Tahrir Academy’s Shutdown Casts a Shadow Over Educational NGOs
* An earlier version of this story appeared on Mada Masr.
In what might be a harbinger of the fate of educational NGOs in Egypt, a popular online collaborative learning platform, Tahrir Academy, is shutting down.
In a statement, the academy said its founders were unable to finance the project from their own pockets. Donations were not enough to keep the project going. And Egyptian laws now prohibit NGOS from commercial activities to meet their expenses. (In many countries, charities can have subsidiaries that pay for charitable work. Oxfam, the global anti-poverty charity, run stores that sell secondhand merchandise, for instance.)
Tahrir Academy was an online learning platform aimed at creating an Arabic online video library that offered educational content to Egyptian students at primary and secondary schools. Its curriculum was created from crowdsourcing volunteers’ efforts in providing content, which was revised and produced in a new form that challenged traditional means of learning. Its Facebook page attracted more than half a million followers, while its channel on YouTube has over 120,000 subscribers and over nine million views since its establishment in May 2011, only four months after the outbreak of the January 25 revolution.
Despite the academy’s development approach and its attempt at steering clearly away from politics, its inability to survive raised questions about what type of civil-society activity and youth engagement will now be possible under current Egyptian law.
“It is no secret that we have recently faced many difficulties,” said Mustafa Farhat, general manager and co-founder of Nafham Initiative (We Understand), a free online educational platform that offers online classes for primary- and secondary-school students. “Supporting education in the region and within such circumstances is not easy at all,” he said.
Most similar non-profit projects face the prospect of ending due to lack of funding, according to Farhat. Nafham initiative have tried but failed to get government support. “I am concerned about our fate,” he said. “We cannot receive any foreign support due to the new laws, and advertising revenue does not cover our needs. We may need to think seriously of changing our registration from a non-profit to a for-profit company.”
The shutdown of the academy, said Khaled Ashmouni, a researcher at Michigan State University in the United States and the founder of Egypt Scholars Initiative, a non-profit organization that contributes to the enrichment of education, science and research in Egypt, “will reflect negatively on the rest of the projects and discourage those who wish to carry out similar initiatives.”
“I hope that the Ministry of Education will run to meet the initiative’s founders to discuss with them possible ways of support,” Ashmouni added.
The Egyptian government has been putting more restrictions on the receipt of foreign funding by independent organizations. The risks of receiving aid are rising, under the new NGO law and a penal code amendment that imposes possible life sentences and death penalties for conducting funded activities that are deemed harmful to national security.
At Tahrir Academy, harsh financial conditions had already forced it to cut spending by downsizing its projects and reducing the number of employees, according to the statement. The situation even led the founders to sell some of the organization’s assets.
The organization tried to operate within the limits of Egyptian law, but it failed. Without the legal restrictions, the statement asserted, Tahrir Academy could have managed to secure funding, as it already had some opportunities to do so.
Tahrir Academy’s co-founder, Seif Abu Zeid, said that the organization’s business model depended initially on three proposed funding sources: content creation for private companies, attracting sponsorships and advertisers, and donations.
“Content creation was considered to be a commercial activity, which is illegal,” Abu Zeid explained, adding that the two other options also failed.
Abu Zeid also said that receiving foreign grants was never part of the organization’s plan. “Foreign funding is never a sustainable solution,” he explained.
The academy fell under the Nadabat Foundation, an NGO founded by leading Egyptian cyber activist Wael Ghonim. Facing a systematic smear campaign for his political orientations, Ghonim had to flee the country and distance himself from Egyptian political activity.
Many of the academy’s students regret its demise. “It was a bright candle in the dark,” said Nasser Mohammed Wahdan, a third-year student at the faculty of architecture at Al-Azhar University. “They provided information that was very useful to expand my knowledge. I am really sad and angry to know that the academy decided to shut down. It was a creative initiative but did not receive enough support from the government, which is fighting all different and successful initiatives.”
Abu Zeid said he had no regrets about founding Tahrir Academy. “I’m not sad because it ended, I’m happy because it happened,” he said.