Prior to 2009, Cairo’s hacking community was unheard of – that is, until Cairo Hackerspace was formed. Since then, the hacker community in Cairo and in Egypt in general has flourished, with Cairo Hackerspace at its center.
Established in 2009 as an open source community for hackers from different disciplines and backgrounds to come together, share their knowledge and fabricate, Cairo Hackerspace brings together engineers, artists, designers, and others to “hack.” The hackerspace does everything from tech-hacks like a DIY book scanner to what has recently become known as food hacking, which basically entails throwing different ingredients and cuisines in a bowl and “fabricating” food. It is with this approach to hacking that the hackerspace is slowly creating a hacking community.
For many outside of this community, the image associated to hacking is rather vilified by Hollywood, usually drawn as the illegal dissemination of viruses like in the 2008 film Eagle Eye or social justice hacking like in the hit-series Mr. Robot. But Cairo Hackerspace is changing that perception of hacking and the hacker community – at least in Egypt. To “hack,” according to legendary programer and founder of the open-source software Linux, Richard Stallman, is to explore the limits of what is possible, and Cairo Hackerspace has dedicated itself to a similar process of creativity and knowledge exchange.
What is Cairo Hackerspace?
Claiming to be the first hackerspace in Egypt and in the Middle East, Cairo Hackerspace provides a space for creative minds from within and outside the hacking community with machine tools (Makerbot 3D ABS printer), electronic instrumentation, electronic components and raw materials, and various other tools that can be used for electronics fabrication, hacking and building things. With access to this equipment and material, hackers can create, fabricate and repurpose endlessly.
The 3D-printers in the space are mostly made by the members themselves; and while they may be somewhat simple, the team is able to evade the high cost of importing equipment and the quality discrepancies of mass-produced goods by building their own. When the printers begin to weave away, a fully fledged, tangible figure begins to take shape in front of your very eyes.
Tarek El Sabbagh, one of the founders of Cairo Hackerspace, is a computer science graduate and one of the two oldest members still active in the community. He tells progrss that he believes that Cairo Hackerspace forge a sense community in the same way that local gyms do in Egyptian society. Whereas gyms provide a space for congregation that create a sense of familiarity among members, and El Sabbagh believes that Cairo Hackerspace functions similarly. This can also be echoed in the spaces that they have worked in before – the coworking space icecairo and The Townhouse Gallery, an arts’ space, both of which are in downtown Cairo.
The team recently relocated to urbantech hub KMT House – a move that seems natural for the hackerspace given its emphasis on collaboration and community-building. Although the coworking house will officially open its doors in January 2018 and is still undergoing renovations, Cairo Hackerspace has already moved their equipment in and begun heading operations out of the location. When the renovation of KMT House is complete, Cairo Hackerspace’s fabrication lab will be stationed in the basement of the house. With the space on their hands, the hackers will be able fabricate everything from toy cars and figurines to 3D-models – all with a simple roll of plastic.
For some hackerspaces, funding is plentiful, allowing for adaptations, renovations, and constant equipment upgrades. But Cairo Hackerspace depends on membership fees to sustain itself, which has so far proven to be quite successful for them. Coined the “Cairo Membership Model,” other hackerspaces are adopting the model to their own hackerspaces and Cairo Membership Model 2.0 is now being developed.
While this membership model continues to sustain the Cairene hackerspace, it doesn’t seem to interfere with the organization’s lax rules and complete lack of hierarchy – an integral aspect of the hackerspace’s philosophy, which is built on what they see as a more democratic structure. Most if not all the members of Cairo Hackerspace have daytime jobs or other commitments; some are students while others are full-time employees.
An Open-Source Community
As important as the membership model is to the hackerspace, it is also reflective of the space’s philosophy as a community. The choice to be an open-source community follows suit with many hackerspace communities and projects worldwide – like the GNU project, which is a collective of free computer software. For Cairo Hackerspace, every member of the community has somewhat equal footing in the decision-making process. The motto of Noisebridge, an award-winning and anarchist hackerspace in San Francisco, is “Be excellent to each other;” El Sabbagh says Cairo Hackerspace practices a similar philosophy.
As idealistic as this democratic structure is, it sometimes makes it difficult to make decisions quickly or ensure that the hackerspace remains open. Despite the organic nature of these difficulties, this model has, nonetheless, persisted, allowing Cairo Hackerspace to remain open. The community has also survived despite six relocations, including one governmental raid and the collapse of the building that housed their space. Arguably, perhaps this constant move to different locations is reflective of the philosophy and structure of the group.
Fabricating, Hacking, Community-Building
While being a creative fabrication lab is the primary function of the hackerspace, Cairo Hackerspace continues to offer other services to members and the community around it. Today, Cairo Hackerspace can be considered a pioneer in the hacking community in Egypt and the Arab World at large, and many of the hackerspaces in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East have worked with or received support from Cairo Hackerspace in one way or another. However, this has not deflected the Cairene hackers’ attention from nurturing the hacking community in Egypt.
Cairo Hackerspace also incubates project ideas, which works well with its open-source policy. One of their many reasons for opening was the absence of both a communal and physical space for people to meet and get to work. Becoming an incubator simply adds to the space’s list of contributions to the growth of the hacker community in Egypt. A project like “Edify,” which aims to make find solutions through robotic technology, is just one example of the kinds of projects that Cairo Hackerspace incubates. According to Cairo Hackerspace’s website, incubation under Cairo Hackerspace requires only a brief introduction on the project and how the space can help incubate the project; applications are accepted on a rolling basis.
Since Cairo continues to be the urban heart of Egypt, a plethora of projects and opportunities are centered in the capital, somewhat marginalizing the rest of Egypt’s cities. With Cairo Hackerspace’s help, S3Geeks was born in Upper Egypt, which helped to develop ideas like “Train to Upper Egypt,” which was a series of workshops and talks geared towards innovation in 10 governorates in Upper Egypt. This is also joined by the hackerspace’s more recent project, “On the Road with Maker Express,” a mobile fab-lab that toured Egypt to encourage creativity and innovation.
The increase in and beyond the kind of work Cairo Hackerspace has been doing seems to be dismantling Hollywood’s stereotypical tropes around hackers and hacking culture. This can be strongly attributed to the distinction between “hacking” and “cracking” – cracking being what we see in the media. The rise of things like hackathons and hacker workshops for children have increasingly contributed to a growing hacker culture in Egypt, serving to buttress this growing gap between hacking and cracking.
In the span of just eight years, Cairo Hackerspace has witnessed an uprising, political and economic turmoil, and numerous other forks in the road, but none of that seems to be deterring the community from the work that they do. The move to KMT House will undoubtedly challenge them to move out of the lab and examine the potential real-life (especially urban) applications of their hacks.
The contributions that the hackerspace has made to the growth of the hacker community is worthy of praise, but that does not mean they do not struggle to remain relevant in a growing hacking scene. The future seems to be bright for the bright minds of the hacking community in Egypt, with Cairo Hackerspace and the rest of the community ready to kick it into high gear.