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Cairo's Tahrir Square to Get a New Neighbor: A Mini-Silicon Valley

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A new project planned for downtown Cairo has techies and entrepreneurs buzzing. On November 14, the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Sawari Ventures, a Cairo- and D.C.-based venture capital firm that invests in promising Middle East and North Africa entrepreneurship, launched what is set to become a mini Silicon Valley in the heart of Cairo.

The university will lease its Greek Campus for 10 years to Sawari Ventures for Tahrir Alley Technology Park (TATP), the first of its kind in Egypt.

The area, made up of five buildings and 250,000 square feet of space, was part of AUC's downtown campus that was abandoned in 2008 when the university moved its main campus to New Cairo, a satellite city roughly 20 miles away.

"I want to create a place where tech companies, start up companies, funding sources, and support people like lawyers and accountants are all in the same place," California native Ahmed Alfi, co-founder and CEO of Sawari Ventures, said in an interview.

The planned tech park hopes to attract all the big companies: Microsoft, Google, Vodafone, you name it. But, Alfi says, he also wants to have a hundred start-ups.

Between Sawari Ventures and its incubator Flat6Labs, Alfi counts 46 companies they've funded since the 2011 revolution -- the majority of which were headed by business-minded youth who went through the Egypt's public school system. Post-revolution Egypt, though riddled with economic and political turbulence, witnessed a surge in entrepreneurship: everything from a commuter service specially tailored to Cairo's stifling traffic and road-blocked mess to a video-centric educational platform catered to K-12 students.

But the planned development of the Greek Campus has some Cairenes worried that elaborate revolutionary graffiti will be removed on the campus wall shared with Mohamed Mahmoud Street -- where some of the Cairo's bloodiest and most infamous clashes have taken place. While Alfi hasn't yet decided what will happen to the graffiti, he says there will be a creative space at the technology park where prior-approved artists can express themselves, legally.

On November 5, a new law was introduced in Egypt, one that criminalizes graffiti. According to the Arab-language Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, anyone convicted of the crime could face up to four years in prison and a steep fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds -- roughly $14,500. (Most American cities have strict graffiti laws, but fines usually range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.)

On Friday -- like many Fridays over the past few months -- the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi planned protests (though these protests seem to be trickling out as more of their leaders and sympathizers are arrested). Tahrir Square, and several other key protest locations around the city, are blocked off by Egyptian security forces.

The recurring closing of the square could no doubt pose serious problems for any large-scale project close by. But Alfi says the location is exactly why they chose the Greek Campus: It's close to Sadat Metro, where the main metro lines intersect, as well as Ramses Railway Station.

Just a stone's throw from Tahrir lies the promise of potential future innovation and creativity. Sawari Venture's CEO doesn't see a reason to hold back on such a significant project, even with some international investors steering clear of the country in turmoil.

For Ahmed Alfi, the planned technology park -- and what it could create -- is essential to push Egypt forward. "It transcends the politics of Egypt today," he says.