Egyptian Women Comment on US Civil Society: An Interview with Rick Cohen

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Three young Egyptian women working in the United States as Atlas Service Corps fellows agreed to speak to the Nonprofit Quarterly about what they are learning in the U.S. nonprofit sector, and what they will bring back as lessons, skills, cautions, and ideas for an Egyptian civil society that is in the middle of a revolution that is far from over. The weekly demonstrations continue in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, filled with protests about the persistent increases in food prices (which led to some of the original protests), the reluctance or failure of the interim government to prosecute police and security forces that shot and killed peaceful protesters during the spring, and the emergence of an increasingly powerful “Islamist” movement of Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood activists advocating a more religious future for the nation that is “neither secular nor liberal”.

To have left Egypt close to the start of the historic overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime and come to the United States for a year of “direct service fellowships at organizations to learn best practices, build organizational capacity, and return home to create a network of global changemakers” puts these three young women—Sally Salem, May Kosba, and Mirette Bahgat—between two worlds. They get to experience a sliver of the nonprofit sector through their work with host organizations in the United States (that pay $29,500 in a VISTA/AmeriCorps-like cost-sharing for their full-time service) while watching the turmoil of their homeland from afar. 

Sally Salem is working at the Grameen Foundation, but it is hardly her first experience in the non-governmental sector. In Egypt, she worked for a variety of NGOs, designing and training people in program development. Placed at the National Conference on Citizenship, May Kosba has been a fundraising consultant, grant-proposal writer, and trainer for several Egyptian nonprofits, and has represented Egyptian youth in the United States on various occasions. Mirette Bahgat comes from the community development sector, though she started her career as a banker with HSBC Egypt. Her Atlas Corps host is Civic Enterprises. 

An unfinished revolution

These may be young women, but they come to the United States with experience in Egyptian NGOs and with an acute sense of their roles in a political upheaval unlike any that has affected their home country since the overthrow of King Farouk by Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1952. Here is what May Kosba wrote in the Atlas Corps blog about the dynamic of the revolution and the protests occurring in Tahrir Square before she left for the United States: 

“Protesters were not just in Tahrir Square but in millions . . . across the republic echoing Tahrir’s demands. People took their political debates and arguments on the phones, on the streets, and online . . . Tahrir in Arabic means liberation. The protesters choice of protesting in Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 25th calling for freedom was symbolic. Yet the unintended outcome of their perseverance drastically altered the world’s estimation of the real power of Egyptians to force the former leadership to step down for the first time in approximately six thousand years of Egypt’s history . . . When millions risked their lives and took their anger to the streets, I had no other option but keep my anger indoors. This might come across as a proclamation of cowardice, but it was more likely a mixture of a stunned and paralyzed will to venture out to counter the violence and stay alive at the same time. Leaving was challenging due to lack of resources and information when communications were cut off, as well as danger lurking at every corner even on your way to Tahrir. Amid the chaos and chants echoed across the world, I, like many others, was busy watching the situation unfold on the ground on a foreign TV channel (Al-Jazeera).

Police released criminals from prisons to attack not just protestors, but also citizens. So the situation dictated that I had to stay home with my mother, sister, and grandmother to protect our house from thug attacks . . . Extensive debates and statements on Facebook and Twitter was my major role. I figured if people were encountering violence in Tahrir, the least I could do was tweet . . . And although I have been one tweet away from keeping the voices of protestors in Tahrir alive online, deep down in me I had my own demons and doubts about getting where we are today. But doing anything else but protesting for Tahrir, the liberation, and the square’s demands would have been treacherous to those who have lost their lives for our freedom.”

Sally Salem told NPQ, “The problems we had before the revolution are the same, [they] are not going to solve themselves.” In a distinctive way in the midst of an ongoing revolution, every Egyptian nonprofit has a potential social change role to play, whether or not it is directly engaged in the poverty and hunger issues, for example, motivating some of the Tahrir Square protesters. “Now everyone is aware that they can do something and they need to do something,” she said. Sally noted that prior to these protests, people were skeptical that anything could be done, but “now people are aware of something that they can do” through participation and civic engagement. It is an awareness that still escapes a great majority of people in the U.S. nonprofit sector who would never imagine themselves playing the kinds of active roles that these young women know they will inherit on their return.

But the Egyptian nonprofit sector faces challenges comparable to its U.S. counterpart. “There was a lot of corruption [in the nonprofit sector] and it was not very well received,” Sally said. “There is a huge number of NGOs in Egypt, thousands of organizations, but how many of them are effective?” she asked, answering, “less than a quarter, and I’m being optimistic here.” But after the revolution (or during it), “the media is perceiving nonprofits differently than before, the role of nonprofits [and] how nonprofits can engage in political discourse.” She thinks that Egyptian nonprofits will have to learn “how to be complete and professional.”

What will Egyptian organizations do in the wake of the revolution, when previously many might have been delivering U.S. aid and other resources as charities, not as community-development entities?  Despite being in the United States, Mirette Bahgat is already working on the creation of a new nonprofit in Egypt. Inspired by the interreligious (or multidenominational) character of U.S. nonprofits, Mirette is working to create an interfaith NGO in Egypt to build bridges between the Christian (Coptic) and Muslim communities. “We have intolerance to religious diversity in general, not just from the Muslim side but from the Christian side, too, that isolated themselves from the community and considered themselves separate from Egyptian society,” she says. Her exposure to an interfaith youth action group in Chicago doing community service together was the inspiration for this project.   

May Kosba is Mirette’s partner in the interfaith planning. She says, “A lot of Christians and Muslim communities know nothing about each other.” Oddly, the advent of the revolution itself may be “a good time to introduce [the religions] to each other, try to have them create a national goal, and do community service.” Mirette, May, and their colleagues in Egypt have already outlined the program and structure they want to use to connect young people from different communities and organizations, hope to start raising money in September of this year, and anticipate starting up interfaith dialogues next March.

The Egyptian nonprofit sector, according to May, has to overcome another problem—that of dependency and corruption linked to foreign aid. “Egypt is relying on foreign aid, and that’s part of the problem,” she said. “Americans are very advanced in fundraising, [but] there is no fundraising in Egypt.”  As many people know, it isn’t just dependency on U.S. aid but also a level of corruption because of how many NGOs were actually created by Egyptian politicians.

Lessons and questions about America

The observations of U.S. nonprofits by these three women are in a way a mirror for us.  Do U.S. nonprofits really live up to the qualities that these women find admirable enough to consider applying to their work in Egypt when they return this year or next? 

For Sally Salem, a striking characteristic of U.S. nonprofits in contrast to those in Egypt is how managerially “flat” they are.  “The first week I was here, the CEO was going to happy hour [with the staff],” she said.  “If someone did something, they can get high fives…There is a relationship with respect, but it is not always the same back home.”  Sally admitted that she didn’t know if “all of them are walking the talk” about being managerially flat, but she said that “This is something I like and can take back home, how things are done professionally, the relationship between me and my boss…the way she gives me freedom to think and give feedback.”

Mirette’s experience in a way reflects the flatness of the nonprofit sector.  Though working at Civic Enterprises, Mirette’s boss happened to be a board member of the Earth Conservation Corps doing work in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood.  Desiring field work, she linked up with the Conservation Corps and has been able to work with Planters Peanuts in helping create Marvin Gaye Park.  Her work in Anacostia, where she says she was “shocked” about the condition of young people in the area and “wouldn’t have imagined in the capital of the strongest country in the world that I would see a community with such deep problems, most of the youth have dropped out of school, crime rate very high.”  But through her boss, she could be both doing high level research on rural education policies at Civic Enterprises while spending substantial time working with kids in Anacostia.  The flatness of the U.S. nonprofit sector is sometimes inter- and well as intra-organizational.  

The United States must perplex people who come here from countries that struggle without one iota of the wealth and assets we have.  Writing in the Atlas Corps blog, Mirette Bahgat, described one of the contradictions she found in her Anacostia work that in many ways confounds American observers as well: 

“Before I came to the U.S., I thought that Americans had no problems. After all, it’s the most powerful- and richest- country in the world. But the picture started to change gradually when I saw the homeless people in D.C., and the people living in my neighborhood. The scene changed completely when I started my field work at the Anacostia community. Poverty and the living conditions of people there is devastating. This community suffers from high crime rates, poor quality of education, and unemployment. The youth I encountered during my work at Earth Conservation Corps had lots of struggles in their life; listening to their stories broke my heart and I was angry that no one is doing something about such issues.”

What perplexed Mirette?  “I just have one question in mind: Why is the U.S. government distributing Aid everywhere around the world, and then turning a blind eye to such a major issues and problems inside its nation? I believe that those youth deserve a better life, and they won’t be able to break out of the poverty cycle without someone helping them out.

Sally expressed another item of some confusion: “if another nonprofit is doing work like ours, they are competitors,” she told NPQ, describing the nonprofit attitude she encountered in the States. “But it’s not how things really are, we are all having the same aim.” She seemed to have encountered the interorganizational competitiveness among U.S. nonprofits that so often undermines collaboration for social change. In Egypt, they might not have the luxury of the sometimes-picayune mentality that keeps American nonprofits playing zero-sum games with others over access to financial and human resources.  Another issue Sally could have asked about was whether American nonprofits are truly walking their talk where collaboration is concerned. . . .

Mirette saw a different kind of collaborative practice underway—collaboration between nonprofits and the government.  In Egypt, she said, “in the nonprofit sector, we always had problems with the government. We were more competitors than collaborators, and there was more competition.” To affect something as big as the scale of change occurring in Egypt, she said, “you need this kind of organization.”  She suggested that “many organizations were established by politicians [because] it gives them more credit when they are running for office.”

For Mirette, another intriguing aspect of the U.S. nonprofit sector—and of U.S. society in general—was its transparency: “Transparency was something we missed in Egypt,” she said. “When you try to find statistics and information about the problem, we don’t have reliable bodies that can collect information and issue statistics.” The United States is a sector that collects and publishes statistical information about itself. It is a characteristic that needs to be continued.

Going forward and going back home

These three women are admirable and smart—without question—but Sally suggested that Americans tend to get a little carried away with unregulated adjectives: “Everything is ‘awesome,’ ‘big,’ ‘you’re great’ . . . the use of adjectives is big, and you wouldn’t find that in Europe or back home” she said.  “When we arrived here, we were always told ‘you are the best leaders’; when they met me, they said I’m the best thing in the world. [But when] I think [about] people who have been imprisoned or tortured or gone through hard things in their lives, I’m not really the best.”    

Mirette credited the youth of Egypt for the social change that began earlier this year: “The youth are the ones who had first of all the belief; the thing we lacked at one point was having the faith in change,” she said. “The youth were the ones who had the belief and the faith that, ‘no, we can change, government is merely a bunch of people.’ This kind of motivated the youth to take an action [even though] it could cost them their lives, it could cost them everything.”  Of the many inspirational aspects of the protests that overthrew Mubarak, even as unsettled as things still are, the role of young people in taking to the streets and seeing possibilities that their parents might not have stands out. Parsing out the all-too-American overuse of hyperbole, perhaps the “awesomeness” is in finding young women who left their homes and families in the midst of protests and gunshots, and who intend to return to a place where the situation may be no less turbulent than when they left it behind.   

Predicting what the outcome of their work in the United States will have on Egypt is all but impossible.  Sally noted that “things are changing very fast, everything that has been happening has been totally unpredictable . . . It was a crumbling country, it was clear that it was going to fall anyway,” she said. “But what people did not expect was that the Ministry of Interior was going to fall that quickly, and that the country was that fragile. . . . Before, we were in a vicious cycle, there was no hope [and] it was very hard for a person like me to think that I would live and die with no hope,” she added. “But now there is hope that some change is going to happen. . . .  We are going to make mistakes because it is all new to us.  It is going to be a hard process—we have some very hard years to come.” 

At a recent Oslo Freedom Forum gathering, one of the young leaders of the Tahrir Square protests, Wael Ghonim, described the Arab Spring affecting much of the Middle East as something like a “freedom flu.” The revolutions are still very much in play—fragile, to be sure, but changing the nature of day-to-day life in these countries. Ghonim told the Oslo gathering about having asked a taxi driver back home whether he was happy with the changes occurring in Egypt. The driver responded, “I am breathing freedom.” It will be heartening to see these modest, serious young women’s undoubtedly valuable contribution toward overcoming the poverty and despair that can so easily undermine the freedoms that they, Ghonim, and the taxi driver all want—and which the revolution seeks to effect.