Diana Hollmann

NextThought Monday: A Perspective from Egypt – Iman Bibars of Ashoka Arab World

The events in Egypt have been unfolding quickly and it is hard to tell what the outcomes will be, particularly judging from afar. I had the opportunity to talk to Iman Bibars, founder and head of Ashoka Arab World about her perspectives. Next to promoting social entrepreneurship through Ashoka since 2003, Iman has co-founded and now chairs the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW) in Egypt. Native Egyptian, Iman is enduring in Cairo that has been scene to historic uprisings.

NextBillion.net: In MENA, the state has traditionally played – or was supposed to play – a major role in providing social services and welfare to its people with a trade-off in terms of participation and political freedom. In this context, what were the main challenges you and your team at Ashoka Arab World faced trying to promote social entrepreneurship? Has the situation changed over the past few years?

Iman: The state has long withdrawn from providing even some basic services. Under the claim of economic reforms subsidies were reduced. The last Egyptian government consisted of businessmen who didn’t have to go through the public school system in Egypt but were educated in Western countries. They blamed the Egyptian citizens – particularly the youth – (as) lazy and apathetic. These ministers were hardly aware of the Egyptian education system that penalized free thinking. Youth were often blamed for not wanting to work instead of acknowledging that the education system was weak and not able to equip them with the necessary skills. For instance, in Arabic language classes in primary school, Koran verses were chosen and interpreted as to mean total and blind obedience to one’s father and leader. In ninth grade Arabic classes, students had a chapter on the National Democratic Party in their books including pictures of Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak and Ahmed Ezz.

For those who dared to express their wish for freedom of expression, state security created and supported an informal network of thugs who terrorized them.

A major challenge NGOs and citizen sector organizations have been facing is the Egyptian NGO law that governs the process and functioning of starting an NGO, funding processes and controls of NGO activities. After a first law put in place in 1964, a new one – law 84 – was implemented in 2002 after extensive NGO lobbying. Although the new law is better than its predecessor in terms of fields of work and activities it still poses restrictions on freedom of association and on fund raising mechanisms. The Ministry of Social Affairs and security have the last say in accepting the formation of any NGO and no NGO can accept foreign funding or even funding from donors within Egypt without written approval from the authorities.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and the Federation for NGOs – of which I am an elected member and a minority in my beliefs – recently wanted to create a new law to further restrict NGOs from getting any funding unless they would approve the recipients to whom the funding would be channeled. The law would tie and control citizen sector organizations – and potentially deny them the only support they get from international donors. Given that local funding is limited to charity or support to political leaders, NGOs would have had no outlet but foreign funding to support human rights initiatives and much needed development projects.

In several instances, NGOs were being harassed and dismantled by governors. In South Sinai, for example, NGOs providing social services to Bedouins were recently hindered in their work. Roughly 30 projects funded by the EU were stopped by the local governor. Cars used by doctors from these NGOs to reach marginalized Bedouins were confiscated and funds provided by the EU were not disbursed for the activites. Unbelievably, there were no repercussions from the EU. Aides of the governor said the NGOs were not Bedouin and therefore not allowed to operate in Sinai. However, these NGOs did have a mandate to work throughout Egypt.

NextBillion.net: From your point of view, what are the main factors and developments that led to the current uprising?

Iman: Corruption within the state, its ministers and affiliated businesses has become very blatant and aggressive. The December 2010 parliament was rigged in such an open and insulting way in favor of NDP, the ruling party, with hundreds arrested, tortured and humiliated. Prices were very high and youth were largely ignored and marginalized. They faced constant oppression from the various state security apparatus.

The events in Tunisia finally gave the youth the necessary confidence: “If they can, we also can” was the slogan of our youth (under the age of 30) who account for 60 percent of the 82 million Egyptians.

NextBillion.net: What do you think might be the impact of the current protests on the mentality of the people?

Iman: This is a mind quake and a fear shattering experience. This gives us voice after our chord were cut or mute. I myself have lived for 50 years through three presidents – the first two died before they left power, yet people could demonstrate. But under Hosni Mubarak we learned and finally believed that there is no hope. Many were convinced that if you are not corrupt you would be loosing out.

NextBillion.net: How could this shape the roles of the state, the private sector and civil society and the relationship between them in the future?

Iman: If and when the revolution succeeds then we will have a different world and reality. The transition will not be sudden, immediate or smooth. Almost certainly there will be pretenders and opportunists. But in the end, democracy will prevail and freedom for the first time in our history – (will be) real and not pretentious.

NextBillion.net: What will be Ashoka’s role and that of its fellows to help create a more inclusive Egypt?

Iman: The role of Ashoka and its Fellows will be more important than before, hopefully facilitated through more appropriate frameworks and legislations to achieve the impact that is needed.

NextBillion.net: Thank you very much, Iman! All the very best!