This commentary was contributed by Nathan Field.
There’s a growing school of thought that promotion of entrepreneurship is an effective solution to the socio-economic problems facing many Arab countries, especially Egypt. In Jobs@Arabia.com Thomas Friedman heaped praise on Oassis500, a high-tech accelerator in Jordan that provides startup money and training to budding internet companies. A prominent American investor recently profiled FlatLabs6, a similar effort in Cairo. And the pilot version of the State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship program offers mentorship to young Egyptian entrepreneurs, mostly in the tech and IT space.
The case for promoting entrepreneurship as a solution in Egypt is strong. Why? A solid argument can be made that the single most important cause of the 2011 uprising was economic — or, in other words, lack of economic opportunities.
There are more Egyptian university graduates than ever before, with higher aspirations than any previous generation, yet, in an increasingly competitive and liberal global economy, the government has to this point been unable to generate anywhere near enough jobs that meet their expectations. Thus, in February 2011, that discontent — probably exacerbated by the effects of the post-2008 global financial crisis — caused the ranks of Egypt’s previously passionate but relatively small opposition to reach a critical mass, and sweep away the Mubarak regime.
Friedman and company’s approach is sound. However, what should not be overdone is the implicit assumption that “startup” means (or should mean) “tech” and especially “internet company.” Virtually every article covering this trend in the Arab world focuses exclusively on web-based companies. Certainly, they have a place, but an equal, if not greater focus should be on the development of new lower-tech, labor-intensive firms, because they are more likely to make an impact in addressing Egypt’s un and underemployment problems.