In Egypt, a cellphone is a wireless lifeline (JERUSALEM POST) By JOSEPH MAYTON / THE MEDIA LINE 03/23/12)
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CAIRO – He sits down slowly in his chair, moving his jacket to cover
his aging body. The phone rings, and with spritely, youthful hands,
Gabr reaches quickly into his pocket and pulls out a dated but
functional Nokia cellphone. Answering it quickly, he chats for a few
minutes before returning to his jacket pocket.
While blogging and tweeting may be a foreign concepts for Gabr, an
elderly bawwab, or doorman, in Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab area, he has had
a mobile phone for years.
“How else would we be able to talk to my family and friends,” he
explains, his Upper Egyptian accent denoting his original home city
of Aswan to the south. “We call each other every day and it is good
for the mind.”
Despite an economic downturn in the year since a popular uprising
ousted the former government of Hosni Mubarak and a labor market
where a mid-level civil servant may earn the equivalent of $1,700 a
year, mobile phone subscriptions in Egypt are soaring. The number
grew 18% to 84.43 million, according to a government report published
last month. It means that, barring a number of customers with more
than one line, nearly every Egyptian has one, including many among
the fifth of the population estimated to be living on $2 a day or
Indeed, demand for cellphones is so strong that Egypt’s three mobile
giants – Etisalat, the Egyptian unit of Vodafone and Mobini –
decided three weeks ago to make their customers pay a government
stamp tax that works out to about 12 Egyptian pounds ($2) a year.
Until now , the phone companies had borne the cost themselves.
Many observers see the uprising and chronic violence have spurred
Egyptians into stretching their budgets to make sure they have a
cellphone at the ready. Fadia Abu Shahba, a criminal researcher at
the National Center for Social and Criminal Studies, estimates that
the number of carjackings jumped 10-fold last year to 4,000 and that
criminal increasingly use guns in place of knives and clubs.
“With all the violence and what is going on in Egypt in the past six
months, I couldn’t have managed without a phone and being on Twitter
and other social networking sites to spread the word,” says Mohamed
Kamel, who is well placed to know. He happens to be both a political
activist and telecoms analyst.
Still, the numbers came as a surprise to many in the country,
including Ahmed Naguib a researcher at the Egyptian Exchange, the
national stock market. Faced with accelerating inflation and double-
digit unemployment, Egyptians are getting back on other household
spending, he notes. So how can they pay for a new cellphone?
“[People] see their phones as an important means of survival and
communication, which is very important for the people in this
country,” Naguib responds.
For Gabr and others like him in the lower-middle or lower classes,
communication is vital to their lives. Family is as important as the
food they put on the table. Gabr says that growing up, no matter how
far away from home he was, he always made time for his mother.
“Back then we had to send letters and I would always write,
especially when I went to work in Cairo and my mother was back home.
Then, when I could afford it and got a phone in my home, I would
probably call her at least every day or every two days,” he said.
For him, the mobile phone is a natural progression of that
communication, which has become de rigueur for Egyptians, rich and
“We Egyptians talk to each other and are always thinking about
family, so it is important that we all have one,” he says, referring
to his phone, smiling and waving it as he speaks.
Those family ties are harder to maintain as the youth travel farther
and farther away from home, so cellphones play a critical role. Nora
Yussif, a 22-year-old university student from an Upper Egypt village
some one hour’s drive from Asiut, told The Media Line that without a
phone, her family would never have allowed her to travel.
“They were very much against the idea, but when we talked, they
decided that if we all had phones and could talk daily, it would be
okay,” says the Cairo University student, now in her final
year. “Technology might not be a big part of their lives, but the
mobile phone is a link to me and for many families it is the same.”
Yussif’s last remark may come as a disappointment to Egypt’s three
mobile companies. They have been competing fiercely for market
leadership, with Vodafone and Mobinil both claiming to be the top
provider. Now, with a cellphone in nearly every pocket, they have to
come up with new growth strategies. One is to keep revenue growing by
encouraging customers to use more data services – and that may be a
In spite the rise in mobile phone subscriptions in the new Egypt, the
other technologies that helped spread the revolution have not kept
up. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimated in a
report this month that about 29% of the region’s population has
Internet access, below the world average of more than 34%. Egypt’s
rate was 26.7%, putting it at the bottom half of the Arab world.
Marwan Radwan, a former professor at Cairo University and now
information technology consultant and researcher on Internet
activities in Egypt, told The Media Line that over the past year
Egyptians have kept talking on their mobile phones. But Internet
activity, particular blogging and social media, have stalled after a
brief surge in use.
“We saw an initial burst following the revolution, but even today,
most Egyptians don’t know what a blog is and why they would use it,
because they don’t have the money to have Internet at home,” he
Nahed, a 32-year-old mother of two, who went to the streets during
the January 2011 street protests against Mubarak, has two phones. “I
have one for just my family and another for my friends. Talking to
the people I love is important and I do it every day,” she says,
echoing Gabr’s sentiments toward the phone.
But, asked if she blogs, she answers: “What is a blog? I don’t know
this and never heard of it.”
Subscriptions for mobile phones may continue to g row as the last
holdouts give up on the country’s clunky state-owned landline
network, but Radwan says it does not mean Egyptians are becoming more
technology savvy. The move from a landline phone to a mobile one is
not revolutionary. It involves the same skills of dialing and
talking, and not much more if you do not have a smartphone.
“Egyptians want to stay in touch and they still use the traditional
means of the phone as their source,” he says. “We are still a ways
away from any such IT movement in the country.” (© 1995-2011, The
Jerusalem Post 03/23/12)
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