The Pioneer

Cross posted from Business Today Egypt.

Ali Shaaban, the managing director of Icon Creations, a Cairo-based mobile applications and social media company, has made a career out of being one step ahead of the technological curve. When he was studying commerce at Cairo University in 1998, most Egyptians had never heard of the internet. Shaaban, however, had already begun to embrace its transformative potential.

His first exposure had come earlier that year. “I got on a computer, and one of my friends sat with me for five or six hours,” he explains. “It was a Pentium II — a very slow computer with internet access that was IDSC, dial-up, where the speed was 16-bit. It was very slow. But it was fun, when you think of it.”

Soon after, he started freelancing as a webmaster and developer for some of Egypt’s earliest websites before going on to work for two years at the Regional Information Technology Institute, a technological training and professional development center.

His chosen field remained somewhat mystifying to most of his friends and family. “Back then, no one really knew what I was doing. When I told someone that I was a webmaster and that I develop websites, they didn’t really know. They [would] say, ‘What exactly do you do?’”

But Shaaban was convinced that the future of commerce lay online. He went on to develop websites for several big-name corporations in Egypt. In 2004, he founded Icon Creations. “There were very few digital agencies in the market,” he says, “and we thought this is the future, and we invested lots of time and effort to build it.” The company, whose clients include BMW, IKEA, and Nissan, deals in practically all realms of the digital marketplace. It develops websites, manages social media content, and oversees online advertising and media buys.

Last year, Shaaban cofounded another company, called AppVenture. AppVenture has already produced several popular applications, including a news aggregator for iPhones and iPads that offers users a selection of all of Egypt’s major newspapers. Shaaban’s next goal is to expand the application to cover news outlets throughout the Middle East.

To hear Shaaban tell it, the entrepreneurial spirit is practically in his DNA. “The reason I like this career is it is changing every minute. All the time there’s something new coming out. And you need to run and get it and try to understand it and try to be the first to do it so that you have an edge in it,” he says.

Success has not come without setbacks. The last year and a half has been especially tough. Shaaban describes business these days as “a bit slow” and increasingly complicated. With each new hint of instability — whether renewed street clashes or government gridlock — investors get jittery. One client, Shaaban says, insisted that his contract includes an escape clause, allowing him to ditch the annual contract under any circumstances, for any reason.

At the moment, everyone is awaiting the outcome of the election. The launch of a marketing campaign for a new car model was just put on hold until after the new president takes power. Shaaban predicts business will pick back up again after that, although when exactly is anyone’s guess. That uncertainty has prompted Shaaban to look into expanding operations beyond Egypt.

“Things will definitely improve,” he says. “We don’t know if it is going to be this year or after, but we need to stay focused, and also what I was thinking was that we need to look to other markets. Maybe Egypt after this year will still have challenges, but there are other markets that are growing and have resources regarding online advertising…[and] agencies that work in this area. That’s why I was thinking of [expanding into] other markets, like in the Middle East.”

For all the problems it has occasioned, last year’s revolution was, according to Shaaban, the single-biggest shot in the arm to the internet in Egypt. People who had never before considered cyberspace a valuable medium for selling their goods or advertising their products witnessed firsthand its immense potential. If websites and social media could help topple an iron-fisted autocrat, surely they could be an asset to business as well, particularly in reaching younger consumers.

“I used to work with clients who didn’t really look into internet. They had a very minimal budget. […] Now they are thinking of online advertising as one of the most important channels to reach their target audience. Here in Egypt, the average age for online users is between 18 and 25. This is [approximately] 40% of the population. And this is where the growth is.”

In short, Shaaban isn’t sweating the future. The white wall in the corridor of Icon Creations’ chic Garden City office space is a testament to his outsized ambition. It’s plastered with the logos of the world’s most successful tech companies: Yahoo!, Google, YouTube and Twitter.

And while Shaaban — with his pressed pink shirt, black jacket, and jeans — could easily pass as a Silicon Valley executive, his focus is fixed on establishing the Yahoo!s and Twitters of the Middle East. For starters, that means breaking the Western-oriented, English-language monopoly over much of the internet. Shaaban has partnered with a company in Saudi Arabia to develop a religious application for Ramadan. He is also at work on a set of Arabic games for digital devices because, he says, “We believe there are not many games in the Egyptian market that cater to the Arabic language. Everything is in English.”

For young entrepreneurs and fellow tech geeks, Shaaban insists, the outlook is bright. He offers a little advice for those following in his footsteps, no doubt culled from his own experiences navigating the uncertain world of online innovation.

“Believe in yourself. Be persistent. Have a dream and always focus on [taking] one step at a time. Just one step and then the other step and the other step, and you will [get] somewhere. There will be lots of challenges, there will be lots of ups and downs, but I believe that persistence is very important in order to reach what you want.” bt

The man at the epicentre of Egyptian football

Cross posted from The National.

Samir Zaher, left, was instrumental in bringing the American Bob Bradley, in blue shirt, as the coach of the national team.

Samir Zaher, left, was instrumental in bringing the American Bob Bradley, in blue shirt, as the coach of the national team.Khaled Desouki / AFP

Samir Zaher, the man who brought Bob Bradley to Egypt, is all apologies after showing up more than an hour late for an interview.

He has been very busy, he explains, campaigning for Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s final prime minister and one of the finalists in last week’s run-off in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election.

These days, it is his prize recruit, the American coach Bradley, who commands the sports headlines in Egypt with the national football team in the midst of qualification for the 2014 World Cup and 2013 African Cup of Nations.

But in an Egypt, where sport and politics have long been intertwined, the three terms and 10 years Zaher served as chairman of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) continue to make him a deeply polarising figure.

On a recent afternoon a group of protesters camped out at Tahrir Square had a discussion about the national team’s upcoming World Cup qualifier against Guinea. The conversation turned, unprompted, to the EFA’s former chairman.

“Samir Zaher is the most corrupt person to ever work in the football federation,” offered one, who identified himself as Abu Shahid.

For many Egyptians, and particularly the hard-core supporters of Egypt’s professional clubs known as Ultras, Zaher is the foremost symbol of the corruption and cronyism that permeated Egyptian sport under the Mubarak regime.

Zaher was first appointed to the EFA’s board of directors in 1992 before rising to chairman in 1996. He returned to the post after a six-year hiatus, in 2005. In that period, he also served in parliament as a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.

“He was a big figure. He was soccer,” said James Dorsey, an academic and author of the popular football blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”.

In the final six years of Mubarak’s rule, the ageing dictator increasingly focused on neutralising militant fan groups while exploiting football as a prop to polish his image. “Zaher was the top henchman,” Dorsey said. “It was his job … to control that threat and to maximise the opportunity.”

In Zaher’s sparsely decorated sixth-floor office in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis, where he heads a trading company, a lone poster hangs on the wall opposite his desk. It features an image of Zaher presenting Mubarak with what appears to be a cup winner’s medal superimposed over a photo of Egypt’s victorious 2008 African Cup of Nations squad.

In the foreground, a beaming Mubarak holds the trophy, flanked by Hassan Shehata, the coach at the time, and the captain Ahmed Hassan. Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, appear off to the sides.

As EFA chairman, Zaher concerned himself with every detail pertaining to the national team.

“I am the one responsible for the first team. I go with them in the hotel. I stay in the hotel. I travel with them. I am responsible about everything,” he says.

The team’s success under his stewardship convinced Zaher of his indispensability. Four of Egypt’s record seven African Cup of Nations championships came while he was the chairman, including three consecutive, in 2006, 2008, and 2010.

“I never left anyone to be near the first team except me because the results said so,” he says.

His latest run as EFA chairman came to an ignominious end in February when 74 people died in a riot at a league match in the coastal city of Port Said.

The next day, Kamal Al Ganzouri, the prime minister, dismissed Zaher and the rest of the board. After Fifa, world football’s governing body, objected to the political interference in the sport, the board announced its resignation a few days later.

Despite reports at the time that Zaher planned to contest his dismissal to Fifa, he insists that he never had any intention of doing so.

“To start with, Fifa, they told us they were backing us, but I don’t know what happened after this,” he says. “I didn’t want to make a conflict between me and the people here in Egypt because it was very hard days.”

He had been through the process before. He was fired by Ganzouri during his first stint as prime minister, in 1999, following a stadium incident between the Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek. “People here in Egypt got used to if there is a drop in football, the responsible people are out. It’s not the first time,” Zaher said.

Since then, he has kept a low profile, rarely speaking to the media. He takes comfort in his record as the EFA’s most accomplished federation chairman.

“I made everything in football: money, results. It was super results. The only thing I did not do is to go to the World Cup,” he says.

It was for that reason that he brought in Bradley in September to succeed Shehata, the longtime coach. Shehata coached each of the three successive African Cup victories but failed to lead Egypt to the biggest competition.

Zaher, who had been impressed by Bradley since his US team thrashed Egypt 3-0 in the 2009 Confederations Cup, spearheaded the American’s recruitment, hosting him on two visits last summer and advocating for his appointment before the board.

“I saw that this guy, he can do something in Egypt,” Zaher says. “He can make something with the Egyptian team. And before leaving the federation, really, I give him all the authorities he wants. Everything.”

So far, the plan is on track after victories over Mozambique and Guinea earlier this month to open World Cup qualifying, although Egypt suffered a setback last week in a shock 3-2 home loss to Central African Republic in an African Cup qualifier.

Zaher is unapologetic about his close ties to the former regime. He gestures towards a photograph of Mubarak with the winning 1998 African Cup side. “That’s Hosni Mubarak, eh? You can go look, if you like,” he says.

But he rejects the suggestion that he is a crony of the former president.

“If I didn’t have good results and make good results and have four times cup, will Mubarak or any one of these people ask about me?”

Regarding Mubarak and his sons, who were frequently accused of using football to burnish their popularity, he responds, “They came to the football team, not to me. They came to the results.”

Though out of the limelight, for now, the 68-year-old Zaher doesn’t intend to drift serenely into his golden years. Besides his day job and work on the Shafiq campaign, he says he maintains close contact with Bradley and the national team staff.

“I’m very near for all these guys. I get in touch with them. ‘How are you doing? Come on. We want to beat Mozambique.’ Before leaving [to play Mozambique in the first World Cup qualifier], I gave them a talk, you know?”

He also is trying to reintroduce himself to the Egyptian public. He hired a private production company to make a documentary about his life, dating back to his schoolboy days at the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria.

The film, he says, is “what is not said or seen from my life. Because my life, everyone knows.”

The public-relations play also raises an obvious question: does Zaher hope to chair the EFA once again? Under current rules, he would next be eligible to run for the post in four years.

At a time when Egypt’s revolutionaries are feverishly fretting a wholesale reconstitution of the old order after the military’s recent grab for power, Zaher’s restoration to his former perch would surprise few.

“I don’t think so,” he replies at first. But a few minutes later, he is openly musing about the possibility, and his answer changes to a casual “maybe”.

A victory for his man Shafiq, when the election results are announced, would pave the most obvious path for a return to the limelight.

For now, though, he can only sit and watch, hoping that the American manning the sideline can help vindicate, if not his political legacy, than at least his sporting one.

“In the end they are going to say that Samir brought him,” he says. “I’m not still there. But it is like this.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Cross posted from Business Today Egypt

It was almost finals week at American University in Cairo’s (AUC) New Campus. But inside the cavernous Bassilly Auditorium, a much greater prize than an “A” was on the line. To be precise: LE 50,000 and a partnership with Souq.com, the largest online retailer in the Middle East.

That’s what awaited the winners of the inaugural “The Hit,” competition, staged by the AUC Entrepreneurs’ Society in collaboration with Souq.com. One hundred teams initially threw their hats into the ring in hopes of designing the most innovative, inspiring, marketable product.

It was no wonder then that the sharply-dressed finalists paced about the pre-event cocktail party a little anxiously. “I’m very nervous — as in, not eating nervous,” said Farida Abdelnabi, who along with her teammate on team Farila, Fadila Abdelaal, designed a woman’s shoe that converts from heels to flats. The concept, Abdelnabi explained, originated at a Model UN conference, where the women in attendance complained about their uncomfortable footwear. “There’s no heel that’s comfortable,” she said.

So, Abdelnabi and Abdelaal, business marketing majors and childhood friends, set out to create a shoe that would address the age-old female affliction. They visited shoe manufacturers in Cairo to discuss the logistics of the design, and, in the end, produced a wooden prototype.

Some of the other finalists’ products included paper made from the waste created when producing marble and a customizable cane outfitted with a General Packet Radio Service module to transmit the user’s location to a relative in case of an emergency.

Over the course of four rounds, the competitors constantly fine-tuned their ideas to survive a swift-moving elimination process. After a planning round, in which the initial entrants delivered their pitches to a panel of judges, representing Souq.com and various Egyptian companies, the field was whittled down to 16.

Those that advanced attended instructional seminars covering each stage of the entrepreneurial process: pitching, developing, branding, marketing. Meanwhile, the elimination process continued reality TV-style through a combination of judge evaluations and fan voting based on episodes posted online. For the final round, only five teams remained standing.

Not all the finalists were thrilled by the popularity contest nature of the competition, but Omar Soudodi, the general manager for Souq.com in Egypt and one of the judges, explained, “The idea behind qualifying teams based on audience votes stems from the fact that we need to test real market demand for these innovative products. They are all unique ‘inventions’ that will create a new niche for themselves. So in order to become a sustainable business, it will be critical for them to have tested real market reactions to the concept.”

Youssef El Sammaa, the chief executive officer of the Entrepreneur’s Society, said that the competition represented a new focus for the group. “The Hit” replaced a convention the society used to host where aspiring entrepreneurs were taught the basics of their craft in a more traditional manner. The competition format, on the other hand, afforded students the opportunity to engage in entrepreneurship directly and emerge with their own marketable product.

“We wanted people to have something concrete in their hands at the end,” El Sammaa noted.

El Sammaa, who studies construction management and engineering, has his own lofty ambitions. He says he’d like to stay involved in entrepreneurship after he graduates, even though he hears mixed things about the current business climate in Egypt.

“People tell me it’s really hard [to get a business going], especially with everything that’s happening with the bureaucracy,” he says, but added, “If you do get something started, it’s easier because there’s less competition.”

Indeed, the prospects for Egypt’s budding entrepreneurs are unclear at the moment. Political instability combined with years of government neglect of basic needs and decrepit infrastructure pose significant hurdles to the business community. The well-documented economic woes since the revolution are not about to evaporate anytime soon.

Still, Sherif Kamel, the dean of the AUC School of Business is bullish about Egypt’s prospects in the medium and long terms. “I think we’re going to take off,” he said. The key, he added, is the country’s young, educated population. “Young people are the oil of the 21st century. They can be a major engine of growth.”

That future, Kamel emphasized, will be in the private sector. Omar Soudodi echoed that sentiment, saying that Egyptians don’t believe anymore in government institutions, so the skills fostered in settings like this will be most critical in setting the country’s economic trajectory.

Egypt’s upside, Soudodi added, is enormous. In a recent survey, 24% of students said they wanted to start their own business in their first year after graduating, a figure far surpassing that in most developed countries. And increasing internet penetration has made those aspirations more realistic than ever. Now, with a little bit of web-savvy, young entrepreneurs can get their products into the public domain, access overseas markets, and, perhaps most importantly, bypass many of the logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to commerce on the ground. For example, Soudodi noted, political instability sometimes boosts Souq.com’s business, as consumers look for virtual, instead of physical, marketplaces, though he added that the positive effect tends to be neutralized by other factors like market uncertainty.

On this crisp night on Greater Cairo’s easternmost fringes, though, Egypt’s macroeconomic picture was about as far away from the finalists’ minds as possible. Inside the auditorium, friends of the finalists lent the grand finale a raucous atmosphere as the anticipated announcement drew near. No fewer than 10 video cameras filmed the event.

In the end, there were two winners. The grand prize, decided by online voting, went to @tweetshirt, whose concept would allow customers to customize T-shirts, mugs, car shades and bean bags with a tweet they’ve provided the link for. The members of the team were Muhammad Bassyouny, a physics and mathematics major; Ali El Azhary, a mechanical engineering major, and Kamal El Soueni, a business administration major. Their product will now be retailed on Souq.com.

Team Farila also came away with a prize, the Judges’ Choice Award. Abdelnabi and Abdelnaal will receive mentoring from Souq.com’s team in the hopes of converting their wood prototype into a functional shoe to be sold online.

“We think it will be a breakthrough in the shoe world,” Abdelaal proclaimed proudly. bt

Egypt loses at home to Central African Republic

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) -Egypt’s unbeaten run this year came to an end with a surprise 3-2 home loss to 10-man Central African Republic in their African Cup qualifier on Friday.

Egypt squandered an early lead in its home leg to face a stiff challenge in the second leg of the knockout tie in two weeks.

Mohamed Zidan scored first for Egypt in the 10th minute. Hilaire Momi equalized for the visitors 15 minutes later.

Egypt was in control when defender Salif Keita was sent off in the 35th after a second yellow card and Mohamed Salah restored the home team’s lead early in the second half.

But the Central African side hit back in a seven-minute spell in the middle of the second.

Momi scored again after being left unmarked at the far post, and David Manga grabbed the winner in the 69th from just inside the area.

It ended Egypt’s 13-match unbeaten run in 2012 and slowed its recent revival under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley after political upheaval at home led to the seven-time African champions surprisingly missing out on this year’s African Cup of Nations. It was just Egypt’s second international at home since a riot at a league game in Port Said in February left 74 people dead.

The first-leg game was suspended from February after those riots in Port Said and was also brought forward from the weekend so as not to clash with the presidential election runoff.

Mohamed Aboutrika and Salah combined to set up Zidan for a tap-in for Egypt’s opener in a game played without fans because of the ongoing security worries in the North African country.

Momi nearly hit back straight away, but did score in the 25th when he broke clear of Egypt’s defense to run through on goal.

Salah curled home a left-footed shot after Keita was dismissed, but Momi struck from a counterattack in the 62nd and Manga’s winner completed the surprise comeback.

Egypt travels to Bangui for the return leg on June 30, when it hopes to avoid missing the African Cup for the second successive year.

Euro 2012: The View From Cairo

Cross posted from The New York Times.

CAIRO — At 7 p.m. Sunday evening, an identical argument broke out in front of more than a dozen television screens in Borsa, the outdoor café-lined haven of downtown Cairo. At issue: whether to watch the second half of Spain versus Italy in the European Championship or switch to the start of Egypt’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Guinea.

Come major international soccer matches, the roughly two-by-three block pedestrian-only maze of alleyways, collectively referred to as Borsa after the nearby stock exchange, morphs into a fan’s paradise. Hundreds of spectators, puffing sheesha and sipping tea, crowd around the raft of televisions and projectors suspended from seemingly every nook of its stone-paved passages. Most nights, all offer the same spectacle. Sunday, however, presented a conundrum.

Outside one café on Elwi Street, where an audience seated in plastic purple chairs formed a small semicircle around a flat-screen TV, the pro-Euro voices easily drowned out those advocating for national pride. Maged Essa, 28, who came to root for Italy, approved of the decision. “Egypt is not an interesting match like Italy versus Spain,” he said, adding, “People will be interested when Egypt gets closer. … But they’re playing Guinea.”

Down the block, another café went with the Egypt game, drawing a moderate-size crowd as the Pharaohs kicked off their second qualifier. Directly across the alley, a dueling TV screened the European match. Paused for a moment in the no-man’s-land between the two, a pair of friends debated where to sit. “Why do you want to watch this?” one ribbed the other, motioning toward the Egypt match. “The Euro game is so much better.”

That seemed to be the consensus around Borsa, where TVs tuned into the European match comfortably outnumbered those set to the national team’s contest by a factor of three or 4 to 1.

As Egypt and Guinea eased into gear in the late-afternoon West African heat, the two European heavyweights turned on the attacking flare after a cautious first half. Necks from spectators taking in the Egypt broadcast craned to catch the action from across the alley, where the audience oohed and aahed every scoring chance and flash of skill from Italy and Spain’s cast of international superstars.

Fifteen minutes in, Italy grabbed the opener. Spain replied three minutes later. With all eyes gravitating toward the burgeoning thriller out of Poland, a whistle went in the Egypt game. Penalty for Guinea! Eyeballs darted back across the alley. Curses and insults were hurled at the screen as replays showed the foul. Then more as Guinea converted to take a surprise 1-0 lead.

The next 25 minutes brought no more goals. Italy and Spain finished 1-1 and Egypt entered the locker room a goal down. As televisions switched over to the halftime coverage of the Egypt game, Mohamed Atif, 20, explained why he had chosen to spend the last 45 minutes watching Egypt. The national team is an object of pride for Egyptians, he said, adding that he was really enjoying watching the side play under its new American head coach.

A Pharoah's fan called national team coach Bob Bradley "an Egyptian man."
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
A Pharoah’s fan called national team coach Bob Bradley “an Egyptian man.”

“Egypt with Bob Bradley has new look,” Atif said. “We love this very much. We feel he’s an Egyptian man.”

Atif’s friend, Abdullah Loay, who joined him at halftime from across the alley, said he did not mind watching either match, but noted, pointing at the screen that had been showing the European game: “Their match is better. You see soccer here. In Egypt, not so much.”
Of course, the preference for the glamour of European soccer is not a phenomenon limited to Egypt. From the United States to remote corners of the developing world, millions of fans routinely opt for satellite relays of England’s Premier League and Champions League matches over local action.

But in Egypt these days, the rationale runs deeper than the allure of the European game. The year-and-a-half since the revolution has not been kind to Egyptian soccer. The national team’s reputation was badly tarnished by players and coaches’ apathetic — and sometimes downright hostile — stance toward the uprising. Egypt faltered on the field as well, failing to even qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, a tournament it had won on the previous three occasions.

The Port Said disaster followed in February, when a riot at a league match left more than 70 dead and led to the cancellation of all domestic competition this season. In the aftermath of the riot, the country’s interior ministry refused to secure home matches for the national team, forcing it to conduct its preparations for qualifying abroad. The interior ministry has agreed to secure qualifiers — Egypt played Mozambique earlier this month in Alexandria — but only behind closed doors.

Under those circumstances, and amid the political upheaval that continues to grip Egypt, the national team has slipped from the public’s attention to a degree exceedingly rare in this soccer-mad country. “People are not interested in World Cup qualifying because of the revolution,” Essa said. “Everything has been stopped.”

Some fans were forgoing soccer altogether. About an hour before the match in Tahrir Square, mere blocks from Borsa, a protester who identified himself as Faris said: “The revolution is more important than football right now. Because there’s no stability to allow us to watch football.”

As the second half began, though, all eyes in Borsa were fixed intently on Egypt’s comeback bid. Two goals within 10 minutes from midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika sent the crowds up and down the alleys into delirium. Egypt seemed to have sealed a second consecutive victory. But then Guinea struck back with just two minutes remaining in regular time. Egypt looked consigned to sharing the points.

There was a final twist left in the tale, however. Forward Mohamad Salah, 19, burst into the penalty box four minutes into stoppage time to curl home a left-footed winner. Borsa erupted again.

Back at the same café, Essa appeared to have caught a bit of early World Cup fever. He felt Egypt had been somewhat lucky to come away with all three points, but was anticipating the next steps, as Egypt vies for its first World Cup berth since 1990.

“I feel happy,” he said, nodding. “Now, I want to see the rest of qualifying.”

 

Egypt African Cup home qualifier in doubt

CAIRO (AP) -Egypt’s African Cup qualifier against Central African Republic at home is in doubt because authorities refuse to provide security for the match, set for June 17.

The Egypt Football Association has asked the Confederation of African Football to postpone the match for 48 hours to avoid its overlap with presidential elections, planned for the same day.

The team’s administrative manager Amr Abu el-Ezz says the continental body has not yet replied to the request.

Egyptian authorities have refused to provide security for national team’s home matches after 70 people were killed following a league match in Port Said in February.

Of 12 matches Egypt played so far this year, 11 took place abroad.

Mubarak Verdict Awakens Egypt’s Revolutionary Zeal

Ever since the opening salvo of the “trial of the century” of Hosni Mubarak, replete with the dramatic spectacle of the deathly frail-looking Mubarak being wheeled into the courtroom and locked up in the defendants’ cage, the trial has come to occupy a place in the Egyptian public discourse comfortably behind such matters as nose jobs for Salafi lawmakers and rumored legislation legalizing necrophilia. The decision to close the courtroom to cameras surely had something to do with it, as did the accumulation of more immediately pressing matters–massacres of protesters in downtown Cairo, a massacre of football fans in Port Said, economic anxieties galore, Egypt’s first free parliamentary and then presidential elections. The trial had been on hiatus since February, when the judge set June 2 as the date for the verdict.

The leap to other concerns was understandable but has proved deeply problematic. As the crises of the transition have mounted, the momentum of the revolution has been lost, not just due to the disunity and dysfunction of the revolutionaries, but as a result of a widespread loss of perspective about the revolution and its aftermath. Mubarak’s trial was in some ways an antidote to that creeping amnesia–a critical reminder of the shared grievances that led the vast majority of Egyptians to lend at least tacit support to the revolution. Amid the growing chorus calling for stability at almost any price and the strong showing of Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik in the first round of the presidential vote, it’s easy to forget that the start of the trial was met with tremendous excitement by the Egyptian public, and that Mubarak remains a generally reviled figure in Egypt.

There have been other reminders, no doubt. The military’s brutal crackdown on dissent, to name just one example, has inspired countless marches and protests and sit-ins. But those reactions to the continuing autocracy of Egypt’s military rulers inevitably produced frictions. Protest-weary Egyptians began to view the revolutionaries as a greater problem than the abuses they were protesting. Sharp fissures emerged among the revolutionaries themselves about tactics, philosophy, and leadership.

Continual re-expressions of rage against a deposed tyrant are not necessarily the most productive building blocks for societies torn down by decades of violent kleptocracy. Many have suggested that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of South Africa’s in the late 1990s would be the best way to go in exposing the systemic violations of the old regime. But even narrowly-focused trials can do some good, if managed properly. They can provide catharsis to victims of the old regime’s crimes. They offer a common enemy against whom to direct lingering frustrations. Most importantly, they remind people what they hated about the former status quo, and why they should do all they can to avoid a relapse.

Mubarak’s trial did none of that. Its flaws, namely its failure to actually document concrete crimes (largely due to a lack of cooperation by Egyptian security agencies) and overly narrow focus (on Mubarak and a select few accomplices, and on human rights violations from the revolution alone) have been widely-noted. In spite of those deficiencies, it could have at least stood as an ongoing caution against the pitfalls of the former system–of security services operating with impunity, of politicians with autocratic pretensions.

Instead, Egypt finds itself a year-and-a-half after the revolution with a security apparatus essentially unchanged from the one that menaced under Mubarak. The two winners of the first round of the presidential election, set to contest the runoff in two weeks, espouse disconcertingly autocratic views just as frequently as they profess their commitment to democracy.

Now that the verdict is in, the rage that fueled the revolution is at last back out in the open. Although Mubarak received a life sentence, the ruling has not gone down well. Many wanted to see the death penalty and worry that the conviction, in which the judge repeatedly alluded to the prosecution’s lack of conclusive evidence implicating the former president, is ripe to be overturned at any time. Standing trial alongside Mubarak, the regime’s chief henchmen in the Interior Ministry were also acquitted on all counts related to the deaths of protesters during the revolution, while Mubarak’s sons Alaa and Gamal got off on corruption charges.

The response of the array of political and activist forces–from Ultras to Islamists–who took to the streets yesterday in the thousands in Cairo and other major cities appears to mark the largest mobilization of broad-based opposition politics since last fall. If anyone had begun to question just how hated Hosni Mubarak is, the answer is in the streets now. Where this all leads is anyone’s guess–some are calling it a chance to “correct the mistake” they say revolutionaries made after Mubarak resigned last February–but it suggests there’s hope yet that the trial will live up to its minimum promise: hardening popular attitudes against the most cynical machinations of the Mubarak-era police state. As memories of the regime’s crimes come flooding back into the public discourse, the original grievances of the revolution could finally return to animate Egyptian politics again.