Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Seeking one per cent

By Amira Howeidy

The first National Information Technology (IT) Exhibition seems to have come at a most opportune time.The IT sector's growth rate has reached the high percentage of 32 annually. Global concern over the millennium bug promoted interest in computers, ultimately pushing up sales worldwide. In Egypt alone, annual computer sales hit 250,000 this year.

To people in the industry, President Hosni Mubarak's inauguration of the First National Conference for Information Promotion with a speech, reflected unprecedented dedication and a genuine will to boost the IT sector.

For the past three years, many working in the field have repeatedly complained from lack of government support, high taxes and customs, an unreliable communication network and the absence of patent rights and IT-oriented laws. For them, the way to a strong IT take-off basically lies in a well-planned national programme. Mubarak's speech, they argued, is the green light for this long-awaited step. "The main points addressed by the president are what we've been calling for throughout the past three years without receiving a positive feedback," Abdel-Hamid Abed, chairman of a software company, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The conference was preceded by internationally-recognised exhibitions, such as GITEX and COMDEX, which made their debut in this country more than two years ago. According to the newly-appointed director of the cabinet's Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC), Raafat Radwan, it has been decided by the industry people that the exhibition will be an annual event and an occasion for them to meet and have a dialogue with the president. "It will be a chance for us to display accomplishments and discuss future plans," he said. Declaring that Mubarak's speech came as a "surprise", Radwan argued that IT experts had been more or less involved in ineffective rhetoric on what should be done to improve their sector. "But now there is a comprehensive strategic national scheme that reflects almost all our hopes," he told the Weekly.

The national scheme was also accompanied by a plan for implementation. "This means that there is a serious will to carry this out. Moreover, the fact that this plan will be executed under the supervision of the president himself means that there will be no room for laxity. We used to talk, now it's action time," he said.

The aspiration of Egypt's IT sector, says Radwan, "is to account for one per cent of the international IT industry. Egypt's population is 60 million, while the world's is 6 billion. Since we constitute one per cent of the world's population, then we are entitled to one per cent of the world market, which, in numbers, would translate into $1.2 million," annually.

Five seminars were held on the second day of the exhibition to discuss the national strategy for IT, industrial development in the IT field, developing human cadres, e-commerce and an infrastructure for a geographical data base.

Speaking in the e-commerce seminar, Minister of Trade and Supply Ahmed Guweili explained the ministry's efforts in expanding its IT services and coordinating with the Ministry of Justice to introduce IT-oriented laws and implement patent rights. The model of India, a Third World country that exports $3.2 billion worth of software annually, he said, is not impossible for Egypt to emulate. He listed the strong points Egypt has, mainly its geographical proximity and human resources, that can promote it as an attractive spot for investors in the IT industry.

"We are fully aware that there are many obstacles along the way of making quick advances, but we are working hard to change all this," El-Guweili told the Weekly. By joining the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) last October, Egypt has now opened a huge potential market for its products, he said. Moreover, Egypt has become a member of the Arab Free Trade Organisation "and we are also working on agreements with Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Greece. All these agreements can make of Egypt an important central trading centre," he added.

In the course of the seminar, Radwan distributed copies of a paper entitled "The Egyptian Initiative for E-Commerce". The paper was issued by the e-commerce committee that seeks wider use of this modern technology in Egypt. The committee, which includes representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs, trade, industry and military production, as well as the IDSC, the National Bank of Egypt and several organisations, including the Egyptian Internet Society (EIS), drew a careful outline of the challenges that face e-commerce domestically and suggested practical solutions.

The two-day exhibition was intended to display the status of Egypt's IT industry, which has developed significantly under Mubarak. Eighteen ministries, 24 governorates and 200 private IT companies held exhibits in the elegant booths of the Nasr City conference hall. Although the attendance was relatively weak and more or less confined to IT people, the exhibition provided an opportunity for people to discover how technologically-oriented many Egyptian ministries have become.

Many were surprised, for example, to find out that the IDSC has branches nationwide, where ordinary citizens and researchers alike can have free and unlimited access to data bases in every governorate. Even to multinational companies such as Oracle, which was represented at the exhibition, "the whole point of this exhibition is to exist and for [all those attending] to know who else is there on today's IT map," Amr Helmi, a firm consultant, said. (see p.5)

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