Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Challenges ahead

The government’s decision to freeze the assets of charitable organisations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood faces many challenges, writes Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mahmoud Samaha, the 32-year-old father of three children, has been depending on the help of Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya, a giant Islamic charity organisation, since he was born.

Samaha was raised in one of Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya’s orphanages, and this helped him to get his bachelor’s degree in commerce and now employs him to run one of its offices in the Shobra Al-Kheima district of Cairo.

Following the government’s decision to freeze Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya’s assets because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Samaha spent almost three nights in the office to assure the poor people in his district that his organisation would do whatever it takes to provide them with the monthly aid they rely on and that it would work with the authorities to solve the issue.

“You cannot imagine how many poor people live in this area. The government has never done anything for them. We are the only organisation that has reached them and provided them with employment, medical services and education,” he said.

The crisis started last week when the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) froze the assets of 1,055 NGOs accused of connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, now designated as a “terrorist group” by the Egyptian government. The action was in line with the justice ministry’s recent decision to dismantle Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organisations in September following a court ruling by the administrative court.

The court ruling banned all Muslim Brotherhood activities and confiscated the group’s assets, but the substance of the ruling depends on the results of another investigation currently run by a committee formed by the ministries of social solidarity, justice and interior to investigate the connections between the 1,055 NGOs and the Muslim Brotherhood after the organisation was designated as a terrorist organisation last week as a result of threats to national security and disturbances to public order.

The government on Friday also ordered a freeze on the assets of all members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance bureau and the latter’s linked NGOs.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood statement, a total of 132 Brotherhood leaders saw their assets frozen in execution of a judicial ruling to ban their activities and take over their assets. These assets include cars and agricultural land as well as privately owned shares in companies listed on the stock market.

However, after harsh criticisms from political parties and rights groups, the government tried to mitigate the negative effects of the decision by saying that the majority of the NGOs would continue to provide social services but under the supervision of committees formed from officials from the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed Al-Boraai said that he had met with representatives from different NGOs who had suggested such measures until the government had finished its investigations and allowed the cleared organisations to operate freely.  

Freezing the assets of the 1,055 NGOs was a risk the interim government took following the labelling of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. The consequences of this decision may create a state of resentment among millions of ordinary Egyptians who depend on the services provided by many of the NGOs, especially Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya, and Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamediya, which many consider to be the backbone of the Islamic social service network run mainly by Salafis and infiltrated occasionally by Muslim Brotherhood elements.

Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya is one of the oldest charitable organisations in Egypt and was established in 1912. According to its website, it has 4,974 offices in 24 governorates. These help at least 50,000 orphans and widows by providing housing and monthly stipends. The group also runs some 1,317 local schools, mainly in villages, to help fight illiteracy. It also helps the families of 47,390 students by its conditional cash transfer programmes to help them keep their children in schools. 

The organisation runs around 30 hospitals, local clinics and more specialised centres, including those for premature infants, kidney and liver diseases, eye care, and other conditions. It also sends out an average of two medical caravans a week, treating over 43,000 mobile cases annually. This is in addition to its smaller, often part-time, one-doctor clinics.

Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamediya was founded in 1926 and is much smaller than Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya. It tends to focus more on the preaching and dissemination of Islam by building mosques and giving courses to young preachers. However, it also provides social services for thousands of orphans and poor people in at least 17 governorates. 

The group has made notable contributions to sending humanitarian aid to Muslims in countries affected by war or natural disasters, an activity closely monitored by the security agencies in Egypt in order to avoid its being involved in transferring aid or money to militant groups.

Both organisations are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, as required by Law 32/1964 and its successors.

“We have been helping millions of Egyptians for more than a century. I do not think that our reward should be to have our assets frozen,” said Sheikh Mohamed Mokhtar, chairman of Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya. He added that for more than 100 years there had not been an incident of the organisation being involved in politics or running for any governmental or legislative seat. “We focus on helping people regardless of their religious or political affiliation or nationality,” Mokhtar said. 

However, Mokhtar may have been talking only about the officially announced goals and doctrine of the organisation, which was established by Mahmoud Al-Sobki, once close to Egypt’s former royal family. According to Steve Borko, a researcher in Islamism at Texas University in the US, the organisations’ social service networks expanded significantly during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak and, before him, Anwar Al-Sadat. Tacit bargains between the Islamist groups and the regime secured their social service networks.

After the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011, these two organisations became major players in the political game, especially with the rise of the Salafis in both the presidential and parliamentary elections. There was evidence that both organisations had supported the Islamists in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Election monitors reported that Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya and Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamediya had mobilised support for the Nour Party Salafi candidates and had helped fund the Party and assist it in setting up offices.

The Nour Party chose many of its candidates from local branches of the two organisations. Election monitors also noted that large volunteer networks had campaigned for the Nour Party during the elections and had helped the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, in the presidential elections. Mokhtar himself announced in a statement in May 2012 that Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya would be supporting Morsi in the contest with former prime minister Ahmed Shafik.

“We announce our support for Mohamed Morsi in the run off against Ahmed Shafik. We consider Morsi to be a guardian for the ‘Islamic Project’ and he is the only candidate who can protect the revolution from the counter-revolutionary forces,” Mokhtar said in a statement following a board meeting of the organisations.

There is no evidence that the two organisations have supported the Muslim Brotherhood financially over the past three years. Nevertheless, in June 2011 the ministry of international cooperation revealed that the Ansar Al-Sunna had received approximately LE181 million from Qatar. The group went all out to defend itself, including statements to the major Egyptian papers, even releasing documents on its website. Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya was accused of receiving illegal funds from Salafist groups in Kuwait in March 2011.

Abdallah Al-Naggar, a member of the Al-Azhar Research Body, said that Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya had never been involved in politics but had been pushed in the direction of political mobilisation after the revolution by the Salafis’ main body, the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya, and it may have contributed financially to the Nour Party’s campaign.

He said that Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya had realised its mistake of being involved a few months after Morsi was elected, and that it had then wanted to return to its former role of providing social services to the poor. 

The Ansar Al-Sunna Al-Mohamediya entered politics earlier, and according to many experts Muslim Brotherhood members have been running many of its local offices. This means that the group will now likely be under intensive supervision from the government and the security forces and that it is unlikely to see its assets unfrozen.

Freezing the assets of these two organisations could lead to a clash between the Nour Party, whose support mainly comes from its grassroots support in Al-Gameaya Al-Shareaya, and the interim government. However, the ultraconservative Salafist Party supported the deposition of Morsi and has denounced the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent actions, so acting against its main source of support will not be easy. According to Nader Bakkar, the Nour Party’s deputy chairman, the party would continue to support the two organisations until their assets are unfrozen.

“If by issuing this decision the government believes it is punishing the Muslim Brotherhood, it is mistaken,” Bakkar said. “The poor and orphans are the ones who will be punished.”

Bakkar also criticised the authorities for failing to announce the reasons for its decision. “This isn’t a simple decision,” Bakkar said. “The ministry of social solidarity should have at least confirmed that the decision had been made.” However, he said that if the government had firm evidence against any charitable organisation, it had the right to freeze its assets or monitor its activities.

Wahid Abdel-Maguid, an expert on the organisations, said that the government had not considered the needs of poor people who make up the majority of Egypt’s population when taking its decision. He said that there were alternatives, such as establishing a mechanism to monitor suspicious activities, and that this had been done by the majority of other countries.

“The government has to understand that it does not reach all the villages and cities to help poor people, and the Islamist and Coptic charities are the only providers in these areas,” Abdel-Maguid said.

 

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