In Egypt, Wikipedia is more than hobby
In Egypt, Wikipedia is more than hobby
Monday, July 21,2008 06:19
By Noam Cohen

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt: Take it with a grain of salt, or many grains of sand, if you want, when the young volunteers say that every one of the 60 or 70 people helping to put on Wikipedia"s annual convention here (called Wikimania) is active on Facebook.


Not one exception? No. The young women in head scarves who patiently explain what can or cannot be done on Friday, according to Islam? Absolutely.


Then there is the young man who is part of the Facebook group devoted to the TV show "Friends." "Facebook for me is just a way to keep in touch with friends," said Yehia Hassaan, 18, a medical student. "Some of my friends, they are addicts. Always updating their status, changing their photos."


Ahmad Belal, a 23-year-old medical student who came from Cairo to attend the conference, is one of those particularly enthusiastic users with hundreds of friends.


"For Egyptians the visa procedure for any country is very difficult," he said. "You need a visa to visit any country in the world. Facebook and Wikipedia connect us to the outside."

In the spring, a protest against rising food prices and the government took root on Facebook, with a page that had more than 75,000 members. The Facebook movement overlapped with a textile workers strike, and the government response was swift and severe.


The main organizer was arrested, and according to The Washington Post, said he was stripped and beaten by the security services in Cairo. Another organizer, Israa Abdel Fattah, a 27-year-old human resources administrator with no political experience who helped administer the Facebook page, was also arrested. A Free Israa group quickly emerged - she was called the Facebook Girl - with, at one time, tens of thousands joining up.


The young people at Wikimania were not afraid to talk about those recent events. Some said they had feared that Facebook would be shut down, but Kareem Mohamed, 20, a student of engineering in Alexandria, stated matter-of-factly, "that is not possible."


Perhaps it is this context that explains the enthusiasm for building a stronger Arabic Wikipedia among the young people here, and the evangelism about contributing articles in their native language.


Among the Arab attendees, who were not exclusively from the world of computer science - many are medical students, others in engineering and architecture - the woeful shape of the Arabic Wikipedia has been the cause of chagrin. It has fewer than 65,000 articles, and ranks 29th among the various Wikipedias, just behind Slovenian, and well behind the artificial tongue Esperanto.


Among the problems, less than 10 percent of the 80 million Egyptians are thought to have Internet access. And those with access tend to know English and prefer to communicate that way.


Elsewhere, writing articles for Wikipedia can appear to be a quirky obsession or mere hobby - other Wikipedia conferences have had a bit of a Star-Trek-convention feel to them. In Egypt, writing for Wikipedia is something more like a national priority.


"It is more important to spread free knowledge here," said Mohamed Ibrahim, 22, who was born and raised in Alexandria, and just completed a degree in architecture. He said one of his fellow organizers had made a good point: "The gap between the Arab world and the Western world is not about money or politics. It is about knowledge. There are many examples of Egyptians who travel to Europe or the U.S. and become successful. If people had access to the same knowledge ..., " he said, trailing off.


Ahmed Tantawy, the technical director of IBM in the Middle East, spoke in the convention center of the new Alexandria Library and said, "Arabic content today is nothing," holding his fingers close together. "Do kids chat with each other in English or Arabic? Most likely Arabic, I think."


Into that vacuum enters Wikipedia. Ismail Serageldin, the director of the library, which is built on the site of the ancient treasury of manuscripts, said that Wikipedia could make up for the absence of a reliable, regularly updated encyclopedia, along the lines of Brittannica. "When intellectuals got around to transforming our country, in the 19th century, they were tackling other issues," he said.


Material on Wikipedia is something that may be quickly ignored in the West, he said, but in Egypt, "it brings knowledge to the poor."


"We have a generation gap that is huge," Serageldin said. "Scholars in Egypt don"t use computers, and the younger people are very Internet savvy. We need to get young people involved."


Nahla Ghoneim, a 23-year-old computer engineer at IT Works, said at the conference that young people in Egypt need to get involved in information technology "not just as consumers."


"That is one of the problems here in Egypt," she said. "We are consumers instead of contributors to technology. Wikipedia is a first step to getting involved."