Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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Gateways to CIT

The world's richest man was in Egypt this week. Niveen Wahish followed him around

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Gates with Nazif after inaugurating the Egyptian governmnet portal
Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, was in Egypt this week at the invitation of the Egyptian government. Gates stopped on his way back from Davos where he took part in the World Economic Forum. Named the world's richest man by Forbes magazine last September, Gates added a cool $3 billion to his $43 billion fortune in 2003.

Gates's visit, his first ever to the region, was intended to acquaint him with development and educational objectives set by the government and private businesses, as well as exploring opportunities for Microsoft. Founded in 1975, Microsoft is the worldwide leader in software, services and Internet technologies for personal and business computing. Microsoft has five subsidiaries in the Middle East region, including one in Egypt. During his brief stay in Cairo, Gates met with President Hosni Mubarak, cabinet ministers and top officials and took part in two Microsoft events.

Gates delivered a speech at the Microsoft Middle East Developers Conference which brought together over 3,000 participants to exchange and share insights while learning about new technologies. He delivered another speech at the Government Leadership Forum Arabia in Cairo under the auspices of President Mubarak, the first time the forum has been held in the Middle East. He spoke of how technology is going to create opportunities throughout the world, particularly throughout the Middle East and how Microsoft plans to be at the heart of that, particularly in a world that is becoming increasingly digitalised.

The forum, which brought together 200 delegates from Arab countries, focussed on modernising government, economic development and education. One of the highlights of the conference was Gates's participation in inaugurating the Egyptian government portal with Prime Minister Atef Ebeid and Minister of Communications and Information Technology Ahmed Nazif.

The portal, a joint effort of the Egyptian CIT Ministry, Microsoft and a number of local partners, will allow users access to various government services such as paying electricity bills, applying for a university placement or even ordering copies of birth certificates and having them delivered to their door. The portal is not yet complete, as a number of government departments and services are yet to be posted. But services are being expanded, promised Ahmed Darwish, director of the E-government programme at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. He said that currently online payment is possible through credit cards, but that later payment upon delivery may be possible and prepaid cards may be made available in cooperation with the postal authority.

Although these services were available by each ministry prior to the portal, the advantage of the new arrangement, according to Darwish, is that one portal is more user friendly. Citizens will need to remember only one Internet address rather than hunt down the Internet addresses of each ministry or authority. "This project is expected to make people's lives easier, by saving time, money and effort," Darwish said. "If out of our 17 million students, only 100,000 order their certificates on the net, we save LE9 million."

The conference was an occasion not only for the inauguration of the portal, but also for showcasing and announcing other agreements between the Egyptian government and Microsoft. One of the deals signed between the Ministry of Education and Microsoft will enable the ministry to benefit from Microsoft's Partners for Learning Programme. Over the next five years, this agreement will provide resources for skills training, technical support and broader access to technology for teachers and students. It will also support CIT content localisation, training students in software development and the establishment of Microsoft IT academies. This agreement, according to Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin, the Egyptian minister of education, supports already-existing agreements through which Microsoft provides basic computer training, teacher training, training trainers, partners academy, and skills development in higher education.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, representing the Egyptian government, also signed an agreement to participate in Microsoft's Government Security Programme (GSP). According to this agreement, the government of Egypt will work closely with Microsoft to review various aspects of Windows source-code development, testing and deployment processes, and discuss existing and potential projects with Microsoft security experts. GSP is a global initiative that provides national governments with controlled access to Microsoft Windows source-code and other technical information they need to be confident in the security of the Windows platform.

Egypt is to benefit not just from the agreements it bilaterally signed with the company, but it is one of three countries set to benefit from a new partnership between Microsoft and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The partnership aims at bringing computer technology and literacy to developing countries. Drawing on a $1 billion Microsoft fund, the company will work alongside UNDP to provide software, computer training and cash to establish computer centres in poor communities, starting with pilot projects in Egypt, Mozambique and Morocco.

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