In Egypt, a cellphone is a wireless lifeline

Post-revolution chaos, wandering youth spur families to stretch budgets to stay in touch.

Texting cellphone 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Texting cellphone 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 less.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 poor.
“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 challenge.
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 argued.
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.”