Working in Egypt After the Revolution

About a month ago, Mary Ayad, a friend of Coptic Orphans who is pursuing a doctorate in international law, asked how the January 25 Revolution in Egypt has impacted Coptic Orphans’ operations. We thought that the briefing we wrote for her would be interesting to others, too. 

Coptic Orphans has developed a two-pronged strategy for navigating realities in Egypt: first, work at change from the grassroots by giving power to the less powerless in society, rather than trying to wrestle power from the powerful; second, keep going until someone says, “no.”

Post-revolutionary realities in Egypt have made the organization more nimble and effective at what it was already doing best. The January 25, 2011 Egyptian Revolution has opened new doors for Coptic Orphans and—at the same time—put some obstacles in our way. Both have only deepened and strengthened the pre-revolutionary legal strategy of Coptic Orphans. There are two examples of this. First, Coptic Orphans’ strategy remains unchanged in the face of legal restrictions due to a perpetually stalled government NGO registration and perpetual emergency law in the country. Second, the revolution has actually supported the mission of Coptic Orphans for personal transformation among the country’s less powerful, despite apparent obstacles.

In 2007, the flagship program of Coptic Orphans underwent a dramatic change. The program transformed from a charity-based system of money distribution through local network of church-based volunteers who visit the homes of widows and orphans to a rights-based one. Volunteer “Reps” now assessed needs and set customized goals for the families they visited, which they tracked and followed-up. They also connected families to participatory workshops on life skills and other special topics.

But under the emergency law in nearly continuous effect since 1967, it is illegal to hold public gatherings. Coptic Orphans now had regular mother workshops, child workshops, and quarterly training meetings for its volunteer Reps. Some volunteer Reps expressed anxiety about repercussions from the Mubarak government when Coptic Orphans first began holding these meetings. After one meeting together, the majority of Reps decided that they would continue to build on the work of Coptic Orphans regardless of the political consequences.

The emergency law remains in effect even under the provisional military government, despite the fact that the current government has in practice been very lenient in enforcement. At the same time, the number of Coptic Orphans workshops has increased exponentially: from just over one hundred a year in 2009 to well over five hundred.

At the time that Coptic Orphans volunteers and staff were navigating emergency law while developing workshops that seemed in clear violation of those laws, it also seemed that the organization’s minority identity and foreign connections had permanently stalled its NGO registration paperwork in Egypt’s bureaucratic labyrinth. This put Coptic Orphans in a legal limbo and gave the government liberty to shut down the operations of the organization at any time. Coptic Orphans staff persistently pushed the issue with the Mubarak government. At the same time, the organization kept on operating and growing in Egypt.

If the Egyptian Revolution meant that some things remained unchanged, it also meant new obstacles and opportunities. In every way that the revolution has entailed change for the on-the-ground operations so far, it has deepened the strengths of the organization. Coptic Orphans has found fertile ground for its work with individuals. Even obstacles have pushed the organization deeper into the grassroots.

Staff initially took 24-hour shifts with sticks and other odd objects to guard the computers and equipment in the Coptic Orphans Cairo office from looters, and formed a neighborhood watch group with those who lived around the office. Obstacles have also included the difficulty of travel within Egypt in the face of local pockets of unrest, skyrocketing travel costs, and opportunistic crimes. The organization decided to decrease wider regional and national training and multi-day events so that Reps’ families would not go unprotected while they travel. Field staff adapted creatively. As the field management restricted training sessions to one-day events and pared down national-level meetings, volunteers and field staff opened a Facebook page to communicate.

On the other hand, the deeper and more significant obstacles that Coptic Orphans faced in pre-revolutionary Egypt evaporated. Under the Mubarak regime, the general attitude that Coptic Orphans volunteers encountered in their home visits was something like, “nothing will ever change, and nothing I can do would make anything change.” This attitude extended to nearly every sphere of life: not just the political, but also about challenging harmful village norms, the possibility of education, and even providing basic needs for one’s children. Now, even widows who—in accordance with Egyptian cultural norms and social expectations—have hardly set foot outside their homes since the death of their husbands 20 years ago are emerging from their social quarantine to vote. The revolution has awakened an awareness of the possible for even the rural poor in Egypt, and those like the widow and orphaned-fatherless who are on the margins of civic and social access. Through its 350-plus volunteers, Coptic Orphans already reaches into the remotest areas of nearly every area of Egypt, eager to present positive possibilities for the widow and the fatherless to grasp and transform into reality. Now, the rains of the revolution have suddenly produced soft and ready soil in the hearts of those whom Coptic Orphans reaches.

Some of the other positive effects of the revolution on the organization’s operations are less obvious, but grow out of the values that have developed in the field over 20+ years. For example, Michael was one of many program participants with Coptic Orphans who took part in street cleaning and beautification campaigns soon after the revolution, ignited and spurred on to do so by values-based workshop themes. He was painting with a group in front of a well-known Salafi Mosque when a group of men came out of the Mosque and confronted them for not taking part in the Friday salat. Michael, fired up from the recent workshops, explained their cause so eloquently that the group disbursed and one of the men gave Michael a donation to defray the cost of the paint.

Another example of less obvious, values-driven effects comes about a month and a half after the beginning of the revolution. Bedouins kidnapped the nephew of one volunteer Rep and held him for a ransom. The Rep’s training and work with Coptic Orphans had built his leadership skills, and he commanded tremendous respect in the village. Instead of allowing a small group to exploit the religious division of the village, the Rep rallied the village and men of the entire village gathered together, went into the desert, and rescued the Rep’s nephew.

Before and after the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, Coptic Orphans is used to facing the rim of the unknown and operating in the limbo around its brink. If anything, the revolution has helped Coptic Orphans be ever truer to its core strengths and strategy: operating from the grassroots among the powerless in order to transform their lives, with or without the support of the powerful.

About Nathan Hollenbeck

Nathan joined Coptic Orphans in 2006. It was his response to a call to help return Egypt’s hospitality to the Holy Family on behalf of Christ Emmanuel and the Theotokos, after they changed his own life as a youth. He has a passion to fulfill God’s command to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV)