Geopolitics

A Stranger In Egypt: Missed Revolutions And A Spring On Ice

A demonstration this week in Cairo to mark the 5th anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising
A demonstration this week in Cairo to mark the 5th anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising
Yara Sallam*

-Essay-

CAIRO â€" Every year, on Jan. 25, I have the same thought: I don't have any memories to share. Every time I’m with friends who nostalgically remember moments of happiness and triumph, I stay silent, because I have no memories to share.

During the 18 days of the revolution, I was in Gambia, watching it on television. Many people living abroad rushed back to Egypt to be present and not miss the revolution. I don't know why I didn’t return like they did, perhaps mostly for personal reasons. I convinced myself it was good I didn't go back then, as I might have been injured or killed. I told myself everything happens for a reason, and it doesn't matter if I don't understand it now.

When I was done with my work abroad, I returned to Egypt in March 2011. Back then, a friend wrote me saying: "You missed the revolution."

It took me a few months to understand what had happened. Often I felt like a stranger amid my family and friends, who shared a certain condition that is not accessible to someone who didn't live it. Then there were days I understood why I felt like a stranger. Days where I felt the world needed to end now: The first time I sniffed tear gas, the first time I ran away from soldiers. Those were all foreign moments for me. There is probably something born back then, that united me to those present around me, and no one will understand it but us, even if we don't know each other.

The street and the gas and the running away were our shared space. It was enough to get to know each other and create intimate relationships. The first time I saw a tank while I was trying to go to Maspero in October 2011; the first time I entered the cathedral during the funeral of the Maspero martyrs; the first time I felt the world needed to end when my flat mate and I were running in the midst of tear gas in Mohamed Mahmoud street in November 2011; the first time I felt I was that small when I was attending the interrogation of one of those who was arrested in Mohamed Mahmoud; the first time I saw torture survivors when I was attending the interrogations of those arrested in the Cabinet sit-in in December 2011: There were countless first times.

When guilt recedes

After I returned, I continued to feel guilty that I didn't go back during the 18 days. I felt that I had missed the revolution. Regardless of the protests and marches I took part in later, I continued to feel a void for having missed the challenge of hitting the streets collectively for the first time. Every time I took to the streets, I felt I could do it because of the bravery of those who took part in the 18 days.

My guilt receded a bit after I was arrested. I felt I was paying an old debt. I never could have taken part in every march and every protest. I always knew that participation has a cost and that cost flits somewhere between arrest, injury and death. And I always believed that evading that cost is not something one can rely on.

Until today, I see the main lesson to be learned from the revolution is a consciousness of our right to be in the street â€" a right that both we and those against us have enjoyed in equal measure. That's why I decided that any protest in solidarity of prisoners of conscience was worth the risk. I felt that if our right to be present in the street is taken away from us, there is nothing left.

Now the moment is different. Many things have changed since the last time I went to a protest. All my time in Qanater prison I was told things had changed outside. I came out of prison after 15 months of separation from all the changes unfolding in Egypt, even if some news reached us via outside visitors.

I came out of prison to find places I love closed, streets changed and people dealing with events differently. I came out of prison feeling like a stranger, with only my comrades from prison able to understand me, as we shared the news of the Jan. 25 anniversary last year on the radio.

In prison we had different visions, but we shared a belief in the revolution. Each one of us believed in different ways of acting, but we never differed on the importance of the revolution in our lives and its marking of milestone moments for us. The revolution changed things in us and changed the way we see ourselves. It weaved relations that couldn’t have been the same otherwise. For all the moments that were first times, the revolution continues, despite the impasse we are in today.

The revolution is continuing because there are still many things that have to be done, albeit differently. Maybe the priorities and the tools we have used in the last five years are not relevant now. Maybe we should accept the heaviness of the moment we are living in, where our ambitions stop at "not wanting to be kidnapped" or "not wanting our house to be raided." But the heaviness of this moment won't make me forget what I've lived in the last five years. I won't forget my feelings toward the revolution and I don't want to forget the price that has been paid by many â€" a price that I don't have the right to overlook.

The revolution is continuing no matter how much they fight us. The revolution is continuing because we deserve a better life, where we live happily, with dignity and freedom, and we deserve to learn how to make our country better.

*Yara Sallam is a prominent Egyptian feminist, lawyer and human rights defender. She was released from prison in September after serving more than a year for participating in a peaceful protest in Cairo.

Translated from Arabic by Lina Attalah

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Future

How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

SIPA Asia/ZUMA
Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.


For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

https://www.lesechos.fr/idees-debats/editos-analyses/la-chine-est-desormais-une-fenetre-sur-notre-futur-1347064
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ