Egypt: strengthening communities in a divided country

Behind the protests, politics and power struggles that have dominated recent headlines about Egypt, it is easy to forget that there are people living at a local level, trying to go about their daily lives.

This is the context in which the Active Citizens programme finds itself operating. And so it adapts, bringing communities together, encouraging engagement with local issues and then supporting a sustainable response. What may be surprising is the difference between the issues faced locally, and those being played out in the world’s media. 

As the uprising was gathering pace towards the end of 2012, two social action projects were also growing in stature. Here the Active Citizens who created them describe the transformative effect on themselves and their local community.

Family Ties 

‘My name is Ayman Mohammed Alshahed, I am 25 years old and I work in marketing. I wanted to get involved in Active Citizens after a friend told me it would help me start my own business. When I realised it was a community development programme, I was very sceptical. I used to believe that actions to help the local community are in vain and have no significant impact. Now I have managed my own social action project, I understand that if you have clear objectives and a good plan, the impact can be more than you or anyone else expected. 

Our project aimed to strengthen family ties in Egypt. There are a lot of institutions working in Egypt towards improving social, political and economic conditions but we realised that people cannot get jobs, and the economy cannot develop, without strong ethics and family values. Ethics are the foundation to which we should all pay attention. 

We feel committed to pursuing this initiative and are drafting more courses for couples who are about to get married. I want to assure all Egyptians that the secret to a more secure, stable, successful Egypt lies at home, in the family.

First we talked to experts in psychology and sociology and drafted a plan based on their recommendations. We drew up topics for lectures, aimed at helping family members communicate with each other. For six months we delivered lectures to 25 different families, who attended four lectures a month. At the end of each month, we ran a public seminar to review the learning and promote the next round of lectures to others. We were surprised to see how popular the lectures got. 

Our biggest success came with a 40 year old mother, who was married to an abusive husband who took his anger out on her and his children. The oldest boy had reached adolescence and was becoming disobedient and abusive himself. We invited the son to attend the lectures and of course he refused but we were persistent and eventually he accepted. I can say the life of the son has now completely changed – he is a volunteer with us now, and helps with other charitable organisations. Using what they learned in the lectures, the son and mother between them identified when to have dialogue with the father, and although he is still quick tempered they are able to cope better, and so the family is stronger. 

Over the course of the lectures, we listened to feedback and began aiming the lectures at people at different stages in their lives. For young people, we gave them advice on how to deal with each other when married. During the feedback sessions, many of the middle aged participants said they wished they had these lectures before they got married, because it would have made a great difference to their lives. 

 Egyptian Addiction 

My name is Manar Mohamed, I am 20 years old and I am a student at Helwan University, in South Cairo. While I was crafting my future there, I noticed a phenomenon which I could not remain silent about. A lot of young people were using hard drugs and I felt like I could not stand by. The idea of school kids having access to drugs devastated me. 

Although I was passionate about helping young people lead a more fruitful life, I did not have the skills or networks to do anything about it. Then I heard about the Active Citizens programme through a friend and the rest, as they say, is history. During my training I learned to be persistent, to stay motivated, to keep following my goals and to ensure the sustainability of my projects. 

We are very pleased with how the project has gone, and are now training more volunteers to work with us locally. Our next plans are to spread the idea of not just a year without addiction, but now a country without addiction.

Active Citizens gave me project management and budgeting skills, but perhaps most importantly it introduced me to other people in my local area who were also passionate about making a positive change. We got together and starting a social action project aimed at helping addicts, called ‘A Year Without Addiction’. 

We knew that we could not help addicts without professional help, so we approached Egypt’s National Drugs Control Organisation (NDCO). They were very enthusiastic about what we were doing and we ended up going into partnership. They trained us on how to work with addicts and we ran community workshops with them. 

We also distributed leaflets around the university, placing stickers in pharmacies and putting up posters on the streets to raise awareness about the dangers of addiction. We also approached people face-to-face to give them advice. This part was especially difficult as we faced difficulties from conservative members of the community who would not allow girls to approach men. Most people, though, were positive about what we were doing.