widely reported – but Mubarak and his protégés simply continued to rule without a care. Now, elections have been rigged all my life, but before, the manipulation of elections wasn’t as visible as it is now.

In addition, the last cabinet, in place for the last five years, showed arrogance and condescension in how it explained why the government continued to withhold public services from the people. The cabinet members were Western-educated, successful people who were supposed to come to upgrade the government. Instead, they became corrupt as well. They began hiring other elites into the government. They generally had very little regard for the Egyptian people, regarding them as the uneducated masses. They never tried to understand why the masses were uneducated, unhealthy, and impoverished, due to the legacy of the regime. People had become very poor. In the 1960s and 70s, people were also poor, but back then people at least had food to eat. Violence also spread under the regime. The police apparatus became its own oppressive force.

Finally, the government and even the public underestimated the “waiting generation.” 40% of the Egyptian population is between the ages of 15-30. This is a group that was called apathetic or fundamentalist or other names. Apparently, they were not. They were united by their use of social media, not by class, gender, or religion. The majority of these kids were middle class or upper middle class. These were clean-shaven, nice kids.

MITER: How much of a factor was the generation gap between the regime and the protest movement? 

IMAN BIBARS: This was not a generation gap as much as it was an information technology revolution. When I was young, we didn’t have these tools – it is not easy to organize a movement on this scale by phone. I myself fell into the trap of underestimating them. When the young women in my office wanted to go to Tahrir Square in the beginning of the revolution, I encouraged them but considered them naïve kids. I was corrected! I didn’t understand that millions of them were connected through social media. Through the internet, bloggers were able to build a consciousness and awareness to which I was oblivious – and I’m generally less oblivious than others in my generation! So this was not just a generation gap, but a difference in strategy by these kids who found a way to resist via social media. 

MITER: How has the role of business and social entrepreneurs evolved over the last few decades as Egypt’s government has withdrawn from providing public services and welfare? What role do they play going forward?

IMAN BIBARS: Social entrepreneurs played a critical role in meeting the gap in services. The majority of business entrepreneurs have unfortunately not matured as much as social entrepreneurs have over the last several years. Business entrepreneurs, many of whom were Westernized and wealthier, were disconnected from the people, and blamed the people for their poor education, without making the connection that whatever education that was actually provided by the government prized obedience rather than dissent or critical thinking.

And so social entrepreneurs stepped in, trying to meet basic services like health, education, and even leadership development. We had social entrepreneurs forming committees to protect people in the streets when the police abdicated their responsibilities. Even during the protests, we had at least 20 of our leading social entrepreneurs providing support across Egypt. What was under-reported by the media was that the protests took place all across Egypt. More people suffered and died where CNN was not reporting, outside the major cities. Social entrepreneurs organized people to step in to defend against vandalism led by thugs in the government.

MITER: In your work with entrepreneurs, what do you see as the main impact of the current protests on the mentality of risk-taking and opportunity in Egypt and across the Middle East/North Africa? It is significant that while only 4% of young people in North America or Europe hope to start a business, 15% of young Arabs do. That’s 1 in 7.

IMAN BIBARS: I think the impact of this change will be transformational. Even if we can get 50% of what we want as we build a democratic society, then corruption and nepotism will decline. Ideas will no longer be stifled or stolen, and young people, even those younger than the ones who led the movement, will no longer be punished for dissenting or bringing new ideas forward. My son is 14 and I took him with me to the protests. Everyone around us kept saying that he was part of the “lucky generation” – the ones who will be around when schools are better and entrepreneurship is encouraged; when you can get loans from a bank without bending to corruption and you don’t need to be the son of an official or an elite to form an enterprise. I fervently hope that the change will lead to a blossoming of millions of entrepreneurs – social entrepreneurs and business entrepreneurs who won’t be afraid to try new things. The absence of corruption and nepotism will create a revolution of ideas, if, in the next 6-8 months, we get a working transition towards a democratically-elected parliament and president.

MITER: What has been / will be the role of lawyers, doctors, engineers, small business owners, citizen sector leaders, and other professionals in what seemed to be a youth-led movement to challenge the regime?

IMAN BIBARS: Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the young people were lawyers and engineers. Also, what’s wonderful about this group of young people is how smartly they handle themselves. They asked for advice. One of Ashoka’s contributions has been developing a detailed roster of expertise and a way to contact social entrepreneurs and other leaders. Many of our social entrepreneurs have even provided the youth with space to meet. As the youth have begun thinking about changes to the constitution, we have been able to help them access experts, advisors, and supportive technocrats so that the youth can be informed in their negotiations with the government; for example, hospitals that need urgent changes or policies that need to change within the ministry of health. Another Egypt-based citizen sector organization, the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), is helping to organize a competition to design a memorial for the movement. Those under 35 will be able to vote on their favorite design. The memorial will be paid for by the people, and will go up in Tahrir Square. Everyone wants to give these kids credit.

MITER: In your view, what are the main obstacles that a new government must overcome to satisfy the needs of the Egyptian people?

IMAN BIBARS: Rising expectations are the main future challenge for the government. The old regime has taken so much that we will have a lot of challenges just repairing the damage to the education system and economy. All of our problems won’t be solved quickly or easily. So how a new government will handle rising expectations will be critical.

But, we cannot think that far ahead yet. We cannot achieve equal or better access to opportunities or step away from nepotism and corruption without the institutionalization of a process for real democracy. Therefore, now, we need to focus first on getting a democratic process in place for elections. Bear in mind that not in 7,000 years of Egypt’s history have we ever had democratic elections led by the people. So the youth will have to take the lead. The 40% of us who are over 35 are not as ambitious as they are. At the moment, I am unable to see beyond a democratically-elected government. After that, I will look for the next step; when we have the people in place to handle the rising expectations of the population.

This is where I think social entrepreneurs will have a big role to play as they step into the vacuum. Social entrepreneurs have the relationship with the community and the expertise in building organizations. The younger social entrepreneurs, especially, are leaders by default – that’s part of their character, part of who an entrepreneur is. The business entrepreneurs as a group are not yet leading, but later on, it will be a golden age for entrepreneurs. And there is a role for outsiders, also. The type of outside help we welcome is the moral, respectful, refined support of others who are also from the global south, who also struggled against tyranny. For example, during the protests, we had encouragement from the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who welcomed the nonviolent nature of the protests. We also had support from people in Nelson Mandela’s circle, who encouraged the young kids leading the revolution. These supporters uniquely understood the Tahrir revolution.

This brings up another issue. People outside Egypt seem to be concerned that a democratic process is not led by a secular attitude. Yet they fail to see the differences between what’s happened in Egypt and what’s happened elsewhere in the past. This was not a religious revolution led by mullahs, as was the case in Iran. This was a secular revolution. What reporters were drawn to in Tahrir Square were the people who were dressed in a certain way or spoke in a certain way. But there were millions of secular-minded people who were there, whose views were not reported.