On a sunny winter afternoon in downtown Cairo, Tarek Taha is showing off the complex of buildings that houses Egypt’s first hub for startups and tech companies, which he and his partner, venture capitalist Ahmed El Alfi, opened last November. If everything goes according to plan, the 269,000-square-foot site, known as the GrEEK Campus, will eventually hold some 2,000 employees of young Egyptian companies. Businesses like mobile-app developer Abblications are already moving in. Wandering through the impressive halls and courtyards of this ambitious undertaking, Taha greets tenants and shows off in-progress amenities such as a multistory concrete slab that will soon become a climbing wall for team-building exercises. At one point, he gestures toward the street just outside the campus. “This is Mohamed Mahmoud,” he says. “The famous Mohamed Mahmoud.”
Actually, it’s more infamous than famous. Over the past three years, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which connects the GrEEK Campus to nearby Tahrir Square, has been at the center of clashes between demonstrators and police, and the area is known worldwide for the mass protests that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and his successor, Mohamed Morsi, last year. Today, scars of the uprisings are still obvious. New sidewalks have replaced the ones that were ripped up by protesters to use as weapons against the police. And on walls that were erected to prevent marches on government buildings, graffiti still memorializes some of the people killed in the vicious street fights. Trains packed with commuters roll through the eerie, empty Sadat metro station nearby. Though it remains shut down due to the protests, Alfi and Taha hope the stop will one day deliver thousands of workers to their complex.
The GrEEK Campus’s proximity to the heart of the Tahrir Square violence underscores just how bold and risky this project is. Taha predicts that by the middle of 2014 the campus will be roughly half filled, though with tensions still raw and the country’s economic and political future far from clear, there are certainly no guarantees. But for Taha and Alfi, this is more than just a real estate investment: They want to help establish a collaborative, forward-looking business community where tech-oriented entrepreneurs come together to jump-start Egypt’s sluggish economy. “This has to be about getting the maximum and the best out of everybody in the Egyptian ecosystem–getting them to work together,” Alfi says.
Born in Kuwait, Alfi moved to the U.S. during high school. He spent 16 years investing in various startups around Southern California before moving to Cairo in 2006, where he founded successful VC firm Sawari Ventures and startup accelerator Flat 6 Labs, both now key players in the burgeoning Cairo tech scene. In 2012, Alfi came up with an idea for a large, central space where digital companies could work side by side, both physically and in spirit. At the time, Egypt was ruled by a post-Mubarak military junta, and civil unrest continued to flare (74 people were killed during a soccer riot that January). Even so, Alfi was sure that the tech community would grow as the country started to move forward.
But first he needed a location. Alfi knew that in 2008 the American University in Cairo had moved most of its operations from its historic downtown Greek Campus to a larger site in a suburb, and he suspected that the large and then-vacant library–which he had never actually seen–could function as a coworking space. He called university officials and offered to buy it. The administration wasn’t interested in selling the library by itself; instead it offered to lease Alfi the entire campus, furniture and all. Alfi named longtime Egyptian entrepreneur Taha CEO in November 2013, and the pair have been rapidly refurbishing the complex for business use.
With newly upgraded central air-conditioning, elevators, and security systems all in the works, the GrEEK Campus (the name is a play on Greek and geek) opened its doors on November 24, 2013–right in the middle of a security operation that put Tahrir Square on total lockdown. Even so, the campus went ahead with plans for a celebratory event called Rise Up. Around 1,500 people showed up despite the tension in Tahrir, an indication of the resolve of many Egyptian entrepreneurs. But worries nonetheless remain. “You cannot ignore that the square is right there,” says Yasser Abdel Gawad, cofounder and CEO of Abblications. “Am I stupid that I’m right in the heart of the action? Or is this actually a smart idea?”
But Abdel Gawad and Alfi both think those concerns will probably fade as a collaborative culture grows inside the campus and the tech economy’s moneymaking promise becomes more apparent to potential investors. Though most Egyptian investors currently focus on import-export, industrial factories, and other more-traditional businesses, there’s a sense that digital culture is on the rise. And with unemployment high–especially among the young–the country could use some real economic innovation. “We need two or three home runs in Egypt, and [investors] will start jumping in,” says Alfi. “We need to create a dynamic place that creates companies, as well as a sector that is a driver that creates some real value in the economy.” And if that happens, the GrEEk Campus just might find itself at the center of a different kind of revolution.