TIME Egypt

Egypt’s Orphans Struggle Long After Childhood Ends

The problem with Egypt's orphanages goes way beyond isolated cases of abuse, and extends to how society as a whole views "children of sin"

Nahla El-Nemr knew the moment was coming but that still didn’t make it any easier.

As a fourth-year student at an Egyptian institute for training social workers, El-Nemr’s studies required her to spend several months training in a large Cairo orphanage. When her group of 15 students arrived at the facility, El-Nemr’s fellow classmates were shocked to discover that she knew everyone there. The 30-year-old was forced to come clean about her background. “I told them, ‘By the way guys, this isn’t just an orphanage. It’s my home,’” she says.

That was a significant confession to make, in a country where growing up an orphan makes you — in El-Nemr’s words — a “street child, unclean, child of sin, a beggar.” It’s also one of the reasons she’s joined a growing movement of activists dedicated not just to improving the conditions for Egypt’s 12,000 orphans, but also to overturning the social stigma that can leave orphans like El-Nemr restricted to the margins of society throughout their adult lives.

The plight of Egypt’s orphans was recently forced onto the national radar by a disturbing video showing a man purported to be the director of a small orphanage in Giza repeatedly beating and kicking several terrified young children in his care. The video — allegedly filmed and posted by the director’s estranged wife — prompted the closure of the Dar Mecca al-Mokarama Orphanage and the arrest of the director as well as a wave of national debate about the issue.

egypt orphanage
Click the image to see the video on egyptianstreets.com website, showing abuse at the Dar Mecca al-Mokarama Orphanage

These activists are quick to point out that not all Egyptian orphanages are bad or abusive, but they say physical, emotional and even sexual abuse is far more common than publicly reported. “If you want to search for good orphanages and successful models, you will definitely find them,” says Yasmine El-Hagry, an administrator with the children’s-rights NGO Wataneya. “But that video is not news to us. We know there are lots of violations.”

The roots of the problem are numerous, but the lack of proper training for caregivers and personnel inside Egyptian orphanages is cited as a key factor by both government officials and independent children’s-rights activists. In Egypt’s extremely class-conscious society, the job of children’s caregiver is regarded as low-class, with meager pay and minimal respect. “The job of a social worker or a caregiver is not an attractive job in this country,” Ghada Wali, the newly installed Minister of Social Solidarity, says. “You can not have people who are undertrained and underpaid and expect them to do a good job.”

Not only are workers typically inexperienced and poorly compensated, but there also aren’t enough of them to go round. The country has more than 450 orphanages, the vast majority run by private NGOs under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Many of these facilities are operating at less than 50% capacity, Wali says.

This surplus of orphanages is motivated partially by religious beliefs. According to Islamic tradition, to feed, clothe and shelter an orphan is a powerful source of sawab — a sort of celestial extra credit. But many wealthy donors in Egypt would rather open their own facility and put their name on it than donate to an existing orphanage. Unfortunately, some fail to consider what comes next. “The problem here is that people feel that if they open an orphanage and provide an orphan with a roof, food and a bed then they’ve done their job. To me that’s maybe 20% of the job,” says Flavia Shaw-Jackson, founder of the NGO FACE, which runs its own network of local orphanages.

Wali, who was appointed five months ago, says one of her first acts as minister was to suspend the issuing of new orphanage licenses and initiate a review of her ministry’s inspection standards and protocols.

Those government inspections aren’t insufficient, according to El-Hagry and other children’s-rights activists, so much as they are aimed at the wrong thing. The inspectors, they say, tend to focus almost exclusively on the bureaucratic aspects of running a facility — is the paperwork in order, is the kitchen well maintained and is the flow of donations sufficient? — and not the human aspects. “Whether or not the children are trembling and look frightened or the general psychological well-being of the children — that isn’t really considered,” El-Hagry says.

The most widespread problem afflicting Egyptian orphans isn’t necessarily direct abuse, but simple emotional neglect. While their basic physical needs may be met, many live with a minimum of human warmth. “I’ve seen babies lying day and night in cots with the windows closed — no touch or tenderness or sources of stimulation. You see children with no life in their eyes,” says Shaw-Jackson.

But it doesn’t end at childhood. Egyptian orphans often find it nearly impossible to fully integrate into mainstream society outside the orphanage walls. Egypt’s close-knit family-centric culture is simultaneously extremely sympathetic to orphans and extremely suspicious of them. Western-style adoption is illegal, however a modified foster-care system known as kefala does exist. But children taken in under the kefala system are forbidden by law from inheritance or taking the family’s last name, and there remains a limited appetite among Egyptians for taking orphans into their homes.

That’s because being an orphan in Egypt is akin to being in a lower caste of people. Orphans are widely labeled as “children of sin” and assumed to be the illegitimate and abandoned products of extramarital sex. This label follows them throughout life, making it difficult for orphans to attend public schools or universities and nearly impossible for them to marry a nonorphan.

El-Hagry, from the Wataneya NGO, says many orphans feel compelled to “live in the closet” whenever they attempt to integrate into mainstream society. Until two years ago when the law was changed, national ID cards would immediately signify the owner as an orphan to a police officer, potential employer or landlord who knew what to look for.

El-Nemr, the adult orphan who now works as a volunteer coordinator for Wataneya, recalls years of hiding her orphan status from classmates and co-workers. As a teenager, she resisted the wishes of her orphanage director, who tended to send all of the girls to the local nursing institute. But El-Nemr insisted on attending a public high school and pursuing a secondary education. When told by the director that such ambitions were beyond her reach, El-Nemr personally submitted her papers to the local high school and was accepted.

In school, only a tiny circle of her friends and a few teachers knew she was an orphan. “If all of my classmates knew, it would have been a nightmare,” she says. “But I was smart and that helped protect me. Some of my sisters [a term she uses for all of her fellow orphans from the same facility] did the same thing because of my example and they had a very bad time.”

In college she maintained the same closeted existence until she was involuntarily outed by the training semester in her home orphanage. When she and a fellow orphan decided to move out and get their own apartment, she found herself having to lie to the landlord — saying her parents lived overseas. When she took a job at a prominent publishing house, she was enraged when one of her close friends accidentally revealed her orphan status to her co-workers. Luckily, she says, her employers only found out after she had been working there for six months. If it had been known from the start that she was an orphan, El-Nemr said she either wouldn’t have been hired or would have been forced to quit.

“I feel like people think we’re abnormal,” she says. “At best they start feeling sorry for me and I don’t want that. That’s actually worse than the ones that treat me bad because I’m an orphan. I don’t want or need their pity.”

TIME Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood Struggles in a New Egypt

Student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Mursi flee from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police during clashes at Al-Azhar University's campus, in Cairo's Nasr City district, May 9, 2014.
Student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Mursi flee from tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police during clashes at Al-Azhar University's campus, in Cairo's Nasr City district, May 9, 2014. Amr Abdallah Dalsh—Reuters

The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to regroup from a crackdown of historic proportions, after Egypt's military ousted longtime Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi from the presidency and jailed much of the group's leadership

The Muslim Brotherhood is no stranger to official repression. The venerable Islamist organization has been subject to regular government purges for most of its 86-year history. Along the way, the Brotherhood has developed a resilient and adaptable command structure—one designed to withstand the arrest of multiple members of its senior leadership.

But even for an organization accustomed to operating outside the law, the group’s current circumstances are unprecedented. The military’s ousting of longtime Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi from the presidency last July has yielded the most challenging phase in the group’s existence. As Egypt heads for a late-May presidential election—one widely expected to be a forgone-conclusion victory for former Defense Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi—the Brotherhood finds itself scattered, suppressed, weakened and politically isolated even from other non-Islamist opponents of military rule.

The monolithic Islamist organization that dominated the first two years after the 2011 revolution has been purged from public life on a scale that hasn’t been seen since 1954 under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“If we compare numbers and casualties, it’s much worse than even Nasser,” said Dr. Islam Abdel Rahman, a former political advisor to the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party—also now banned.

The vast majority of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership have been jailed, including Supreme Guide Mohammed Badea, his deputy Kheirat al-Shater and much of the decision-making Guidance Bureau. Brotherhood officials estimate that at least 16,000 alleged street-level members remain jailed. Hundreds of Brotherhood members have already been sentenced to death, including Badea himself, although all of those sentences still face an appeals process.

As the crackdown has deepened—the Brotherhood was officially declared a terrorist organization in December—what remains of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership has scattered into a sort of multi-polar Islamist diaspora centered in Istanbul, London and the Qatari capital of Doha.

Observers and allies of the Brotherhood say the group’s short-term strategy has settled into a modified waiting game: keeping up the street-level pressure inside Egypt with ongoing protests, while biding its time, waiting for Sisi’s popularity to wane and marshaling support inside and outside of Egypt.

The shattering of the Brotherhood’s ranks has already wreaked havoc with the group’s once-renowned discipline and command structure. But supporters of the group insist its decision-making structure endures.

“The top three tiers are gone, so tier four moves up,” said Dr. Wael Haddara, a former political advisor to deposed president Mohamed Morsi. Haddara, like Abdel Rahman, denies he is an actual member of the Brotherhood, but he remains in contact with the remaining senior officials and has acted as one of the group’s ambassadors in meetings with foreign governments. “From what I understand, the hierarchy is still very much intact,” he said. “The communications have had to devolve to more low-tech and more secure methods. I don’t think [Brotherhood leaders] are sending a lot of emails.”

One of the key aspects of Brotherhood strategy going forward is also one of the hardest: forging alliances with other revolutionary elements opposed to military rule. But those secularist revolutionary forces are exactly the people that the Brotherhood alienated over the course of Morsi’s divisive and polarizing year in power.

Morsi’s reign—particularly the brutal struggle to push through his controversial constitution—burned virtually every bridge between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s more secular revolutionary forces. By the time al-Sisi launched his popularly backed coup, Morsi’s support had shrunk down to the Brotherhood’s absolute hardcore loyalist base and the group had alienated just about every non-Islamist who might defend them.

Nine months later, that political isolation remains, despite the Brotherhood’s ongoing attempts to repair those alliances and rally support. The Anti-Coup Alliance—the closest thing to a public Brotherhood support base on the ground in Egypt—remains almost entirely made up of Islamist parties and factions; attempts to forge fresh alliances with secularist groups have been consistently rebuffed.

In the wake of the coup and the violent August clearing of a Brotherhood sit-in protest outside Cairo’s Rabaa Adaweya mosque, the group has reverted to its original revolutionary rhetoric—casting itself as the defender of the principles of the 2011 revolution and the true opponent of military rule. It’s a strategy that so far has prompted eye-rolling from secular revolutionaries, who view the Brotherhood as having betrayed those principles at almost every opportunity in the course of a cynical and disastrous power grab.

“The [Muslim Brotherhood] made a decision starting with Rabaa to throw in their lot with the revolution,” Haddara said. “Clearly not everyone on the revolutionary spectrum appreciates that position or are onboard with it.”

Haddara, an emergency room doctor who now lives in Canada, said many of those secularist revolutionaries are essentially waiting for a series of public apologies before they will even deal with the group again. If so, they’re likely to keep waiting. The group, in recent months, had begun internally debating the mistakes and missteps of the Morsi era, Haddara said. But those discussions are so far being kept behind closed doors.

“It’s happening now,” he said. “I’m hearing more and more self-criticism. The question is: Is making these discussions public something that’s going to help Egypt or do the opposite?”

A key element of the Brotherhood’s short-term strategy has involved simply laying low and letting the current military-backed government do its work for it by alienating original supporters of the coup against Morsi. Brotherhood officials and allies have barely restrained their public glee at a series of government missteps and blunders—including the recent death sentences against more that 500 Brotherhood cadres in a trial that lasted two sessions and the internationally-mocked, military-backed announcement of a cure for AIDS and Hepatitis C.

“I laughed my ass off,” when the bogus AIDS cure was announced, said Hamza Sarawy, a spokesman for the Anti-Coup Alliance.

But while those missteps may serve to turn some Egyptians away from the military, that alienation doesn’t necessary translate into a willingness to stand alongside the Brotherhood. As Egypt shows every sign of striving to move on without the Brotherhood, the group’s remaining supporters will have to find a way to heal that deeply personal and bitter rift if they want to truly emerge from the political wilderness.

“We are offering our hand. Each side has done a lot of damage to the other side,” said Abdel Rahman, who now lives in the U.K. “Each side needs to make a leap of faith.”

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

TIME Egypt

Egypt’s al-Sisi Sheds Uniform, Readies for Presidency

People walk past a banner for Egypt's army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo March 26, 2014.
People walk past a banner for Egypt's army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo March 26, 2014. Mohamed Abd El Ghany—Reuters

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the country's army chief, resigned on Wednesday and confirmed worldwide expectations that he intended to run for the presidency following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi last July. There are few signs anyone can stop his rise to power

In Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi’s dream, approximately 35 years ago, he chatted with late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The two men exchanged pleasantries and Sadat told Sisi he always knew he was destined to lead Egypt. Sisi replied, “I also know that I’m going to be president of the republic.”

Sisi discussed his prophetic presidential dreams during an off-the-record digression in a newspaper interview last year; audio of that portion was leaked last December. Such revelations in just about any other democratic country would have doomed the career of any politician. But Sisi is no ordinary politician and supporters here say the leaks may actually have helped Sisi and burnished his credentials as a child of destiny.

Sisi’s long-awaited entry into Egypt’s upcoming presidential race caps a dizzying rise to prominence. Just two years ago, Sisi was a political unknown plucked from comparative obscurity in August 2012 and elevated to defense minister by then-President Mohammed Morsi. Within a year Sisi had ousted Morsi from power in the face of massive street protests. Shortly thereafter, Sisi-mania was in full swing.

The country has been waiting for Sisi to announce his intentions for months. He enters the race as the overwhelmingly frontrunner—beneficiary of an intense cult-of-personality that is in part manufactured, but also taps into genuine popular support for a military strongman. Posters of Sisi’s face have blanketed the country for months and a host of political and religious leaders have been lining up to endorse him. In January, pro-military demonstrators in Tahrir Square wore Pharaoh-style gold Sisi masks with no apparent sense of irony about what such symbolism portends for the country’s fledgling democracy.

“There is nobody today who has the popularity of this man. That is a fact,” says Amr Badr, a prominent local businessman with close ties to the military and an active supporter of Sisi’s presidential goals. “I am convinced that Egypt needs a strong popular president with a great deal of respect.”
Egypt is no stranger to media-inflated cults of personality. But the sheer intensity of the Sisi worship is somewhat curious given that Egyptians still know very little about the man beyond the bare biographic details.

“He’s basically this mystery man. Despite the cult of personality, we don’t know that much about him,” says Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director for International Crisis Group and a longtime Egypt resident. “Obviously he benefits from the love of the military. But beyond that we know very little of Sisi and his personality, temperament and beliefs.”

Joshua Stacher, formerly based in Egypt and now an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University, offers a harsher assessment. “He doesn’t seem to have a political plan. He doesn’t seem to have an economic plan. The only thing we’ve seen him do for the past eight months is launch a war on terror and repress dissent,” says Stacher, author of the book Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria.

Badr, the businessman and Sisi supporter, says the former Defense Minister’s personal charisma and communication-style are as much the source of his popularity as his connection to the military. “He is seen as one of the people. He’s not an elitist and he has very good body language,” Badr says. “He’s very simple—in a good way. He doesn’t use sophisticated language.”

Wednesday night’s announcement—delivered in full uniform from what looked like a lush garden—was Sisi’s first real address to the Egyptian people since his announcement of Morsi’s ouster last July. “This is my last day as a soldier,” he said, “But I will battle every day for the sake of Egypt.”

He spoke calmly and softly, like a father seeking to reassure a frightened child, and, like JFK-on-the-Nile, repeatedly emphasized the responsibility citizens bear for the well-being of their country. “Building the future is a communal effort,” he said, then repeated the line a second time for emphasis.
Sisi also took pains to point out that despite the likelihood of Egypt being led by yet another military man, this was not a return to the days of Hosni Mubarak. No man could lead Egypt, “without the support of the people…those days are over,” he said.

Now begins the real test. As Sisi sheds his uniform and enters the muck of the political arena, can he maintain the Teflon coating that has shielded him so far even as Egypt’s post-coup government has struggled in the face of mounting criticism? Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy resigned his post last month in the face of widespread criticism over the government’s performance and a wave of labor strikes.

Sisi’s military faced its own embarrassing scandal earlier this year when it backed and promoted a fringe doctor who claimed to have invented a device that cures both AIDS and Hepatitis C. The doctor was granted an honorary military rank and his press conference was sponsored by the army. The issue was hushed up in the face of international mockery, but Sisi seems to have somehow escaped personal blame for the scandal.

The upcoming campaign season will be short and intense. An exact date has not been announced yet, but the vote is expected to take place within about six weeks. Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist candidate who finished a surprisingly strong 3rd place in the 2012 presidential elections, is the only serious contender who has declared his candidacy. Other potential contenders such as 4th place 2012 finisher Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh have announced plans to sit out the race. Aboul Fotouh claimed it was because the proceedings would be “a farce,” but Badr, the Sisi supporter, theorized that Aboul Fotouh and other potential contenders “are simply hiding from defeat” in the face of Sisi’s popularity.

The Muslim Brotherhood is also sitting this race out: the Islamist organization and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party have both been banned. After the election season begins, Egyptian police and courts continue to harshly purge the Brotherhood from public and political life. The organization has been declared a terrorist group, mere membership has been criminalized and a southern Egyptian judge recently sentenced more than 500 alleged Brotherhood members to death in a trial that lasted exactly two sessions.

“We’re not in this just to give legitimacy to someone else,” says a member of Sabbahi’s campaign team, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t officially authorized to speak to the media. Nevertheless, Sisi’s ascension to the presidency is widely regarded as a foregone conclusion. However his campaign—backed by a heavily biased national media—will be pushing hard to make sure their man wins by a wide an unassailable margin.
Badr says Sisi absolutely needs to win by far more than the 51% which produced the Morsi presidency in order to claim a true mandate to govern.
“Even 54% is still not good. We need a president who can draw 60% of the vote,” he says. “That would be perfect for Egypt. That would produce a president who can make the tough decisions.”

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