Egypt’s Digital Future: A Conversation with the Egyptian Minister of Communication and Information Technology
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Investing inthe digital economy has become a national imperative in many countries as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed businesses, educators and services online. Egypt, the MENA region’s most populous nation with a population of over a 100 million, recognizes its potential to be a leader in digitization and in expanding the digital economy. The Wilson Center Middle East Program’s Director Merissa Khurma interviewed Egypt’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Dr. Amr Talaat to learn more about Egypt’s plans to accelerate digital transformation and ready the workforce for a more robust digital economy that connects Egypt to the region and global economies. “The conviction that everybody [in Egypt] has now formed is that a digital society is the way forward, that ICT is the key to each and every sector to grow.”
Under the leadership of Minister Talaat, the ICT ministry in Egypt has devised a robust approach to augment the country’s digital productivity. The strategy spans three pillars: “Cultivating Digital Skills”, “Fostering Digital Innovation”, and “Spearheading Innovation”. The emphasis on building digital skills showcases that human capital is at the center of the digital transformation. The ministry collaborates with academic institutions and the private sector to ensure youth are equipped with in-demand ICT skills as well as the needed ‘soft’ or essential life skills. The latter two pillars aim to foster an ecosystem conducive for innovation and creativity and bring digital transformation into the public sector. This expansive, yet penetrative strategy indicates the enormous effort required on the part of the government to spearhead digitization.
The impact of COVID-19
As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted Egypt’s economy and workforce. Minister Talaat pointed out, though, “Every crisis generates an opportunity… Since the pandemic, everyone is convinced working from home is effective, training through digital means is effective, [and] exporting digital services from one country to another is effective.” With millions of people working from home, the country experienced a surge in demand for internet services, reinforcing the importance of digital literacy. Indeed, the ICT sector continued to grow at 16 percent even during the pandemic.
The flexibility of remote work via digital means has also positively impacted women’s employment in Egypt. Two enablers are distance learning and freelancing. According to Minister Talaat, a leading cause of the low female representation in the workforce are social norms around household responsibilities that unfortunately often deter women from obtaining a full-time job. “Now, with the digital economy, these restrictions are being lifted”. This speaks to the broader effect digitization can have on inclusivity; specifically, the power to reach communities who are historically underserved or underrepresented in Egypt. The push towards digital also benefits those with special needs by enabling them to find work and live with greater independence. “Working from home helps this extremely important sector of our society find a job, earn their own living, and gain independence… this is key to enabling women, in enabling people with special needs, to become more and more financially, economically, and thus socially independent,” Minister Talaat contended.
Egypt intends to work with its African and Arab neighbors to deliver its successful strategies throughout the region. For example, the HARP project will establish a fiber optic cable from Cape Town to Cairo, achieving major progress in connectivity. The Minister also detailed the myriad projects with Egypt’s partners in the Middle East, such as, “digital transformation and joint education and research, [which] are proving very beneficial in creating a positive atmosphere.”
Furthermore, Minister Talaat highlighted the importance of collaborating with US entities and maintaining the presence of American companies in the Egyptian market. These transnational partnerships have spurred local innovation within Egypt, generating even more opportunities for cross-collaboration. The Egyptian diaspora in the United States is an integral component to Egypt-US relations, including amongst the private sector.
In addition to international projects, the Ministry is pursuing initiatives to bridge the digital divide among rural Egyptian communities. One such project is the Haya Karima (Decent Life), which aims to ensure these communities have access to the internet to in turn integrate them into the digital economy. Efforts are also underway to build incubation and innovation centers across Egypt, with the explicit goal to ensure every Egyptian with an innovative idea has the resources to pursue it.
Dr. Amr Talaat, Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology
“Digital transformation is part of creating a digital Egypt. Our ability as a government to render digital services and to facilitate the way our citizens obtain their entitlements from the government is our top priority. It is not only the responsibility of the ministry of ICT but our duty is to help enable other ministries to digitalize their services and operations, and to digitalize the government in its entirety as we move into the new capital.”
“Another mega project that I believe we are all extremely excited about and proud of, is (the) Decent Life project. Through the Decent Life project, we're going to expand the fiberoptic network in Egypt to 58 million more people who are living in all villages of Egypt. Over three years, each and every household in all 4500 villages in Egypt will be connected via (a) fiberoptic network.”
“The more we grow dependent on digital means in all facets of life…the more we are going to be subject to cyber dangers. We need to stay vigilant, we need to make sure our systems are well protected, always modernized, and always well-built to defend itself against cyber attacks. Equally important is the need to, as you said, educate people [and] raise awareness. There has been a couple of incidents where people willingly gave their banking information to people on the phone claiming to be banking employees and so forth. This awareness is important for people to understand how they now deal with mobile wallets, with digital signatures, with their identity and on the internet and their accounts on various systems, this is a new set of responsibilities towards oneself that not everybody is yet accustomed to.”
Ambassador Motaz Zahran, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States
“The past decade witnessed an acceleration in (the) pace of digital transformation based on the adoption of leading-edge information technologies, like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Digitization thus has become an imperative, and thereby the cornerstone of competitiveness in both governments and the private sector. As such, enhancing the efficiency and survival of institutions is dependent on the adoption of innovation and digital upgrades.”
“This promising sector grew despite COVID by between fifteen and sixteen percent, as Merissa has mentioned in the very beginning, and Egypt plans to derive somewhere between eight to ten percent of its GDP through ICT in three years. So opportunities for cooperation between Egypt and the U.S. are vast, especially in the fields of smart city solutions, artificial intelligence, cyber security, telecommunications infrastructure, outsourcing and manufacturing electronic devices.”
Merissa Khurma, Director of the Middle East Program
“There was an American University of Cairo study, a recent one, that showcased around seventy percent of Egyptians believe entrepreneurship is a good career. Now, this is very encouraging because we know that there is a trend towards the public sector, not only in Egypt but really across the MENA region. We have seen this in our research of Tunisia, Oman, and Jordan, and that obviously is a mindset shift that is essential to ensuring you have more entrepreneurs.”
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more