Saturday, April 29, 2006

The $100 Laptop in Egypt - Development or Diversion?

A small delegation from an organisation known as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) visited Egypt this week, and met with various dignitaries and business leaders. Their purpose was to establish links with ICT and education professionals in the country, as Egypt is to be one of the pilot nations (along with Brazil and Thailand) in OLPC's $100-laptop scheme due to start later this year.

The basic idea of the scheme is to develop a portable personal computer for the needs of education in the developing world, manufacture it at a very low cost ($100) and sell it to governments for distribution amongst the school-age population. It sounds like a very good idea. It also directly addresses a central area of first-world angst since the internet began to 'revolutionize' our lives some ten years ago – the digital divide.

The Digital Divide is the notion that, as the individuals and economies of first-world countries make rapid advances in their co-operative ability through the internet, the developing world is left further and further behind because they do not have access to the technology. Recently, some observers have claimed that due to the availability of cheap telephony and locally manufactured hardware, certain parts of the developing world are catching up.

Whether or not that is true, OLPC is an organisation with anxiety over the digital divide at its very heart. It is the project, in part, of MIT founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte. If the name sounds familiar, it is because he is the brother of John Negroponte, the US Director of National Intelligence and former ambassador to Iraq. OLPC is, self proclaimedly, "a new, non-profit association dedicated to research to develop a $100 laptop—a technology that could revolutionize how we educate the world's children".

Negroponte is visionary about the potential of technology to improve educational standards in places where the state fails its children. He has two basic principles –which you can read in his article in The Economist's "The World in 2006". The first is that "education is always part of the solution" - to what problem he does not specify, but we might assume he means "a lack of development". The second is that "learning, as well as coming from 'top-down' institutions also comes from exploration and independence".

It is hard to take issue with either of these pleasant banalities. What has, as yet, to be made clear is the role that the implantation of ICTs into locations where they are usually unobtainable has in encouraging either statement to become reality.

The technological side of OLPC is somewhat impressive. It is a feat of manufacturing and logistics to be able to create a functioning laptop for such little money – and the kind of feat one might expect from an eminent institution of technocracy such as MIT. The first-generation product is slated to be a Linux-based 400MhZ AMD machine, with 128Mb of SDRAM, super-low energy consumption and the ability to be cranked by hand. If you can remember the Bayliss radio, the look of the "Green Machine" as it is called, is very similar. OLPC places, naturally, a lot of emphasis on Open Source Software, although the educational content with which the machines will come equipped has not been confirmed. It is hard to find examples of quality Open Source educational software, but there are programmes which can parallel proprietary applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe CS.

But when it comes to the interface between technology and the real world, OLPC is, unfortunately, a triumph of optimism over clear thinking.
It relies on a couple of imaginative constructions, ways of seeing the world which obscure the real conditions in developing countries, and the effects which international development produces in them. The first of these is that we, in the first world, live in a kind of techno-utopia where modernism has all but obliterated opposition to the 'rule of experts', and where our lives have been immeasurably improved by the advent of ICTs and the internet.
The second of these, which follows from the first, is that the introduction of technology into places where it is not being indigenously developed will make the lives of the recipients immeasurably better also.

The mere naming of these constructs should make the fallacy upon which so much international development is predicated obvious immediately. Common sense says that neither of these statements are necessarily true. However, a third construct is key to the OLPC project, and it is the simple belief that ICTs help learning. Now, I had thought that "Getting the Internet Helps with Your Homework" was just a particularly perfidious advertising suggestion to shift Dells and Hewlett-Packards, but it seems to have filtered its way into the development community without much critical evaluation.

Computers can, it is true, assist educational development in a constructive and supervised atmosphere. It can do so where the software, logistical support and know-how are present and affordable. But it is ridiculous to imply that ICTs can circumvent the fundamental deficits in any given national education system – which are present due to a myriad of social and economic difficulties. In Egypt, these deficits take the form of enormous class sizes, dilapidated classrooms, badly paid and under-motivated teachers, an overbearing secondary exam system and a bloated university sector. All the computer hardware in the world can do nothing about any of these. To claim that a $100 laptop can "revolutionize" education, in such an environment is well-intentioned, but foolish.

So, these are the structural difficulties that the Egypt's education system already struggles with, before it might be confronted with the difficulties of implanting large quantities of odd-looking computers. By far and away the most glaring of these secondary difficulties is literacy. Literacy is the elephant in the boardroom when international ICT corporations are doing business with the Egyptian education sector – something left unmentioned because it is too large a problem to contemplate. Granted, it is a problem that is being managed to an extent, but there is still a significant part of the female population particularly that isn't getting any schooling at all, much less being taught how to manipulate eBay.

Then we have the following headaches, in no particular order: The presence or otherwise of resources to maintain hardware, to purchase (or more likely pirate) international-standard software (why should the developing world have to muddle along with home-made Open Source programming when the first world gets the best?), the ability to train users in new applications, the ability to critically evaluate the plethora of internet sources, the money to pay for telephony or ADSL rental (dial-up in Egypt is reasonably cheap, broadband is not), the guaranteed reliability and autonomy of service providers, and the ability to take advantage of e-commerce through modern retail banking and affordable credit. It's quite a list, and it could be longer.

The above are basic requirements for an individual to be able to fully take advantage of the information age. Will OLPC provide these requirements? No. The simple reason is that the hardware itself is essentially second-tier, and is being aimed at the infrastructural level of the remote village, where electricity is at a premium (hence the hand-crank) and where the slated Wi-Max connectivity might conceivably be of use because of the absence of normal copper-wire telephony. But the ability to use such technology effectively is by no means automatically present in the places where the hardware seems destined for, and such ability is really only present at a much higher level of infrastructural development - i.e. in the lower middle classes of urban areas. A computer is something of an inappropriate addition to a household that does not have running water. The design of the OLPC project seems to rest on an odd image of the recipient as someone with a high level of basic education and fluent English, but who lives in a mud-hut in the middle of nowhere.

But who knows where the OLPC hardware will actually end up in Egypt. Despite the aspirations to sidestep 'top-down' learning, the OLPC machines will be distributed by the Egyptian government, who may have priorities other than the equitable education of its masses in mind. Now, this leads to the final point. At $100 each, the OLPC computers are to be sold at cost to, presumably either the Ministry for Education or the Ministry of ICTs. With the preliminary order reportedly one million units, this will set the purchaser back, of course, a hundred million bucks. The Minstry of Education has published its estimated spend for the five year period 2002-2007, and such a figure represents nearly 8% of its annual budget. It wasn't included, however, because OLPC was only thought-of last year.

So it is reasonable to assume that if the order does proceed this way, it will be at the expense of an increase in teachers' salaries, or much-needed infrastructural repairs. Even if the money materialises from international donors, it is still a heinous waste in the light of the country's obvious educational shortcomings, and would be money spent chasing the chimera of technological progress instead of shoring up real, traditional schools.

If the idea of OLPC seems immediately appealing, this is because in the first world we are all, almost automatically, part of the techno-utopian dream to which OLPC belongs. But the first world has all of the other resources to make use of the internet and ICTs - and the 15 million school children of Egypt mostly don't. So it might be useful to get the reading and the writing done first, and worry about the badges of techno-modernity later.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Band Camp Meets Boot Camp – It's the State versus the People Again

Judging by the news headlines, the last few weeks in Egypt have been fairly tumultuous. Let's make a list of events: A fatal stabbing in an Alexandrian church, followed by tri-partite riots between Christian youths, Muslim youths, and State Security; The continued harrassment and incarceration of two of the country's top judges; The continued harrassment and incarceration of the country's more 'problematic' journalists; A triple bomb attack in the Sinai resort of Dahab, rapidly followed by what seemed like impromptu suicide-bombings on Multinational forces further north; Unconfirmed reports of shooting and rioting in the Delta.

Not bad for the "Land of Peace", eh? None of these events are, in themselves, especially surprising or unusual here. You could pluck similar stories out of just about any newspaper archive from the last twenty or more years. And yet, the leprous Mubarak regime lumbers on. So it isn't surprising either to have turned up at the Journalists' Syndicate on Wednesday night, camera in hand, to find an immense (we are talking at least 1000 troops) security presence. CSF (Central Security Forces – or State Insecurity as I like to call them) trucks were parked two-deep on Ramses Street, and in the smaller streets surrounding the syndicate lurked lines and lines of uniformed CSF to back up the ranks already in front of the building.

What eminent threat were they there to guard against? About 60 mostly middle-aged Kifaya! and other assorted 'opposition movement' groups (and the ever present guy-in-the-wheelchair) gathered on the steps to shout the usual anti-regime slogans. The immediate context is the arrest and 'hearing' of charges against Mohammad Mekki and Hisham al Bastawissi, two judges who happened to be overly critical of the government's handling of the 2005 election count. The wider context is that Kifaya! (means "Enough!") and a fairly motley assortment of Islamists, Nasserists, Liberals and intellectuals have been staging street protests of varying size for the past two years. The judges' hearing is just the latest in a long line of injustices perpetrated by the state. So they get together and shout "Down with Mubarak" and "Down with Habib al-Adly" (most-hated vizier of the Interior), and sometimes a more amusing slogan, something like "Hey Condoleeza, Get Mubarak A Visa", referring of course to a fond but hopeless wish that the ageing dictator would just abdicate to the States, the only place where he seems to be appreciated.

[Prominent film producer Sabry al Samak rouses the assembled dozens]

The familiar atmosphere of cameraderie and badly organised 'outrage' pervaded, as the chief chant-leaders vied for control of the megaphone. Everyone knows each other by now - some of them even like each other. And all of this noise and friendly clamour watched over by the hoards of glowering, illiterate grunts picked up from the dusty backroads of Upper Egypt, none of them having a clue what's going on, looking fairly miserable. It's band-camp meets boot-camp.(see shots below)

[Protestors sit it Out facing State Insecurity]

[Badly paid, badly equipped, miserable farmers' third sons pressganged into coralling protestors in Cairo]

[More of same. Multiply this by several, perhaps tens thousands and you have the face of state control]

You could say that the authorities of the state were taking extra precautions to ensure public order in a particularly tense and emotional period of public life. Or you could say that, as usual, they were using a hammer to crack a nut –it's the only way they knows.

As the evening wore on everyone was waiting for the biltagiya (a particularly unpleasant face of state-insecurity, un-uniformed thugs wearing plaid-shirts and a miasma of B.O. hired for the evening to tag-team some unsuspecting Kifaya chant-leader in an alleyway). A small side-demonstration, outside the main cordon, ended up in a couple of arrests and some hysterics among the honking traffic by the High Court. Two guys with some axe or other to grind get baton-charged by the fey-looking CSFs (below).

[Run Away! Run Away!]

In the end, the demonstrators were dispersed one-by one by the biltagiya. As there were so few of them, it didn't apparently take long. As a movement that expresses the anger and discontentment of Egyptians with their government, Kifaya is a noble, but ineffective rump. It's not surprising. I was told of how the CSF deliberately pick on new recruits, to discourage others from joining. They have a narrower and narrower platform, if they ever had one to begin with. One Kifaya activist noted later in the Greek Club (a shabby, moth-eaten memorial to some liberal, intellectual era now long passed) that the judges are all they have left. The others have either been lost (the election) or are almost without hope (the Emergency Law). Even the official opposition has mostly been either imploding ( Wafd) or spending rather a lot of time in Jail (al-Ghad).

If all you could see in Egypt was the bombs and the headlines and the massive ranks of CSF, you might judge that the regime was in its death-throes. It has, after all, been twenty-six years. But to stand and appreciate the flaccidity of the opposition is to realise that no matter how sclerotic the regime may be, it's probably going to be around just as long as it wants to be.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Siwa - Here Comes Progress

There are a couple of things evident upon arriving at the adobe-brick bus station in Siwa, hot off a nine-hour slog from Alex. The first is that the oasis — over 500km from Cairo and just 50km from Libya — is not much like anywhere else in Egypt. The second thing that is evident is that this state of affairs won’t last for long.

Siwa’s uniqueness is a product of its sheer isolation. Not even the demotic Arabic speech of Cairo, which has conquered far and wide in Egypt, is in the ascendancy here. A rough and ready Berber parlance is still more commonly heard in Siwa’s market places and alleyways, and the town’s ‘feel’ is more of the Maghreb than the Nile Valley. Such isolation bequeaths a kind of autonomy, and Siwa has always been less than enthusiastic about the rule of outsiders. In fact, the writ of the modern Arab Republic of Egypt only really fully included the oasis after a proper road was built from Marsa Matruh in the 1980s.

The broad plain, blanketed in date and olive groves, and surrounded by two large freshwater lakes is by any standard an exceptionally beautiful place. It supports a settlement of about 23,000 people, who are mostly involved in an agriculture which has little to do with the modern world, and who represent a culture more introverted and conservative than readily found elsewhere in Egypt.

At the centre of the settlement is a kind of arcane symbol of the oasis’ antiquity — the deserted citadel of Shali, now a crumbling, five storey relic of a harsher desert past. Even though Shali has been mostly abandoned since heavy rains in 1926, the town’s poorest, landless inhabitants still live in its dusty periphery, with teenage boys lurking at each corner to escort visitors around their precarious asset.

It is easy to see how Siwa’s possession of natural attractiveness, the relics of antiquity, and a cultural indifference to modernity make it something more than just a settlement, more than just an isolated society. In the eyes of the outside world, Siwa is a tantalising glimpse of a pristine culture, and one that is increasingly attainable. In short, it is rapidly becoming a destination.

When it comes to the raw material needed for a thriving tourist industry, Egypt has an embarrassment of riches.
Nevertheless, Siwa is a relatively untapped resource, and remains a highly valuable commodity in a market that is characterised by seemingly unstoppable growth. The Ministry of Tourism’s figures claim that Egypt welcomed 8.6m tourist arrivals in 2005 and is planning for 14m by 2011.
Such a volume of visitors, and the cash that it represents is a powerful motor for change – and arguably the sole motor for change in a place like Siwa.

Tourism, as one of its side-effects, generates infrastructure. And infrastructure generates, albeit in an indirect way, social change. Siwa’s exposure to social mores other than its own, and its political isolation were irrevocably changed with the completion of the road from Marsa Matruh. Now, it is expected that the newly refurbished airport in Siwa will begin to receive tourist charter flights, cutting out the long and daunting road trip from the north coast.

The process is fairly obvious – if you have a desirable resource in an expanding market, you exploit it. The question is how that process of ‘development’ will be managed, and by whom. In Siwa, even those that stand to gain by an influx of tourists are ambivalent about the airport. One hotelier admitted to me that Siwans are pleased to welcome a limited number, but are nervous about losing control of the process – “Of course things will be very different when they open the airport” he said, “And we will welcome the extra guests as we can. But we also know the trouble that it can bring”.

It is easy to bemoan the blight of modern tourism, voraciously devouring ‘experiences’ and ‘cultures’ at the net expense of local societies. And in Siwa there is in fact a model of sustainable touristic development, in the shape of an ‘Eco-Lodge’ on the outskirts of town. The problem however is that sustainable tourism is hardly a mass market – in fact the comfort of knowing you are exploiting nothing and no-one in Siwa comes at a hefty premium. The Adrere Amellal lodge charges about $400 a night.

If there is a model of responsible development in this respect, which could be hoped for the relatively un-developed Siwa, it is hard to find in Egypt.

In addition to the accommodation needs of foreign visitors, the middle classes of Cairo and Alexandria are fuelling a second-home construction boom that is rapidly covering the country’s coastlines with identikit holiday homes. On the road from Alexandria to Marsah Matruh, there now exists a slick of such ‘tourist villages’ that is 100km long and 2km deep from the shore. The ‘villages’, which exist behind 30ft walls are situated in stark contrast to the filthy slums of service workers and construction labourers that lie outside them on the far side of the highway. There is scant physical evidence of profit from such projects going anywhere apart from the pockets of property developers in Cairo and abroad.

If an indication is needed of the priorities of government when it comes to this kind of development, a look at the newest construction project in Siwa is pretty instructive. It is called the Mubarak Sports Village, and is as odd a monument to dictatorial paranoia as this writer has seen.

As an unwieldy reminder of the structure of power and consent in Egypt, it is perfect. The ‘village’ (in a town where household running water and electricity are by no means universal) is equipped with a stadium that looks as if it could hold at least 20,000 (Siwa pop. 23,000) and is painted bright pink. There wasn’t much sign of any sport happening within its confines.

This edifice, which so proudly announces the beneficence of the First Family is closed to the public, and has been pretty much since it was completed. It is occupied solely by wall-eyed infantry grunts who look like they wish they had never heard of Siwa. A token, if one was needed, about who holds the ear of the ruling party. A local businessman, when asked what the Sports Village was all about answered: “The Government, it has some crazy idea about what kind of country this is. This thing is ridiculous, it’s a delusion.”

So the question posed by all of this is, “Is bad development better than none at all?” Judging by recent developments, bad development is what Siwa is going to get. Is the trickledown effect of more visitors (potentially better water and sanitation facilities, and a increased cash-flow to Siwan people) worth the distortions in the local economy?

As a location somewhere between the past and modernity, and a location small enough to witness change happen ‘live’, Siwa is worth watching for the answers to these questions. Just don’t ask anyone about the local football team.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sectarian Violence in Alexandria

Yesterday, in what seems to be another tragic expression of Muslim-Christian tension in Egypt, one man died and several others were injured in knife attacks in Alexandria.
The direct motives or the identity of the attackers isn't yet clear, although Alexandria seems to be remaining calm, in contrast to events surrounding the DVD scandal in October 2005.
This latest event comes amid an apparent atmosphere of general low-level antagonism between the two faith communities in the country. Coptic Christians, who are adherents to a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, form about 8-10% of Egypt's 70 million In 2000, sectarian violence killed and injured 60 people in al Kosheh, Upper Egypt after a dispute between a Christian and a Muslim in a shop in the town. In 2004, angry protests took place in Cairo after allegations that the wife of a disabled Coptic priest had been abducted and forced to convert to Islam.

In Alexandria last October, three died (including a Nun) and over 140 were injured following riots at the Saint George church in Muharram Bek. The violence flared in response to rumours of the distribution of a DVD showing an amateur dramatic performance in the church which was allegedly offensive to Muslims. The play, entitled "I was blind but now I can see" (From John 9:25) dealt with the sensitive topic of conversion from Christianity to Islam (and back again). It seems as if there was little in the play itself that could be considered 'offensive to Islam', which of course is a shorthand for offensive to Muslims, and is not quite the same thing.

These previous eruptions of violence all hinged around a supposed provocation, whether it was the argument between a shopkeeper and customer, or the offence caused by a play most people had never seen. The casus belli, in most of these cases, is almost absurdly minor. In Alexandria last October, initially peaceful protests about the Saint George play were ratcheted up into something violent after a young man took it upon himself to stab a nun, in a premonition of yesterday's attacks. The tilt-switch between civilised protest and murder seems to be exceptionally delicate in Egypt at this time.

So why is it so delicate? Why does such seemingly minor provocation so often result in people being butchered in the streets by their former neighbours? Can it really be, as one glib government official in Minya Governate told Al Ahram after the riots in al Kosheh that "In the south, people are hot-tempered, and small things can end up with someone being killed"?

Plenty of sociologists and political analysts in Egypt and abroad have pointed to social deprivation, political stagnation, lack of education, and so on as the root causes of such a willingness to turn offence into a reason for violence. It is likely that all of these in part are true. Nevertheless, it still doesn't explain the psychological process of being 'upset' at the actions or words of someone that do not directly impact upon the self, and then converting that into the will to murder or destroy property.

The psychology of the situation is indeed complex. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, the psychology is also unfortunately familiar to me. The truth is that in a situation where there is social deprivation, political stagnation etc, ie where the avenues of social change are closed, and where people are angry and discontented at their lot, people are all too willing take the time, and make the effort, to be offended. These are the fruits of the psychological condition known as the persecution complex.

In Egypt, the persecution complex is present in both christian and muslim communities, and the straightjacket of Egyptian public life affects everyone to a greater or lesser degree. Muslims, rightly or wrongly, are part of a global perception of being picked on by the 'christian' west. The fallacy or otherwise of this perception isn't really at issue here, but it is certain that it does exist. And Egyptian Christians publicly and privately complain of widespread and systematic discrimination. Many have countered that Coptic complaints are routinely exaggerated.

Unfortunately, the operation of the persecution complex, where supposed offence gives rise to demonstration and discontent has a kind of snowball effect – where minor provocation turns into very serious provocation very quickly. Whatever the immediate reasons for yesterday's attacks in Alexandria, they constitue a very serious development in the relations between the two faith communities here. A knife attack isn't a scandalous play, or a scurrilous rumour, or even a shop-front dispute; it's murder and it is a very real escalation of an already bloody conflict.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sufism - Images from the Dhikr

Sufi Dhikr at the Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri Complex, Cairo, 8th April 2006

Friday, April 07, 2006

Welcome to Contact Egypt

Welcome to Contact Egypt. This blog is a simple attempt at provoking debate and discussion about a variety of issues pertinent to Egypt in 2006. The range will include, but won't be limited to: politics, 'democratisation', development, education, poverty, the environment and religious affairs. Over the next few weeks a range of 'starter' topics will appear, and the aim is to encourage readers to enter the discussion. In addition, an occasional photostory will provide a more visual departure point for the issues raised.
Please syndicate this blog by adding it to your RSS reader.