It’s hard to come to Cairo as an American businessman, especially one interested in and writing about high tech internet start-ups here, and not by shuttled from bubble to bubble of well educated, fairly well off individuals.
One admired local political commentator tried, generously, to comfort me in my limited purview, “Hey, WE have no idea what’s going on here, why should you, let alone your countrymen back in the States.”
Sifting through the obvious two ends of the spectrum of the election — the fed-up, often religiously minded wanting almost anything new and the fed-up, security worried wanting stability at almost any price — it is hard even in bubbles not to sense the shock and awe of disappointment among a very wide centre.
Beginning at dinner the night before the second day of voting, with sophisticated and open-minded Egyptian executives and then wandering the city, universal anxiety was palpable. Every restaurant I saw had a TV on, but very few guests. The bridges were full of the poorer folks doing their weekend walks for fresh air, but Tahrir Square was all but empty.
Nearly everyone I overhead was talking about the elections, and looking at their mobile devices for “updates” – knowing that the updates had absolutely no meaning. In point of fact, no one could really know anything moments after the polls closed but, as is human nature being uneasy with this vacuum, filled it with rumour
Conversation that night was eerily prophetic. Most thought turn-out would be very low (it was by far the lowest – roughly 45% — of the three great political votes to date of the referendum on when to write the constitution, parliament elections and this presidential contest.) Some argued that if the major Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, didn’t have a good showing it has significance (and for all the talk of his victory, his garnering a third of a low turn-out is the poorest Muslim Brotherhood showing to date.)
Others argued that if Mubarak friend and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq ended as finalist, it would suggest the election was in the process of being stolen (which is repeatedly argued today). Most were hopeful that one of their favourite “other candidates” — the socialist leaning Hamdeen Sabahi, the former Brotherhood self-presented centrist Moneim Abol Fotouh, and the elder statesman Amr Moussa — might somehow pull out a surprise, but I heard little heart in their hopes (again, but for a stronger-than expected showing for Sabahi, roughly dead-on).
If my bubble got what they predicted, then, it is also of no surprise that most of what I sense today is grim acceptance. The most philosophical if not actually upbeat group I see are some of the young entrepreneurs — 20-something, remarkable women and men who have been building equally remarkable tech-based companies for months and years of uncertainty and unpredictability.
They think the whole process has been astounding, and one young mother/start-up founder said to me, “Anxiety remains like being in a delivery room — we all want to know if whatever comes, as painful as it is, will be a boy or girl. But we know something special is happening.”
Others, however, especially entrepreneurs who were among the young “Tahrir Square” protestors a year ago are very disgruntled
Entrepreneurs who were among the young “Tahrir Square” protestors a year ago are very disgruntled
, boycotted the election with little or no intent to vote in the final ballot in a few weeks. They believe that the long campaign process has stolen their dreams by dulling peoples’ passions into accepting whatever comes. They are also, however, mixed in explaining what should have happened differently other than to say, as one shrugged to me, “We needed to keep the pressure on in the earliest days.” A common theme I’ve heard from all ages and the entire political spectrum is, “How did we allow all these elections to happen before we had a Constitution?”
Many horses have now left their stables, and it appears as I speak to people today that two scenarios are most on their minds. The first is to grin and bear it and make some choice of lesser evils — “that IS democracy, no?” one young investor said to me. The second is to see how the machinations of coalition building among the defeated candidates change the equation between now and the final election in June.
The latter commenced moments after the polls closed. The Muslim Brotherhood immediately called meetings with both Hamdeen and Fatouh and one can expect the Shafiq camps must be considering their own options. One Egyptian venture capitalist was sceptical about how such machinations will play out in actual votes next month, observing to me that “No politician in Egypt has the brand to deliver voters.”
But perhaps in a world of the lesser of two evils what is happening is not about delivering on “brand” of the individual candidate, but offering an answer on how one “group” can keep the other “group” from happening. I suspect both the Shafiq supporters who are scared of instability and anyone who cannot fathom a return to Mubarak will be motivated to support ANYTHING to keep the other from happening. We can expect some interesting bedfellows in the coming weeks.
It is intriguing to me that almost no one I have met over the age of 40 even discusses another scenario, and that is that the street rises again. Convinced that what we see today is the process at hand, believing that the military is and has been in control throughout, they simply believe that time for impactful uprising has passed. They quickly add that there are significant, lesser covered issues – e.g., that the Courts are yet to decide whether to throw out last winter’s Parliamentary elections on allegations of rigging, whether certain candidates broke rules in this Presidential race, how to decide Mubarak’s trial, what the constitution will be — that can be levers used as steam valves over crowd sentiment over the next month.
But it is to just such speculation, and confidence in the old mechanisms of back room dealings, that will be interesting to watch how the new generation reacts. I wonder if the real story here is the astoundingly low turn-out and disgust factor at the process, and whether we are going to start seeing very serious protests before the next election that may tail spin into something unexpected. It would be equally interesting to see if protestors have learned any lessons over the past year
Nay-sayers say that disgust is rendering one of the most useful tools in the shed of power politics — apathy and entropy. Folks just want to get on with life. It is time to play some version of the hand that has been dealt. They readily confess, however, that they missed Tahrir Square even days before it ended the 30 year reign of Mubarak. Last night as crowds angered by their election choices took to Tahrir Square and the streets of Alexandria, even gutting Prime Minister Shafiq’s headquarters, other young people tweeted that this was an unacceptable act in a new democracy. In a democracy, sometimes you lose.
In the meantime, and perhaps of most interest for the long-term despite this political uncertainty, I spend time understanding the growing young set of tech enabled entrepreneurs. Raised never knowing a world without the Internet, seeing how others like them live, solving problems and building businesses, comfortable in collaborating through technology across wide distances, they are obsessed with taking their lives into their own hands. They look at the challenges of Egypt as opportunities to solve through technology and their enterprises.
They look at the challenges of Egypt as opportunities to solve through technology and their enterprises.
Cairo traffic the worst in the world, create an app where people can crowd share traffic updates and alternative routes. Can’t ever find a cab and afraid of rising crime, create the first online cab dispatcher, GPS enabled so family and friends are assured you arrive safely.
Worried that unreliable access to diesel makes pumping water impossible to expand farming in the desert, create more cost-effective, easy-to-implement solar pumps. Fed up with mediocre schooling, gather the best tutoring videos and experiences on line to supplement education. And on and on, and by the thousands.
This is a concurrent narrative going on in Egypt, in the Middle East and emerging markets around the world – a narrative little known and often rejected in the West for the more familiar narratives of corruption and instability. They are also part and parcel of the political questions as they express desire to control their own destinies.
This new narrative is not going away and offers new paths to growth in these regions. Whoever wins the elections in Egypt should take note of the opportunity here, and take caution in brushing them aside. After all, they will demand – have the technology tools and track record to demand – the transparency and accountability that impossibly toppled one leader who ignored them.
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