Egypt’s War on Charity
Egypt’s faith-based charities have become victims of the government crackdown on political Islam. The real losers are the poor.
ABOU RAWASH, Egypt — Like most villages in Egypt, Abou Rawash is brown, dusty, and poor. Farming implements dot the landscape and herds of sheep graze directly outside the cheaply constructed brick and concrete buildings that are a hallmark of Egypt’s lower classes. Abou Rawash is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, in stark contrast to Cairo, the capital and booming megacity, a mere 20 miles away.
In a dusty room in his family’s house, Ahmed Hassan sits on the cold concrete as he recounts growing up in the poor village. “My father died when I was 3 years old,” he says. “My mother worked as best she could, but it was very hard to make ends meet. My mother had 10 children, but they were too much to take care of on her own. Only my brother and I survived.”
Help came, he explains, from one of Egypt’s leading charitable organizations. “El Gameya El Shareya took care of us,” he says. “They gave us food every Friday and money to make it through the week. They helped a lot of people, they used to give money to orphan girls and help them furnish a house so they could be married. None of us would have made it without them.” Said, one of several young boys crowding around, notes that his own family, as well as those of his friends, used to go to El Gameya for money and food — but the group can’t afford to give as much anymore.
For more than 100 years, El Gameya El Shareya has worked to compensate for the government’s failure to supply the needs of Egypt’s poorest citizens. At its peak, it had over 1,000 branches, operated 30 medical centers, and provided for 450,000 fatherless children, according to its Facebook page. The organization played an especially crucial role in villages like Abou Rawash, where state social services are sorely lacking — a problem aggravated by the political turmoil of post-Mubarak Egypt. El Gameya El Shareya works alongside two other major charities, Resala and Sonaa Hayat, and between the three of them, they cover nearly every village in rural Egypt as well as the slums of Cairo and Alexandria.
El Gameya El Shareya and Sonaa Hayat were both founded by well-known religious leaders, and the organizations’ dedication to the poor is rooted in their Islamic character — Egypt’s version of the “faith-based” community organizations common in the United States. But in the wake of the popularly supported 2013 coup that deposed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi and returned Egypt to secular authoritarian rule, such organizations have been caught up in an anti-Islamic backlash.
Though the government is unable to take care of its poor itself, it is deeply suspicious of organizations that try to fill in the gaps, particularly those that have an Islamic character. Egypt’s leaders have long memories: they know only too well that the Muslim Brotherhood built a massive network of supporters through its anti-poverty work during the long years of the Mubarak regime. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is eager to ensure such activity is no longer possible. “Some political organizations have made use of poverty for political gains,” Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly said in a recent televised statement. “We are trying to make sure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
The crackdown on charities began soon after the coup. One month after the military’s brutal August 2013 assault on a pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa Square, a Cairo court banned all Muslim Brotherhood activities, ordered an immediate seizure of its assets, and created a committee to track down any company or organization that received Brotherhood funding. Though El Gameya El Shareya denies having any Brotherhood ties, the Central Bank froze its funds as a result of the investigation, along with those of over a thousand other organizations, in December 2013. The same month, the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Though El Gameya El Shareya appealed the court decision and won, regaining access to its frozen assets, the reputational damage was done. It is now forever linked to the Brotherhood in the eyes of the public, and has since faced accusations of funding terrorism and spreading radical Islam. As a result, it is now operating at about a third of its former capacity, says Ahmed Khattab, one of its volunteers.
Other, similar charities, such as Resala, were affected by these court battles as well. “People began to think Resala was a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, so that makes it difficult for us to collect money,” Islam Ayman, a Resala employee, said. “All our work relies on volunteers and even more so now.” He says that the organization is now asking volunteers to raise 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($130) when they join.
The government’s campaign against “terrorism” and its crackdown against political Islam enjoy broad support, and several anti-Brotherhood organizations have joined the fray. The Popular Front Against the Brotherhoodization of Egypt has worked hand-in-hand with the government to counter Islamist influence. Its most recent lawsuit seeks to designate the 6th of April Youth Movement, the most powerful opposition group in the country, as a terrorist organization.
While the charities’ leaders play tug-of-war with the government in Cairo, people out in the villages are left wondering how to cope without the services these organizations used to provide.
For Halima Mahasseb, an aging widow from Abou Rawash, the biggest concern is the increase in medical expenses. Sitting on the dirt floor of her house, she coughs and lists her ailments: “Blood pressure problems, diabetes problems, breathing problems, knee problems.” The costs of her medications have nearly doubled. In addition, the village’s medical center, which is operated by El Gameya El Shareya, can no longer afford to pay its staff to work full time, and has had to significantly scale back its hours. This makes it difficult for Mahasseb to receive urgent treatment, and she often has to travel to another hospital, which is not operated by a charity and costs twice as much, she says. More hospitals will be affected in the coming months. On January 14, the Central Bank of Egypt froze the assets of the Islamic Medical Association, which operates 32 hospitals with over 5,000 employees, according to its website.
The anti-Islamic crackdown is not limited to freezing funds and sowing popular suspicion. In many villages like Abou Rawash, a majority of religious leaders — the poor’s biggest advocates — are in prison for alleged Muslim Brotherhood ties. “All the good people who look after the poor, they’re the religious ones,” said Zakaria Mohiedeen, a resident of Abou Rawash. “And where are the most religious people? They’re in jail. The people who are trying to help, they get thrown in jail, but the ones with the drugs and the guns, they walk free.” Among the imprisoned are those who used to distribute meat to the poor during the holy holiday of Eid el-Adha, Mohiedeen said. Although the village did its best to ensure the poor were cared for this past Eid, he fears many were overlooked.
A hundred miles north in the Nile Delta village of Sharnob, the situation is similarly grim. “The holy seasons were especially important times for aid, either in money or in handouts,” Sharnob resident Ahmed Sharif said (name changed because of his family’s affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood). “All that has stopped since [the coup].” In Sharnob, as in many other villages, the Muslim Brotherhood itself played an important role in funding social welfare programs, such as distributing food and building schools and hospitals. Since the coup, its members have been either driven underground or imprisoned. Now whatever funds the local branch can collect must be spent on posting bail for its jailed members. “My uncle, for example, his bail was $1300,” Sharif said. “The Muslim Brotherhood paid for half of it. For the most part, until now, the Brotherhood has just been focused on itself, on rebuilding. They haven’t been able to think of others much.”
With the Muslim Brotherhood out of the picture and the three major charities still reeling, villagers have realized that they can no longer depend on outside help. They’ve now begun to organize their own charity work locally. Wael Mohieddeeen and Mohammed Hamdy, friends from Abou Rawash, came together last year to found the Youth Organization of Abou Rawash. The organization works to connect villagers in need with others who can help. At the moment, they’re preoccupied with combating an ongoing gas shortage and are working to distribute butane tanks around the village. “There is this idea now that if you’re doing charity work, you’re either part of a religious group or a political party trying to buy their votes,” Hamdy said. “We’re trying to show people that it doesn’t have to be that way, that neighbors can just help neighbors.”
There appears to be an increase in such grassroots charity movements, as people remain fearful of association with El Gameya El Shareya, Resala and Sonaa Hayat. “I’ve found it is better for us to work as individuals rather than as a part of one of these groups,” said Khattab, the El Gameya El Shareya volunteer. He now does most of his work independently from El Gameya El Shareya, connecting hospitals with donors who can provide badly needed supplies. He has found that, though donors are wary of giving to a charity like El Gameya El Shareya, they have no problem giving to him as an individual. “It’s all about your priorities,” Khattab said. “For me, my priority wasn’t the politics, it was the people.”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Al Khateeb.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
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