Egypt's budding entrepreneurs get boost from US

A 'boot camp' for Egyptian entrepreneurs is one of a number of US initiatives to support economic and democratic reform. But not all Egyptians welcome the help.

Amr Nabil/AP
US senators John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, left, and John McCain (R) of Arizona, third left, ring the bell to open Cairo stock exchange market Sunday, June 26, 2011. Kerry and McCain visited Cairo this weekend to underscore US support for economic and democratic reform, saying that it can help Egypt’s revolution succeed.

Sitting in the banquet hall of a luxurious hotel on the banks of the Nile, Mohammed Kamal rattles off his ideas for new mobile phone applications. Among them: an app that will diminish Cairo’s suffocating traffic and reduce government spending on fuel in the post-Mubarak Egypt.

“I think I just need to play my cards right,” says the aspiring entrepreneur, sporting a striped shirt and khakis.

The young Egyptian software developer is a participant in this week’s NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp, a five-day training event to help budding Internet technology businesses. It is part of a broader American initiative to help develop Egypt's economy, particularly in the wake of the Feb. 11 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

US senators John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona visited Cairo this weekend to underscore US support for economic and democratic reform, saying that it can help Egypt’s revolution succeed.

"It's our hope that by providing for the economic future and well being of the people of Egypt that we will, all of us, be able to move more effectively down that road to peace," said Senator Kerry, adding that such reforms ultimately serve America’s security interests.

The US has provided more than $50 billion dollars to Egypt since 1975, or an average of $1.38 billion per year – much of which has gone to military assistance. Since Mubarak's fall, a modest $150 million has been redirected to help with economic recovery and the transition to a more democratic state.

“We’re providing grants to Egyptian and American entities for democracy and civil society, and for job training and job creation – those type of activities,” says a US official in Cairo, who declined to give further details about which programs have already been implemented.

'Boot camp' aims to help Egyptians build large firms

The goal of this week’s entrepreneurial Boot Camp is to help Egyptians expand their ideas and form companies that create substantive amounts of jobs – a process experts say is little known among Egypt’s small-business community.

The Boot Camp is sponsored by State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in cooperation with Denmark. It was planned well before the Arab Spring in line with objectives outlined in President Obama’s “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo in 2009. But the event is capitalizing on the spirit of the recent uprising as people see an increased opportunity to forge their own bold paths.

“I think if we get them some infrastructure – mentoring, financing, and education [about how to formally create businesses] – some of the next big ideas will be coming out of Egypt,” says Jeff Hoffman, an American entrepreneur who is mentoring participants this week.

The Boot Camp will end in a final competition between its 46 participants. They range from Sarah Hamdi, who currently works as an assistant for a business development executive but wants to create an app that connects people to their nearest hospital, to college student Hady Ahmed Fathy, who has dreams of launching a Web service to improve communication between Web designers and their clients.

Winners will receive training in the US or Denmark, and participate in Egypt’s Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre Incubation Program. The center is a collaborating partner in the event and is affiliated with the Egyptian government.

'We want development in other areas'

The Boot Camp is just one example of USAID funding at work.

Another beneficiary of USAID is farmer Mohammad Abdel Wahab, whose crop yield has doubled since he began receiving training and his profits increased by one quarter.

He has been working with Washington-based nonprofit organization ACDI/VOCA, which has received $7 million in USAID funding to train, advise, and technically assist Egyptian farmers over a five-year period starting in 2008.

But while he has benefited from USAID, he says it isn’t enough. From inconsistent water supplies, to poor education, to lack of knowledge about how to manage their livestock, problems in his hometown abound. He has been advising others in his area, and estimates that the ripple-effect of his instruction has helped nearly 300 farmers in his village. But agriculture development is only one small aspect of a slew of problems that need attention.

“We want development in other areas, and have real projects be implemented, not just talks,” says Ibrahim Ahmed Aslan, who grows squash and tomatoes. “We are improving, but it’s a slow process.”

Egyptian empowerment

The US has also voiced support for democratic change.

But such support is controversial, given the US backing of Mubarak's autocratic rule for nearly 30 years. The revolution gave Egyptians a sense of empowerment and self-determination that has increased resistance to outside help.

Senators McCain and Kerry recommended to the head of Egypt's military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, that international observers monitor the upcoming voting process, and that third-party institutions assist with party organization and voter identification.

President and CEO Bill Sweeney of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a nonprofit that receives USAID funding to help emerging democracies meet world voting standards, says international organizations are currently waiting for official invitations from the Egyptian government to assist in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, set to begin this fall.

He says IFES is currently running education sessions for judges and judicial staff who will be involved in Egypt’s elections and that they are currently in talks with the foreign, interior, and justice ministries regarding assistance.

Many Egyptians say substantive economic and democratic reforms have yet to be made in the post-Mubarak era.

Mr. Kamal, however, is looking toward his fellow Egyptians to bring about real change. He is confident that some of his own ideas will ultimately help improve the economy, and speaks for many when he says, “I think Egyptians believe they are the ones who should do something for the country, not the president of the United States."

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