Welcome to Zabatak, Arabic for “I caught you.” At the top of the website is a cartoon of a thief (he’s clearly some kind of wrong doer with his jail-striped shirt and masked face) who has been taken by the scruff of his neck and hauled off for his crimes. Zabatak is a creative anti-corruption initiative that has come of age during Egypt’s revolutionary period.
The project was established by five ambitious 20-somethings – Abbas Ibrahim, Nagla Metwally, Ali El-Hefnawy, Mostafa Raafat and Amr Sobhy – in February 2011. In the weeks leading up to, and following, the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the group found that Cairenes were feeling more anxious than usual due to poor security and the lack of law enforcement personnel on the streets. In an attempt to make people feel at ease they began collecting reports from the average citizen on instances of corruption and crime that were taking place around Cairo.
Anyone who’s lived in Egypt will tell you that corruption is a common and deeply entrenched occurrence. Whether it’s greasing the wheels with baksheesh to procure a driver’s licence, medical certificate or a better grade, or knowing the right people in order to jump the queue at Mugamma or secure – quite literally – a “get out of jail free” card. You can bet your bottom dollar that yourself, or someone you know, has been the victim of corruption in Egypt.
Added to this is the element of crime, which many Cairo residents perceive to be on the rise since last February. Prior to January 25 2011, crime rates were touted to be abnormally low, especially in Cairo, which is a city home to more than 17 million inhabitants. Pre-revolution offences were rare and violent crime almost unheard of. Petty crime has now become one main source of annoyance and distress for Cairenes. The offences range from bribery and car accidents to breaking and entering, muggings, theft and other legal infractions.
Enter Zabatak. The initiative was initially designed to act as an intermediary between citizens and Egypt’s law enforcement system. “People were hungry for information during last year’s revolution,” explained Zabatak co-founder Amr Sobhy, “and we sought to empower people by providing an online portal where they could report cases of crime and corruption. Once they did this, the plan was to pass information to the relevant authorities who could do something about it.”
Through the use of Ushahidi’s crowdsourcing platform, (also employed by HarassMap), “users” of the Zabatak site submit testimonies of corruption or crime, which are plotted on a geographic grid of Cairo. This allows for the site’s visitors to see what types of crime and corruption are most common and which areas of Cairo serve as hotspots for criminal activities. Users are able to receive custom email alerts about incidents that have taken place and the idea was for them to follow the process as the report is turned over to local authorities. All reports are reviewed by Zabatak’s lone data analyst prior to being posted online in order to verify users’ claims and draw out any false reports.
While certain elements of Zabatak took flight and were wildly successful, it didn’t take long for Sobhy and his colleagues to figure out that they needed to shift their model, and fast. They discovered it was impossible to rely on the law enforcement sector, at least in the short-term, given the country’s current instability and the continued lack of response by local authorities (which didn’t mesh well with users’ dogged expectations). Additionally, it was found that many users had a tough time adopting the idea of crowdsource reporting as they were not aware of the benefits this type of platform offered.
With this in mind, Zabatak’s team quickly shifted focus in mid-2011 and promoted the anti-corruption initiative as a ‘social-service’ for citizens where crimes are submitted and people are expected to network with others. Their purpose now, Sobhy clarifies, is to “encourage users to collaborate with one another and find solutions to their problems.” While it sounds rather idealistic in theory, and perhaps isn’t practical for more violent crimes or complex cases of corruption, it has proved effective in dealing with a variety of misdemeanours.
Fighting back corruption
Case in point: in 2011 Zabatak received 44 reports of car theft and by the end of the year, 11 individuals had recovered their cars through the help of others they met via Zabatak. Upwards of 80,000 users have visited the site over the last year and more than 1,500 incidents have been reported. Current partners include Tahrir2 , the Science Age Society and HarassMap, and future collaboration is in the works with the Ministry of State for Administrative Development, as well as Fayoum University.
This type of hard-earned success is worthy of praise, but the Zabatak team rightfully realises there’s growing pains to endure. Their main challenge at the moment is figuring out how to secure funding given that Zabatak isn’t a money-making initiative. Though it’s not the purpose of their enterprise, monetary support would certainly enhance the services they already offer, and enable the team to set up new ones, such as the establishment of a call centre where people can submit reports via telephone that are instantly uploaded onto the site.
Another challenge is that by operating only online for the moment (and smart phones by default) Zabatak reaches just a small segment of Cairo’s population. In neighbourhoods like Shoubra, Ain Shams, Imbaba and others, millions of people have little to no internet access or even computer literacy. “Of course there’s crime and corruption in these areas too, so to reach users who are not online, we need to go mobile,” explained Sobhy. In response to this gap Zabatak’s founders are negotiating with telecom companies to garner support and also perfect an SMS gateway where people can send messages in a specific format that are uploaded online automatically.
Though the obstacles appear daunting, Zabatak’s founders are unfazed. They know they are clearly onto something. Only 12 months since its inception, Zabatak has been nominated for a host of accolades including being shortlisted for the AnzishaAnzisha prize for young entrepreneurs and an International Youth Foundation Entrepreneurial Award. They were also the recipient of a UN World Summit Youth Award. While Sobhy and his colleagues are flattered by all the attention, they remain humbled. and act with a maturity beyond their years. They understand that tackling the issue of corruption and crime in Cairo is an uphill battle and will require years of trial and error, dedication and the support of civil society and law enforcement entities in order to transform one of the Middle East’s most animated and vibrant cities into a less corrupt and safer place.
“We want to use Zabatak to inspire and encourage each other to work together and to find our own solutions as much as possible,” added Sobhy. “Because behavioural change is a difficult process. If you’re used to doing something a certain way, you don’t try something else. It’s important to get people to look at corruption and its effects differently.”