Interview with Barbara Ibrahim

Interview with Barbara Ibrahim

Toys for orphans, tutoring for mentally disabled: voluntary dedication to the weaker is booming among young Egyptians. In this interview with Mona Sarkis, Barbara Ibrahim explains what is behind this


Dr. Ibrahim, for quite a while we have been hearing a lot about Egyptian bloggers and internet networks, for example the mass mobilisations for the general strike in April via Facebook. Is society in Egypt actually more eager to protest than in other Arab states?

Barbara Ibrahim: I don”t know whether there is more dissent per capita than for example in Lebanon or Syria, or whether the Egyptians are simply more visible because Egyptian security has temporarily loosened its grip – but recently that has changed again.

Nevertheless, broad-based reform activities are a rising phenomenon in Egypt, starting just a few years ago. Triggering moments were the protests against the Iraq war in 2003 and the growing public anger over the reaction of the Egyptian leadership to the second Palestinian intifada. People had hoped for genuine solidarity with the Palestinians.

The political impulse manifested itself especially in “Kefaya” (“Enough”), a protest movement that was initially a reaction against the Israeli occupation policy in the Palestinian territories, but then shifted to a call for local political reforms and – together with the Muslim Brotherhood – for free elections in Egypt.

It seems that especially charity organisations have become a mass movement these days.




Ibrahim: They are undoubtedly the most obvious manifestation of the frustration and urge for change felt by the Egyptian youth. Egypt is a highly centralised state; originally it had a social pact with its citizens: “You stay quiet and we protect and serve you.” Today, however, no one feels protected anymore. Prices are rising, people are without jobs and – most important – without pride, because of a feeling of being sold out to the West by their leaders. In short, the old social pact is invalid. At the same time, nobody knows what will come next.

Against this background young people started to organise themselves. But few have the courage to work on the political level, intimidated by the dictatorship. In this respect, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main force to be taken seriously. The rest of the population engages mainly in safer charity and social service work.

The organisation “Ar-Resala” (“The Mission” or “Message”) has about 70,000 volunteers, of whom around ten percent are very active. They collect clothes, medicine and food from the upper half of society and give it to the poor. In doing good they fulfil an obligation to the precepts of Islam. They say: “The Egyptian society is weak, because our parents have moved away from religion. We are moving back.”

However, they don”t use religious vocabulary – which they say belongs in the mosque. In everyday life they talk about “service for the other”. It is indeed only a very small fraction of Muslims whose understanding of religion justifies extremism. The West does not realise that.

What exactly does the youth want to change via charity organisations?


Ibrahim: They want to force open the rigid structures, which add to their social exclusion. It starts with the labour market: only those with good connections get good jobs. And it continues with marriage, because without a job a man cannot propose to a woman or buy an apartment. For many, the required marriage expenses exceed eleven times the family income. Young people are often engaged for seven years and longer.


These late marriages cause mental stress. Fathers often work for years in the Gulf just to be able to get their sons married. For girls as well, marriage costs have become a reason to work. Unions are formed not always out of love, but because the two want to leave their parents” homes. Even members of the middle class can hardly choose their partners by themselves – it is a family matter.


Youth initiatives in which young people operate without instructions from above are usually the only way to leave the narrow tracks prescribed by the state and their parents.


What do these initiatives lead to? Can an impact already be felt in daily life?


Ibrahim: Currently, youth involved in social work get the chance to meet the opposite sex in a socially tolerated framework, even if they hardly admit that. In addition, they learn soft skills – drafting and following one”s own personal agenda is something that first has to be learned in a dictatorship. For women it is also a way to leave the house with the blessing of the family, instead of spending the day at home.


What impact all this will have on the self-awareness and the actions of youth in the future is difficult to say. Still, the model is so successful that it is now spreading in a franchise-like manner throughout the whole of Egypt.