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Charity work is now firmly restricted in Egypt

March 12, 2024 at 1:00 pm

A man speaks on a phone atop an election campaign bus for Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adorned with his image, his slogan “long live Egypt”, and C-shaped balloons in Giza on October 2, 2023 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

In Giza, near the Egyptian capital, people rush towards a large truck, which is distributing food parcels labelled “Long live Egypt”. The scene is repeated in many other neighbourhoods and other governorates. Such distributions are supervised by security and governmental bodies, who celebrate them and even take photos of those receiving aid from the Doors of Charity initiative, claiming that Egypt stands with its poor and needy citizens.

In addition to Doors of Charity, there are other government initiatives such as Welcome Ramadan Exhibitions, We Are All One, Charity Card, Shoulder to Shoulder, Wellness Cover and Hand in Hand. These initiatives are attempts to alleviate the burdens of the economic crisis in the country and the insane price rises, and to fill the growing gap in the charity system, following the imposition of serious restrictions by the government.

According to data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, the poverty rate in Egypt in 2020 was 29.7 per cent. However, an independent study by the agency’s advisor, Heba Al-Laithi, expected the poverty level to have risen to 35.7 per cent in the past year.

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Charity work in Egypt has been under security restrictions since the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2013 coup, and the arrest of thousands of officials and supporters of the movement. The Brotherhood had a wide network of social institutions providing essential services, including charitable societies, hospitals, schools and orphanages across the country.

Under the pretext of drying up the “sources of terrorism”, the Egyptian regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi seized 1,133 charities, 120 schools, 39 hospitals, 118 companies and money belonging to 1,589 people on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime classified as a terrorist group in December 2013. In addition, the Egyptian authorities persecuted the largest and oldest Islamic charitable bodies of the Shareyah Society for the Cooperation of Followers of the Book and Mohammedi Sunnah, which has been operating for more than 100 years and has more than 1,200 branches throughout the country.

Charitable work became even harder following a devastating blow in May 2017, when President Al-Sisi ratified the Civil Associations Law, which prohibits receiving or disposing of donations except after the approval of the relevant government authorities. This law was criticised widely by human rights organizations, which forced its amendment.

However, the new Regulation of Practice of Civil Work Law No. 149 of 2019 had other restrictions, including the imposition of heavy fines that ranged at the time between 100,000 and one million Egyptian pounds (about $6,000 to $60,000) for those who violate its articles. It also called for confiscation of all funds received without government approval.

Regime repression of civil society organisations has extended to charitable institutions.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian authorities dissolved more than two thousand charities and confiscated their assets on charges that they had links to the Brotherhood.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity says that there are about 52,000 associations and civil society organisations in Egypt, including 32,924 associations that have completed all necessary documentation. Most of these organisations work in the fields of social assistance, health services, education, child and maternity care, and care for people with special needs. However, the efforts of the Brotherhood, and particularly those of the Shareyah Society, were more organised, widespread and influential, before they were dismantled by the Egyptian security services.

An informed Brotherhood source told me that before the coup, the proceeds of donations in one governorate alone amounted to 21 million Egyptian pounds annually (more than $3m at the time), which enabled the movement to expand its network of services. It was restoring houses in danger of collapse, introducing water supplies to those without fresh water on tap, helping orphan girls to get married, distributing cash to the needy, and sponsoring poor families monthly.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added that Ramadan food parcels containing meat and other essential items, and the provision of meals to break and open the fast, as well as Eid clothes, were distributed to thousands of families in every governorate, through Al-Birr Committees, one of the administrative structures of the Brotherhood. The committees identified those in need and provided aid in more than 4,000 villages across Egypt.

Following the security services’ targeting of the movement’s leaders for more than 10 years, the Sisi regime succeeded in excluding and even eliminating the Brotherhood from charitable work in Egypt. The aim was to limit its growing social influence, but this created a huge void, which grew with the ongoing deterioration in economic conditions due to the fifth floating of the Egyptian pound since 2016. The dollar exchange rate has officially reached 50 pounds, going up from only seven pounds, the rate when the late Dr Mohamed Morsi was President of Egypt in 2012/13.

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It appears that the Sisi regime may have tried to fill this void by launching charitable programmes and initiatives, deploying aid convoys and holding exhibitions for discounted goods, but the government’s performance has been mostly seasonal and random. Moreover, aid did not reach those who need it most, especially with the habit of photographing people while receiving aid parcels live on air.

In the same vein, the military establishment has intervened in an attempt to fill the Brotherhood’s charity shoes, through deploying army vehicles and outlets loaded with food supplies at reduced prices, as well as mobilising 33 entities and civil society organisations under the umbrella of the National Alliance for Civil and Developmental Action, a government institution. Opponents of this point out that the Brotherhood and Shareyah Society hospitals were available to all Egyptians, whereas army-run hospitals are still only open to military personnel and their families.

A political researcher told me that a fundamental difference in the approach to charity adopted by the Islamists and the Sisi regime relates to the tendency of the former to distribute aid in private or under cover of darkness, to take account of religious sensibilities. It is done this way out of sincerity and the seeking of God’s pleasure, in contrast to what is happening now where aid is distributed live on air, which embarrasses recipients in dire need of support but who would rather not be photographed while receiving support from any party.

The National Alliance for Civil Development Action organised a shoulder-to-shoulder celebration at Cairo International Stadium on 17 March last year, with the aim of distributing four million food parcels in the presence of Al-Sisi. The same anonymous source told me that there is a clear connection now between charitable work in Egypt and political propaganda, and this possibly amounts to profiting from the pain of the poor. This justifies the nostalgia people have for the heyday of the Muslim Brotherhood and the era of the late President Hosni Mubarak, who gave Islamists an opportunity to expand their charitable work, even if it was probably to cover up for his government’s failure to perform its role in civil society.

There is no official data on the amount of charitable funding in Egypt.

A government study issued by the Information Council of the Council of Ministers, in January 2017, estimated it at about 4.5 billion pounds (about $91m). Meanwhile, Alternative Policy Solutions, a research project affiliated with the American University in Cairo, estimated donations in 2022 to be about 6.7 billion pounds (about $135m). Unofficial estimates indicate that Egyptian donations total 20 billion pounds annually (about $404m).

What is exciting and worrying at the same time is that security and sovereign authorities have got involved in the fundraising field, to control and direct donations towards special funds such as Long Live Egypt, which is under Al-Sisi’s supervision. This is being implemented through mobilising several well-known charitable societies such as Resala, Al-Orman, Misr Al-Khair, Food Bank, Zakat and Charity House, Hospital 57357, under the banner of the National Alliance. Run by the government, this does not get audited, and no one knows how much its budget is, or the percentage it deducts from the donations of the associations affiliated with it for the benefit of the Long Live Egypt Fund.

According to human rights researcher Hossam Al-Masry, the pockets of the middle and lower classes are also being drained through huge advertising campaigns calling for donations throughout the year, which are intensified during the month of Ramadan. The popularly known “donation business” has been born.

Imposing centralisation on Egyptian charitable donations and trying to employ them politically in a way that polishes the regime’s image, in addition to controlling the funds as a huge financial resource that can be seized by the government at any time, has exacerbated the predicament of charitable work. This is now clutched firmly between the regime’s restrictions and politicisation.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.