Like so many other young people in Cairo, Yasmine el-Mehairy saw no future in Egypt. What she saw was a dead end.
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, el-Mehairy has joined the ranks of Egypts newest business class: the entrepreneurs of the revolution. Instead of leaving Egypt as she had planned, she is staying to nurture a startup called SuperMama, an Arabic-language website for women that has 10 local employees.
The revolution really made my generation believe in ourselves, el-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 el-Mehairy — people who, unlike most Egyptians, have other options. She has a masters 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. Despite this, there is hope from unexpected quarters. Those who embraced Facebook and Twitter during those heady days in Tahrir Square are now busily trying to start or continue working on websites and Web applications that they hope will yield profits and jobs.
This is an unusual revolution and it was led by a very educated and economically conversant, forward-looking group of people, says Khush Choksy, executive director of the US-Egypt business council, which is part of the US chamber of commerce.
El-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 programme was sponsored by the Global Entrepreneurship Program (collaboration between the State Department and the US Agency for International Development).
During the five-day programme, which was also sponsored by the Danish and Egyptian governments, six US entrepreneurs — including Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline.com; Ryan Allis, CEO 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 programme in Denmark. (El-Mehairy and Samir will be heading to Denmark.)
Marwan Roushdy, 20, a student at the American University of Cairo who is developing an application called Inkezny to locate hospitals anywhere in the world participated in the boot camp and won an internship at iContact, is working on his application. 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.
Despite the optimism many say that the paperwork for setting up new ventures is a nightmare.
But there are some encouraging stories, however. My friend finished the registration for his company in a day and half, says el-Mahairy, because the person handling it was all fuelled 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 application that lets users warn each other about congested traffic routes. We are lucky that we dont 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.
Like many in their cohort, Mohammed and Ali Rafea, who won one of the internships at iContact, are trying to solve some of Egypts problems through technology and hope to turn a profit in the process.
After the revolution, they said, Egyptians were turning to Bey2ollak to pass along information about the safety of the roads. We added a new status to say that a road is a danger zone and there are protests and thugs, Mohamed Rafea said.
Roushdy is trying to solve another problem with his application — unreliable medical services. In Egypt, even if you dial the emergency number 123, it is not always a guarantee that an ambulance will come, Roushdy explained. So I thought an application that showed the nearest hospital and phone number would be a useful service.
For some of the six US entrepreneurs who visited Cairo in June, it came as a surprise that there was such a vibrant startup community in Egypt.
For some of the Web entrepreneurs, there are already some success stories. In January, through a delegation organised by the Global Entrepreneurship Program, a group of US investors and entrepreneurs travelled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian entrepreneurs. One of the winners was Kngine, a search engine, which was started by two brothers, Ashraf el-Fadeel, 30, and Haytham el-Fadeel, 23.
The competition helped persuade Ahmed el-Alfi, the founder of Sawari Ventures, to bankroll Kngine. He had connected with the founders on Twitter.
At SuperMama, el-Mehairy and Samir, 29, who financed their venture with personal savings, are positioning themselves to be one of the first Arab-language websites focused on mothers. They are hoping to capitalise on the fact that women make up almost half of Internet users in Egypt.
Those in the entrepreneurial trenches are certainly aware of the challenges to being on the forefront of a movement. The lexicon has not even caught up with the times yet. We went to a training camp and they were calling us businessmen. We are not businessmen, we are entrepreneurs, el-Mehairy said.
The hope is that with a little money and a lot of hard work, Egypt could leverage its huge population of young people — more than half the population is under 29 — and a strong pool of technical talent. Low startup costs for Internet businesses could turn Egypt into one of the regions entrepreneurial hot spots.
These entrepreneurs are thinking big and globally, and they are creating Web applications that you could see in Dumbo or Palo Alto, said Koltai. They are building companies and products that can be very influential.