- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

Tarek Kamel struggles with the tech interests of his two children. Son Omar, 14, “lives in a virtual world,” eschewing newspapers and traditional TV. Daughter Hebba, 10, is begging him to allow her on Facebook, but Mr. Kamel says it’s too early for her.

Not only that, “Our entire family privacy would be compromised,” he said.

But unlike most parents, Mr. Kamel must make it his business to follow tech developments very closely. He’s Egypt’s minister of communications and information technology, and last week he was in Washington and New York to boost the nation’s profile as an information technology, or IT, hub.

He met with Internet officials in the Obama administration, with veteran Internet pioneer Vinton G. Cerf, and last Tuesday signed a deal with Google, Mr. Cerf’s current employer, to expand Arab-language content.

“For the first time, it utilizes Google to promote Egyptian industries and export in a very structured way,” Mr. Kamel said in an interview with The Washington Times at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington. “And [Google will] use part of the resources to establish new online advertising and promotion in Arabic.”

Via e-mail, Joanne Kuba, Google’s Dubai-based public affairs and communications manager, confirmed the contract signing, “between Google and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology in Egypt for an investment in advertising programs that brand Egypt online.”

“The barrier now with computers and PCs is the lack of Arabic content online on the net, and this is one of the areas we need to invest in the future, and we are inviting investors to come in and make our national heritage and cultural heritage online and make it available not only to the neighboring countries in the Arab world, but to the 350 million Arabic-speaking population worldwide, whether in the U.S. or in Europe,” Mr. Kemal said.

Asked whether the Egyptian government, which has had issues with the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood, would be concerned about that group accessing the Internet, Mr. Kamel said that while not specifically mentioning the group, “our policy line has been always trying to keep the Internet open, trying to keep it as a platform really for development, socioeconomic development, open as much as we can.”

He viewed recent events in Iran, which has sought to shut down Twitter and Facebook feeds used by protesters over the disputed June 12 elections, as something he urges other nations to avoid: “We are witnessing what’s happening in Iran, but at the end of the day I don’t know if these are just some occasional actions or actions that would definitely be long-standing,” Mr. Kamel said.

“We try, on a regional level within the councils that we are a member [of], whether it is the African Council of Ministers ICT or the Arab Council of Ministers or ICT, to deliver the message to keep the Internet as open as we can, and as much as we can,” he added.

Mr. Kamel, who has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and hosted the CEOs of IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. in Cairo, is also pushing Egypt’s high-tech communication infrastructure as an IT gateway to the region. Of course, other nations in the area, including Jordan, are doing the same, but Mr. Kamel said there’s enough business for all parties.

“The business is so large that it absorbs competition,” he said. “It allows several players to come in. This is the message we always send to our friends in India or here or there: Let’s work together. We see even Indian companies investing in Egypt in the last couple of years because the business is growing.”

As far as Egypt is concerned, one industry analyst sees strong demand for IT products and services in all sectors. Jyoti Lalchandani, vice president and regional managing director for International Data Corp.’s offices, also based in Dubai, said via e-mail that his firm “has documented strong (domestic) demand for IT products and services in Egypt; growing more than 15 percent over the past 3-4 years.”

“Much of this growth has stemmed from strong investments made by the government administration, banking/financial services, and [telephone company] sectors, coupled with vibrant growth on the consumer side (PCs/laptops, peripherals). Total IT spending in 2008 totaled nearly [U.S.] $1.9 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2007.”

Mr. Lalchandani also wrote that “the Egyptian government has developed the offshoring and outsourcing industry; reforms and tax rebates [have] boosted Egypt’s ranking as a favorable global outsourcing destination. Egypt offers a cost-effective, multilingual work force with high numbers of engineering graduates. This characteristic of the Egyptian market has compelled multinational vendors to consider it as viable option for near-shore and offshore centers to cater to Middle East and European customers.”

Mr. Kamel said the Egyptian work force is an attraction because IT firms “realize that we have Arabic-speaking human resources with a multilingual background — that has other differential advantages in terms of geographical location, in terms of growth in the local market and growing local market demand, [and] in terms of excellent infrastructure that connects us with the rest of the world.”

He added: “We have 250,000 university graduates each year. If we provide 10 percent of them with the right [IT] skills, we will be doing the right thing for the country.” Along with seeking the world’s IT business, Egypt is taking a role in terms of Internet governance, covering the structure of the World Wide Web.

Egypt will host the Internet Governance Forum this November, Mr. Kemal said, and he hopes to investigate “what role can the international societies and communities and constituencies play in Internet governance issues.”

At the same time, Mr. Kemal said, Egypt is determined to keep the Internet an open communication system. “I think our approach was always not regulation, [but it] was always deregulation as much as we can, and this is what we have proven in the last 10 years in the evolution of the Internet in Egypt. We have involved the private sector heavily, and a strong partnership with a civil society.”

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