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Game changers: Egyptians and their gadgets in 2012

Game changers: Egyptians and their gadgets in 2012
Sharif Sakr
Sharif Sakr|February 11, 2012 11:05 AM
Is there such a thing as revolutionary technology? Many Egyptians believe there is. A year ago, they used mobile phones, social networking and banned TV channels to spread word of the protests in Tahrir Square. Hearing the news, thousands of young people risked their lives to join in and overthrow the dictator Hosni Mubarak. To mark the revolution's anniversary, Engadget caught up with five Caireans of different ages and backgrounds to find out about the gadgets they use to keep in touch with their world. For the love of freedom, democracy and at least one bar of mobile reception, please read on.

Egypt is a complex country in a complicated situation. Mubarak is gone, but now the army runs the show. Traveling around Cairo, it's clear that the revolution hasn't yet become history. In many ways, it's still going on. Hundreds of thousands of people returned to Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the first big protest, January 25th, but they weren't interested in remembrance so much as pushing for faster democratic change.

Amid this ongoing upheaval, the Egyptians I met were also trying to carry on with their careers and personal lives. In this respect, they're just like people anywhere. When I told them I was a tech blogger and wanted to talk about gadgets, it became clear that their use of mobile phones and computers is pretty ordinary too -- except for one crucial difference. Mobile phones and the internet went dead across the entire country during the early days of the protests, as the increasingly desperate regime tried to stop the revolt spreading. As you're about to see, that blackout is still hot on people's minds and they no longer take their gadgets for granted.

Rahma lives right at the edge of Cairo, where her balcony overlooks the desert and sand regularly blows in through her windows. Being so far out means she and her husband can afford a nice apartment, but it also means that commuting around this sprawling city for medical appointments has become a large and time-consuming part of her life. Google Maps is one of the main reasons she upgraded to a smartphone, after the battered old Nokia she had during the revolution succumbed to her one-year-old son.

The Galaxy Ace didn't come cheap: 2,100LE ($350) for a prepaid handset is more than most Egyptians can earn in a month, but to Rahma it was worth it. In addition to navigation, she uses it to check her work emails, look up medical research and -- in her free time -- connect with her friends on Facebook, which is the only extra app she's installed so far. "During the revolution we used Facebook to push each other to get involved," she says. "Now it's become like a virtual life in this country. Perhaps it's not healthy, but I'm addicted."

When asked what network she's on, Rahma beams and says "Vodafone! I love it." This is perhaps a surprising response, considering that Vodafone was widely criticized for sending out SMS messages to all its Egyptian customers during the protests, telling them to obey Mubarak's government. "I received those texts," she says, "and I hated them. But I just deleted them straight away. You can't only blame Vodafone, because all the networks did it. It was a condition of their license to operate in Egypt."

Amr can't afford mobile internet, because he needs to keep his monthly top-up expenditure below 25LE ($4) per month. He's not crazy about phones anyway, whether it's the Nokia he had during the revolution, or the Sony Ericsson he uses now. He talks about maybe upgrading to a smartphone, but it's just one of many fleeting ambitions -- a bit like his younger cousins' fascination with expensive Power Balance wristbands, which are still all the rage here thanks to celebrity endorsements and a lack of consumer protection.

Amr's technological fixations become more concrete when he talks about PCs. He has a decent laptop that was given to him by the Ministry of Education after he won a robotics competition. To get online, he travels 40 minutes by bus to his cousin's flat, which has 2Mb/s ADSL. All the boys get together there to play Medal of Honor and sometimes they cross the road to play Counterstrike and CoD in their local cyber cafe -- although the "noise, insects and broken headphones" mean they only do that a few times a month, when they're "desperate."

Amr is more politically aware than your average teenager and his laptop plays a big part in that. When we met him a few days before the anniversary, he was scouring Facebook for news and gossip about the likelihood of renewed violence -- whether due to clashes between the authorities and protesters who are frustrated with the pace of change, or simply due to criminals who might exploit any chaos in the streets. "I read that lots of people have got guns from Libya. Too many people have weapons now and it's very scary."

One of the proudest mementos on Amr's Facebook wall is a photo of him standing beside an Egyptian soldier in Tahrir Square on the day that Mubarak finally stepped down. There's another one of him and his cousins looking both victorious and afraid next to the huge tracks of an APC. "If the revolution hadn't happened, I'd probably still think of the Internet as a silly thing. But when they shut it down, it was like they hit us directly. It was a wake up call."

While millions of tourists pass effortlessly through this country's border controls each year, most native Egyptians have very little freedom of movement. Many obstacles are put in the way of travel, but some people have managed to maintain links to other countries. Nadine is among that generally wealthier minority. She speaks fluent English with a slight American tinge, travels regularly to the UK, and can afford to pay Western prices for things -- like the iPhone 4 she picked up in London and the MacBook she bought from an Apple dealer in Cairo. The MacBook alone cost 9000LE, which is roughly what a family of six might need to spend on groceries in an entire year.

"Apple products aren't so common here," Nadine acknowledges. "There was a government drive some time ago to make [Windows] PCs more affordable, and these days you can pick one up very cheaply, but Mac prices weren't affected." On the other hand, she says that iPhones are no long as elite as they used to be. "My driver has a 3GS, which he got second-hand." She adds that it's possible to find iPhones and other smartphones at knockdown prices in Abdel Aziz Street, which is notorious for hawkers of used and stolen goods. "There are definitely more people wanting smartphones since the revolution," she says. "When the government shut everything down, people were panicking, so now they've realized these things are important."

Mahmoud is a wiry man who spends much of his time dangling from balconies eleven floors above oblivion. He runs his own small business and has a young family to feed, but he charges just 60LE ($10) on a standard satellite installation or repair job -- even if the job lasts half a day. With that level of income, he's not going to blow 200LE per month on ADSL -- and yet he says that getting online with his laptop is extremely important to him.

People in Mahmoud's situation have to be resourceful. A common trick is to split the cost of a cable subscription by sharing a single connection throughout an apartment building. Mahmoud even claims it's possible to get web access totally free of charge using a satellite signal -- although he refuses to elaborate beyond admitting "it's slow."

Mohammed paid the 60LE necessary to have his own dish installed. He could have avoided even this modest cost if he'd accepted the central service supplied to his building, but he says it carries channels that "aren't suitable for the grandkids, or even for old men." By having his own dish and receivers, he has more control.

Satellite TV was especially important to Mohammed during the revolution. Like many of his age, he didn't go to Tahrir Square, but he was desperate to know what was happening. "I watched the protests for about eight hours a day," he says. His favorite channel was and still is an Al Jazeera off-shoot called Mubasher Misr, which broadcasts rolling live news specifically focused on Egypt. Its plain-speaking content would never be permitted on terrestrial TV channels, which are wholly owned and operated by the government. In fact, the authorities would love nothing more than to shut Mubasher Misr down, but they can't quite manage it. "They recently closed the channel's offices here, so now the signal has to be routed from Qatar," Mohammed says. "Because of that, many people have trouble receiving it -- but I know how to receive it and I can show people."

There's no way that the five individuals above can be regarded as a representative sample of a country of 85 million, or even of Cairo. But speaking to them about their gadgets did provide me with a genuine glimpse inside their lives, and -- perhaps more importantly -- it was a good ice-breaker. Although I'm culturally British and there's a lot I don't understand about Egypt, I found that I was able to talk with Egyptians all day long about the relative virtues of a Samsung GSII or the best way to get more power out of an Intel Celeron-powered laptop. None of the people I spoke to were geeks, but when it came to the technology of communication and its importance to personal freedoms, they all were.