The Reality of Civil Work in Egypt: Opportunities and Challenges

Written by : Dr. Howaida Adly
Professor of Political Science at the National Center for Social and Criminological Research

NGOs in Egypt have played a great role in social care since their inception, which has been enhanced with their development. Historically speaking, charitable work has been one of the main goals of NGOs in Egypt since the founding of the Islamic Charity Association in 1878 and the Coptic Charitable Endeavors Association in 1881 up till today. Many associations that were mainly founded for charitable work in recent decades have begun to change their vision and turn to development work or to combine the two, in a way or another. In any case, the modern developmental thinking relies on the active NGOs role in development in the framework of an institutional partnership with the state and the private sector. In this context, the core pressing question, if we are seeking an active and influential role which was clearly indicated in Egypt's Vision 2030, is the civil sector in Egypt in its current state capable of that? What are the requirements to achieve this? In fact this is the right time to raise that question as we witness for the first time in the history of relations between NGOs and the Egyptian state after 1952    a new philosophy for the relationship between the two parties. This new relationship is characterized by a space of freedom and a degree of confidence, which can be built upon in order to build a real effective and influential development partnership.

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to shed light on the current situation of civil work in Egypt, and its most important problems to analyze opportunities and risks on the one hand, and then access the requirements to activate the role of civil work in achieving development and progress in society. These requirements, despite their multiplicity, are confined to two basic matters, the first revolves around the nature of the relationship with the state, while the second relates to the internal characteristics and factors related to the civil work itself. In this context, the research will be divided into four sections as follows:

  1. A map of the civil work in Egypt: the problem of quantity and quality
  2. NGOs in Egypt and issues of poverty and development: a problematic methodology
  3. Towards a new methodology for civil work in the framework of laying the foundations for institutional partnership: opportunities and risks
  4. Conclusion

Map of the civil work in Egypt: quantity and quality

Recent years have witnessed a boom in the growth of NGOs in Egypt, as the number of NGOs registered in the Ministry of Social Solidarity in 2012 was 37,500 compared to 43,500 in 2013[1] and 50,572 in 2019. It is noticeable from this quantitative development that the increase happened within the framework of Law No. 84 of 2002, which was subject to great criticism by many workers in the civil sector, as it contained articles that restricted civil work to some extent. Rather, the strangest thing is that the period between the issuance of Law No. 70 of 2017 and the new law witnessed an increase of 2,992 associations compared to 47,580 in 2017.[2] This indicates the continued quantitative growth of NGOs regardless of the legal framework and the extent of the freedom of movement it provides. The truth is that this essential point is the appropriate entry for the transition to the type and quality of existing civil work, and the extent of its ability to play an active role in the development process, either alone or through building partnerships with state institutions.

The NGO map is characterized by great diversity and complexity, based on a set of determinants, the most important of which are: the size and scope of geographic work, the nature of the approaches that govern the work, and the interventions. As for the size and geographic scope of work, there are small grassroots associations that spread widely in the countryside, and a large number of them are called community development societies. Every countryside in Egypt has one or more associations. It is worth noting that most of these associations focus their activities in the countryside in which they are located, as they tend to do charitable work in the first place, but many of them are established by families, in addition to the religious character of many of them. A recent change occurred   compared to the traditional ones as most of these grassroots associations have turned in recent years into agents of some large charitable organizations such as the Food Bank and Dar Al Orman in distributing food and clothing in the poor villages of Egypt. This led to the prevalence of the pastoral philanthropic approach in the work and the retreat  from the development work aimed at empowering people, which had begun to penetrate  some of these societies through partnership with large development institutions and international donors in the last two decades.

As for the second type according to the variable size and scope of work, it is the medium-sized associations that are mostly concentrated in cities. While the third type is large and central associations that extend their activities to many regions and have multiple branches in many places between rural and urban areas. They are few in number such as the Food Bank, the Islamic Sharia Association, Anṣar al-Sunnah al-Muḥammadiyah Association Dar Al Orman, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, Association Of Upper Egypt For Education & Development, and others.

It is worth noting that these associations operate mostly through a network of small and medium grassroots associations. They also enjoy a variety and flowing funding sources from internal donations from businessmen and Zakat, or from international donors, whether governmental or non-governmental.[3]

The second determinant in the classification of associations focuses on work methods and approaches. Although there are three generations of NGOs worldwide, each generation was a milestone in the  change that happened in the development model, starting with relief and then development and finally rights or defensive, the two generations that merged together in order to establish the rights-based development model. The situation in Egypt witnessed the coexistence of the three generations together: charitable / pastoral, developmental and rights, with attempts to reconcile and approach at one time and move away at another time. The fist type is the charitable or pastoral societies that have existed in Egypt  a long time ago and represented the predominant percentage of NGOs. Besides, there are development organizations that have been linked partly to the flow of foreign funding for civil action. Some of these organizations adopt a human rights approach in its development-related work or what is called the human rights perspective in achieving development. The third category includes the human rights organizations that focus on civil, political, economic and social rights, in addition to organizations concerned with the rights of certain social groups such as women, children, people with disabilities and others.

This classification does not preclude the existence of civil societies that adopt more than one approach at work, there are associations that adopt a combination of charitable and developmental approaches, and others that combine developmental and rights approaches. This extreme diversity indicates the heterogeneity in visions, interests and other factors which, when talking about the organization of civil work, should be taken into consideration. Therefore, it must be recognized that it is difficult to envision a one-size-fits-all classification as there are the charitable / pastoral on one side, developmental on the second side and defensive / human rights on the third side. The three natures overlap together, with the prevalence of one over the other due to the founders' vision of the society and their social, economic, political and cultural backgrounds. However, the charitable character remains the dominant of a good number of NGOs, particularly those with a religious nature. This is important as this category of civil societies includes associations that enjoy huge funding as its main sources are Zakat and charity, and its activity extends to a large number of governorates. The number of beneficiaries of its services and aids is spread across the country, with a focus on the poorest areas, according to poverty maps such as the rural areas in Upper Egypt. It also works with a large network of small grassroots associations scattered in the countryside in Egypt.

In the context of thinking on NGOs future developmental role  through partnership with the state, a critical view of the methodology of large NGOs is required as  they provide their  services, whether charitable, pastoral, or developmental in multiple governorates. The importance of this is not due to the nature of the activity, but to the capabilities of these associations and the extent of their influence, which make of them  a major trend in the civil work in Egypt. This  can be indicated as follows:

  1. The geographical scope of the activities of these societies has expanded to include a number of governorates, with a greater focus on Upper Egypt governorates, which are the poorest governorates.
  2. The huge financial resources for these societies, whether they are internal donations from individuals or businessmen or grants from international organizations, and governmental and non-governmental donors.
  3. Good relations with state institutions, as these associations worked for many years within the framework of the complex relationship with the state, under Law No. 84 of 2002. After the issuance of Law No. 70 of 2017, they continued to work even after suffering from additional obstacles as a result of stopping approvals on external grants. This is another good indication of the possibility of building successful partnership relations with government institutions under a better law to regulate civil work. This also indicates that there is a good amount of cooperation between these associations and government institutions, and this is evident in many cooperation protocols between the two parties.
  4. The development agenda adopted by these societies is not significantly different from the state's development agenda in terms of combating poverty and unemployment, improving education, health, and others. However, the contribution of this to achieving social justice depends on reaching a comprehensive vision to deal with these problems, which addresses causes and does not sink all the time in combating symptoms.
  5. The methodologies governing the work of these organizations integrated so far the developmental and charitable approaches. Although most of their activities focused on charity, they do not neglect the developmental aspects. Likewise, for organizations that adopt a development methodology, they are also human rights-oriented, as evidenced by organizations that have close relations with international donors.
  6. Every association has a large network of grassroots associations in the countryside in Egypt through which it identifies the target groups and delivers its services to them.

In spite of all that, the question arises, why in the context of all this effort, there is no strong influence of civil work in Egypt on development process.

NGOs in Egypt: poverty and development issues:

The issue of poverty is one of the most serious issues in Egyptian society, as it is closely related with development and social and political stability, as well as social justice. It is also an issue with multiple dimensions, economic, social, cultural and environmental, and in the same way the strategies for dealing with it vary, as do the parties concerned with it. According to modern development literature, there are three main actors in the development process: the state, civil society, and the private sector. Within this framework, multiple visions emerged on how to ensure the cooperation of the three parties together, and among these visions was the idea of ​​strategic and institutional partnership, based on a relationship that has the character of cooperation and interdependence between the three parties, in an institutional manner.   This requires a legal environment to build the institutional framework required for cooperation and partnership.

The complexity of the phenomenon of poverty and the overlapping of its dimensions can be healed through an integrated vision that addresses the complex gaps and seeks to coordinate the efforts of  the actors: civil societies, governmental institutions and private sector, in order to combat poverty and reduce it and not reproduce it.

Towards a new methodology for civil work within the framework of laying the foundations for institutional partnership: opportunities and risks

Any analysis of the reality of civil work during the past years cannot ignore that the complexity of the relationship between this sector and the state was a major source of risk and hindering the possibility of building any kind of partnerships. There is no doubt that the unfavorable legal environment is the most prominent element in this regard. The Constitution of 2014 represents a real opportunity to redefine the relationship between the State and the civil society by stipulating certain provisions on civil society organizations. But this opportunity was lost at the promulgation of Law No. 70 of 2017, however by the issuance of Law No. 149 of 2019, the opportunity reappeared once again giving way for building upon and exceeding the mere existence of a favorable legal framework to establish a relationship based on trust between the state and NGOs, which means establishing the value and moral framework for institutional partnership.

The alternative methodology is divided into two parts: the first is concerned with the re-establishment / formulation of the relationship between the state and NGOs, and the second focuses on consensus on a common methodology between state institutions and the civil sector in order to combat poverty. With regard to the first section related to the relationship between the state and the civil sector, it is necessary to build on the new law and consider it a first step to build confidence and a legal basis for setting an institutional framework for partnership. In Egypt, fighting poverty will not succeed without an institutional, real and balanced partnership between NGOs and governmental institutions in order to ensure complementarity between the roles on the one hand and efficient spending and access to beneficiaries on the other hand. This institutional framework represents a forum for all parties concerned with development to put development plans, think about resource mobilization and implementation, and finally follow-up and evaluate, provided that this institutional framework is characterized by democracy and is subject to a good governance system. Added to this is the realization that effective participation in the achievement of development depends on civil societies transcending the classic classification of charitable, developmental and human societies to a formula that combines the developmental role with local communities and the defensive role with state institutions by communicating and defending citizens' demands and pressing for supporting policy-making institutions’  response capacity.

There is no doubt that the institutional framework for the partnership represents a good opportunity to bring about a fundamental and required change in the methodology of dealing with poverty and development issues. The proposed alternative vision for combating poverty stems from the need to focus on three basic areas, namely education, health and labor providing quality health and education, and decent work conditions. These three areas are empowerment requirements on the one hand, and also fundamental rights that address the complex gaps previously mentioned.


The new law for regulating civil work No. 149 for the year 2019 is a good opportunity to reorganize the work of this sector in a way that contributes to the process of sustainable development through a real and institutional partnership with state institutions, based on participation in public policy making at its early stages. This is represented in laying down the agenda and defining the priorities, through planning, implementation, and finally following-up and evaluation. Success in reaching such a formula would guarantee real democratization in the policy making process, provided that the institutional framework for the partnership is open to everyone who wants to participate, and to lay down objective criteria to form such institutional frameworks for partnership.








[1] Howaida Adly, Civil Society: Great Challenges in a Shifting Context, Towards a Vision for regulating Civil Society, The Arab Strategic Report, Al-Ahram Institution, 2014

[2]     Ayman Abdel Wahab, NGO Law No. 140 of 2019 and International Standards - Privacy of Application, published in this issue.

[3] Howaida Adly, op