Amr Ramadan is the founder and CEO of Vimov, the iPad company responsible for the beautifully elegant, bestselling “Weather HD” app and the soon to be released “Precious Time.” When Chris Schroeder @cmschroed and I were in Egypt in January, just before the Tahrir uprising, we met with over 30 promising startups. Of all the CEOs we met, Amr struck us as having a unique blend of product focus, technical elegance and something that can only be described as preternatural calm. We emailed back and forth with him as the situation unfolded across the country, and found his reflections to be personal without being melodramatic, visionary without being polyanna. Now that the situation in Egypt is settling (although still far from settled) we wanted to share his reflections with a broader audience.
I want to tell you first about what life was like in Egypt before January 25th…
There was this common saying that has been around since the 50s, “thrown behind the sun”, which described the disappearance of an activist, taken from his home at dawn while people were asleep and thrown into a jail, only for no one to hear about him again. This was very common in Abd El Naser’s rule, and this type of oppression continued throughout Mubarak’s ruling, except that the Secret Police no longer came in the dark, it became bolder and could take anyone in clear daylight and with little to no reason.
I was born in 1984, a few years after Mubarak’s took office. While Mubarak was a tyrant in his ruling, he did some reforms in the late 90s that probably are the cause of what has happened today, opening up communications and freedom of press a bit more than it used to be, and a lot more than it was in the 50s and 60s. This resulted in a generation that it extremely aware of what is happening around the world, and it became quite evident the social, economic and political disparity between Egypt and elsewhere. And even worse, as world economies started to rise while Egypt stayed still, economies in Southeast Asia and Dubai for example, the young people felt betrayed, and felt jealous of why their country is not growing like this. Countless times I have heard the statement, “why did not grow like Dubai or South Korea”.
Our economic state was dwindling, while the whole world seemed like improving. Besides, the political life was completely overtaken by the ruling party, NDP (National Democratic Party). As the press got more freedom, the crimes of the government became more known, and the party became more bold and resilient to change. When El Salam ferry sank in 2006, and more than 1,000 people lost their lives, and then the government patted on its owners and let them go since they are close to the ruling party, events like these, and there are countless of such examples, made Egyptians feel of very little self-worth. And the younger generation felt more desperate, as it seemed the older generation has already gotten used to tyranny and absence of fair law. Along the years, the young people increasingly hated the situation in Egypt, and the phenomenon of escaping, even through deadly means, was in the rise.
Since there was little opportunities to lead a good life, some started fleeing through ferries to cross the Mediterranean Sea to a neighboring country in Europe like Italy. Just imagine this situation, a pregnant woman taking a ferry that is no good for crossing deep seas, and dropped kilometers away from the shores of Italy, and then has to swim in cold waters to reach the lands. Imagine the level of desperation one have reached to accept this situation.
What Happens Now?
I am hopeful that all Egyptians will now have a chance for each of them to realize their potential. There are no more barriers, all have dropped. It was not possible, or easy, to look forward to a better future before. And I think everyone now will be looking to a better future. This I believe will alone be the driver to a great new country.The young people of this currently, my generation, has often, and frequently, been rediculed and thought of as lazy and ambitious-less. The events of the past two weeks, will, or in fact has already, changed this look. We are entering a new era were the youth will be empowered to rebuild their country, and charge with utter confidence and hope.
How has what happened made you rethink your startup?
I am holding back a bit from thinking about how the events of the past two weeks will affect my startup. While tyranny and dictatorship had me living my entire life in fear, caution and oppression, the one good thing Mubarak had made was political stability. And I believe that this political stability, even though it was a dictatorial one, is something very important for a high-risk technology startup. No one knows what will happen in the next few hours, let alone months, so it is quite difficult to assess how this will affect our work. However, I think we’re in a better position than most businesses. Since we’re not focused on the local market at all, our distribution channels have and will not be affected, and our revenue stream will not be affected since it is in foreign currencies, so even if economic turbulences occurred, in a weakening Egyptian Pound for example, I think we will not be affected at all, which is something most businesses can’t say.
What has surprised you about the role of social media these past few weeks?
First of all, the events that led to the January 25th demonstrations, while were all social media based, similar events have been going on for months and years. Protests have been ongoing for a while, and always increasing in numbers, but the numbers were in the dozens, or hundreds at most. What happened in January 25th is that people believed there could be hope given the events of Tunis, so the numbers were in the tens of thousands, a dramatic rise. The protests were actually walking through the streets across the city, so the entire country knew of their existence, something again that has never happened before.
I think the major element technology has had however is not its existence, but its disappearance. On Friday morning, the government had completely shutdown the Internet and mobile phone networks. This really was the biggest mistake they made. They gave the protests a huge legitimacy. And people, all people, were infuriated beyond imagination of how the government could take this step. To the older generation, mobile phones is a way of life, and to the younger generation, the Internet is with a bit of exaggeration, as important as the air they breath. I recall people were joking on Friday that the government’s next step would be to shoot down pigeons, and that even then, they are over. This act of cutting-off communications, this was the government saying, “I am trembling”, and I think was what gave people the feeling of an upper hand.
If you were in charge of technology for Egypt what would you be focused on now?
Promoting that starting up a small business will have a better outcome on the future of the country than joining an established large corporation. We have long had the point of view that “small companies” mean instability and insecurity, and that it’s better to join in a large company. This precipitated from decades of believing that a government job is superior as it offers a stable life-time position. This can be done by implementing meritocracy everywhere, even government jobs. We practically don’t have the concept of a “lay-off” and virtually all salary raises and bonuses are time-based and not merit-based. This has to end.
What is the most inspiring / frightening thing that happened to a friend or loved one?
Getting tear-gased. On Friday, my brother in law, my father and I went to join the demonstrations. As soon as it started, after only a few chants, the Police forces started firing tear gas. One land right below us, so we got a quite good of an inhale. Now I thought that tear gas is something that would cause one person to… have tears, something like slicing an onion. It’s not. It should be called a Kill Gas. This has probably been the worst feelings I had in my life. It became extremely difficult to breath, and as other shots starting to get fired, I was inhaling more as I was blindly running through the streets. It was beyond terrifying, and as I was barely breathing I thought that this was it, this was the end. 15 minutes later, we continued the protest, and were shot a couple of more times with tear gas! It’s quite inhumane really. My father is a 56-years-old University Professor, and he was tear-gased 4 times in that day. If we were cows, they would’ve treated us better! Oh, thinking about it, that’s likely a fact really. A cow costs about $US 1,500. When someone dies in a train crash, the government gives his family about $800, and if he didn’t die and suffered an injury, something like his two legs cut-off or something, that would be about $300. So yeah, a cow is more valuable in the government’s eyes!
Do you think differently now about the US?
Not really. It was a smart move for the U.S. not to heavily interfere, or else people will immediately take it as a conspiracy or an attempt to take control of the upcoming government.
In the 90s. The United States was a dream to every young man in Egypt. They looked at it as the land of opportunity and freedom and many had the dream of going there. If someone would get a work visa, or an immigrant visa, he would’ve been envied by everyone. That all changed after September 11. As the United States cast the entire Middle East as terrorists, and Islam as the manifesto of terror, and invaded countries the People felt its citizens were their brothers, that all changed! Everyone felt it was an exaggerated violent response. All the People of Egypt really want is to live a fair life, and to be judged for who they are and what they do.
When I visited the U.S. in 2007, the 10s of people infront of me, and the 10s of people after me, were all treated similarly. But for me, probably for no reason other than being Egyptian or Muslim, each item in my handbag was tested for explosive residuals, something that took 15 minutes, and right infront of everyone in the airport. It was extremely humiliating. And then, I was taken to a large, and empty, room, in which I was questioned why I was coming to the U.S. So travelling from tyranny only to be judged as a terrorist, this was something very heart-breaking. As you saw from the protests, the Egyptian People are extremely peaceful. As I was walking through the protests, when someone were to cut the lines and goes to break down a sign related to Mubarak, people would immediately grab him while chanting “Peaceful… Peaceful…” Had the government not killed over 300 people with rubber bullets, live fire, and under the knives of thugs, this would’ve probably been the most peaceful revolution in history. So, to know yourself as being like this, and to be treated as someone that is always just about to put his finger down on a trigger, that’s quite unjust!
What can the US do to help your business? to help the broader Egyptian economy?
What I would like the most is for the U.S., and the rest of the world, is to stop regarding us as terrorists. I wish for the day when I no longer hear about someone missing to attend a technology conference because his VISA took 8 months to process. This is a very peaceful nation, too peaceful in fact that they stood up quite late to tyranny in fear they would cause trouble, and when they did, they did it in a demonstration of restraint and peace. I really hope the International community would acknowledge this, and to give us the chance of being treated for who we really are.
I want to add something…
I dream of a bridge to Silicon Valley. A bridge that could potentially speed up and foster innovation in Egypt, and create new jobs, both in Egypt and the U.S. Silicon Valley carries decades of experience, and no country has ever managed to build something like it. However, everyone is trying, and the competition is rising. I think it’s high time the U.S. would embrace the competition, rather than compete with it. So even though I would love to have a presence for my startup in the U.S., I can’t avoid thinking about the residency nightmares. The new Startup Visa Act is promising, but only in the name. It’s quite difficult for someone in a developing country to raise capital, let alone find a way, remotely, to raise $250,000 from a U.S. investor. I think a better model would be to require an entrepreneur, for example, make $250,000 in revenue in his country, and then he’s given temporary x-year Visas in which then he would be required to raise the $250,000, make the $1,000,000 in revenue or hire the 10 employees. Even if the U.S. gave just 100 Visas like this for Egypt each year, a negligible number compared to the several thousand lottery Visas given away each year for Egypt, it could open up the creation of great new companies that before were never possible.