Since Egypt’s July 3 coup, its new rulers have used arrests, police and military raids, and intimidation to try to shape the country’s post-Mohamed Morsi political order. But more quietly, yet no less vigorously, the government is also engaged in an attempt to repress the social and charitable dimensions of Islamic activism. The latest salvo came December 23, when the ministry of justice directed banks to freeze the assets of over 1,000 NGOs. Among the targeted organizations were those linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamiyya Shariyya, and Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya — three organizations that make up the backbone of Egypt’s Islamic social service network.
But unlike arresting activists or brutally clearing Islamist protest sites, these measures will reverberate among the millions of Egyptians who rely on these organizations to fulfill their daily needs. Shuttering hospitals or hampering food drives will not fix Egypt’s endemic health and economic problems, only supercharge them. And instead of the stability the regime seeks, the more likely outcome will be to create new grievances for ordinary Egyptians, widening the opposition beyond Islamists and hard-core activists.
That the Brotherhood headlined the ministry of justice’s list was no surprise. On September 23 a Cairo administrative court banned the Brotherhood and ordered the seizure of its assets, and the case has since then chugged through Egypt’s court system (which has a fascinating capacity to modulate alacrity and sluggishness). Shortly before this week’s asset freeze, the ministry of education ordered the confiscation of 147 "Brotherhood schools" across 10 of Egypt’s 27 governorates for financial and administrative "irregularities." Now that the Egyptian cabinet has legally designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist group, this campaign is poised to escalate.
But including the lower-profile Islamic organizations Ansar al-Sunna and Gamiyya Shariyya in the recent asset freeze demonstrates the government’s determination to bring an even wider swathe of Islamic organizations to heel. The Brotherhood has for decades spurred commentary for its social service network, including the aforementioned schools, around 30 hospitals and medical facilities, religious institutes, and periodic charitable initiatives that serve millions of people. For instance, in the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year Brotherhood medical facilities treated nearly 1.5 million cases. In the group’s recent "Together we Build Egypt" campaign, it claimed to provide medical caravans that treated 1.75 million more.
But Ansar al-Sunna and Gamiyya Shariyya each oversees its own impressive charitable networks, and both organizations actually predate the Muslim Brotherhood. The decidedly Salafist Ansar al-Sunna was founded in 1926, while Gamiyya Shariyya dates even earlier to 1912. Just in the field of medicine, Ansar al-Sunna — a relative latecomer to social service provision — operates around two dozen charitable hospitals, in addition to small clinics and disaster relief programs. Gamiyya Shariyya’s charitable reach is certainly larger than Ansar al-Sunna’s, and likely even larger than the Brotherhood’s. According to statistics the group provided, it operates around two dozen hospitals and more specialized centers, including for premature infants, kidney and liver diseases, eye care, and a burn center. It also sends out an average of two medical caravans a week, treating over 43,000 cases annually. This is in addition to smaller, often part-time, one doctor clinics. I often asked health providers who else in the area provided medical services. The respondent would usually mention "Gamiyya Shariyya" and indicate multiple facilities, "there, there, there … ."
These organizations’ social service networks expanded significantly during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak and, before him, Anwar Sadat. A tacit bargain between the Islamic groups and the regime secured their social service networks. Specifically, all these organizations registered with the ministry of social affairs, as required by the onerous Law 32 of 1964 and its successors. This put them under strict government supervision, but gave them freedom to operate. In the background, the security services were always poised to respond if the organizations stepped out of bounds. Successive Egyptian regimes found this arrangement conducive because these social services helped cushion the blow of economic reforms — first the infitah and later structural adjustment and privatization — that began to chisel away at Egypt’s already crumbling system of public services.
But by the time of Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 this arrangement was under stress. Islamic service provision networks had expanded, and the Brotherhood in particular had more assertively challenged the regime in elections and by cooperating with other opposition groups. In response, the security services began to elbow out other bureaucratic organs like the ministry of social affairs and directly administrate sectors, including civil society. Despite the regime’s ideological opposition, their fate was to some extent lashed to the Islamists, and they knew it. As the administrator of one Brotherhood hospital related to me, during a particularly intense inspection in the 1990s, a security official turned to him and said "if you weren’t helping us carry the load, I’d toss you all in prison."
Although not as conspicuous or contentious as the relationship between the regime and the Brotherhood, Ansar al-Sunna also had its problems. The regime had always been wary of the group, and in the late 1960s the Nasser regime had even forcibly merged Ansar al-Sunna with the larger Gamiyya Shariyya for a few years. It did this in response to Ansar al-Sunna’s criticism as well as the group’s strong relations with Saudi Arabia. Since regaining independence under Sadat, the group officially moved closer to a Saudi pietistic orientation and steered clear of most opposition activities. Nonetheless, the regime occasionally arrested some members of the organization for allegedly plotting attacks, and leaders of the group were regularly monitored and harassed.
Ansar al-Sunna’s travails continued under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In the fall of 2011 a leaked judiciary report implicated Ansar al-Sunna for receiving an approximately $28 million deposit from Qatar. The group went all out to defend itself, including statements to the major Egyptian papers, and even released documents on its website. However it was still prosecuted for taking foreign funds (with, ironically, a number of prominent U.S. organizations as well). This case has continued, and was likely behind the decision
to freeze the organization’s funds (although an Ansar al-Sunna official expressed surprise at being included).
Gamiyya Shariyya’s inclusion, on the other hand, is more puzzling. In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Sunna, the Egyptian government tended to favor Gamiyya Shariyya for its perceived quiescence and broad social service network. This is why Ansar al-Sunna was placed under Gamiyya Shariyya’s umbrella in the 1960s, and it is also why Gamiyya Shariyya’s mosques tended to escape periodic mosque nationalizations. Although the relationship between the regime and Gamiyya Shariyya began to fray in the 1990s reportedly due to the increasing influence of Brotherhood figures in the group, it still enjoyed the ability to operate relatively freely.
Fearful of falling afoul of the government, both Gamiyya Shariyya and Ansar al-Sunna attempted after July 3 to distance themselves from the Brotherhood and accommodate Egypt’s new regime. Despite its maneuvering, however, Gamiyya Shariyya still was forced to defend itself from rumors it was linked to the Brotherhood. Prior to the asset freeze, some Gamiyya Shariyya institutes had already been shuttered because of links (either real or suspected) to the Brotherhood.
In addition to the court cases, the Egyptian bureaucracy, particularly the ministry of awqaf (religious endowments) has also sought to reassert control by presenting these organizations with new or restated codes of conduct. Reportedly, Gamiyya Shariyya and the ministry of awqaf signed a new agreement requiring that instructors in Gamiyya Shariyya’s preacher-training institutes possess PhD degrees from Al-Azhar (thus increasing Azhar’s role in the monitoring). The ministry also signed another agreement with both organizations to regulate the content of sermons and to prevent the use of mosque facilities as platforms for campaigning or other political activities. But the recent asset freeze appears to show that the regime is also prepared to rely on blunter measures to control this sector.
Much will depend on how the court cases and assets freeze are actually carried out, and already there are indications that Gamiyya Shariyya may be excluded from the ruling. Nonetheless, there have already been some wrenching scenes as patients, many of them children (Gamiyya Shariyya specializes in caring for premature infants), have suddenly been left without medical care. But even if these organizations escape the crackdown a precedent has been set, and they now know that they too — along with the growing numbers of activists and human rights organizations — are in the regime’s crosshairs. Given the impunity with which the regime has acted up to this point, this is dire news.
Egypt’s deterioration has led many to speak of a return to the Mubarak period. But the country’s new rulers’ vigorous attempt to cow and curtail the sprawling Islamic social sector is a step further than that regime ever attempted. It is probably true that Egypt’s rulers currently feel buoyed by the anti-Islamist sentiment currently predominant on Egypt’s streets and the lukewarm western response to Morsi’s overthrow. But that these organizations are the only avenues by which many Egyptians, Islamist and not, meet their daily needs ensures that continuing the current crackdown will likely lead to the exact opposite of the stability the regime currently seeks.
Steven Brooke is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is focusing his dissertation on Islamic medical charities in Egypt. A Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) travel grant contributed to the research for and writing of this article. This essay is part of a special series on Islam in a Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.