الاثنين، 8 ديسمبر 2008

Facebook fundraisers fall foul of Egyptian law

Nadia Abou el Magd, Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: December 07. 2008 11:59PM UAE / December 7. 2008 7:59PM GMT

Mohammed Gamal, 28, created a Facebook group to raise money to give meat to the poor. Victoria Hazou for The National

CAIRO // Lonely and bored on a Ramadan day three months ago, Mohammed Gamal established a Facebook group called “the failures: Those who were born between 1980-1985”. Within a couple of weeks, 3,000 people joined his group and now they are more than 12,000. The goal was to raise money among the group members to buy 7,000 sheep and distribute meat to the poor during Eid al Adha.

“A sheep for every Moukous,” or a “failure” in Egyptian slang, was the slogan that appealed to many members of the group. However, Mr Gamal, 28, an activist better known by his blog name “gemmyhood”, received a telephone call from state security telling him that the group had no legal jurisdiction to collect money via Facebook and that he and fellow members would be arrested if they continued doing so.

“The idea is not mere charity,” said Mr Gamal in an interview with The National. “We thought we would gather this money from group members to make some profit by selling [sheep] to our families who are going to buy sheep … who will in turn distribute some to the poor,” he said.

Mr Gamal has been arrested for being a political activist six times since he was in university, “but I didn’t want to involve any of the group members in trouble as most of them are not activists”.

Many of the group members are unemployed and are concerned about social not political issues, Mr Gamal said. The Facebook group is still active, but Mr Gamal agreed to the Egyptian authorities’ demands not to use the site to raise money for sheep.

“I was so upset that we won’t be able to go on with our sheep project. It took me a while to answer the members who were enthusiastic for the project – didn’t know what to tell them. I feel I shattered their hope in doing something,” Mr Gamal said. “We agreed to meet after Eid holidays to figure out another project.”

Well-to-do Egyptians often slaughter sheep and goats on the first day of Eid and give the meat to the poor. But this year, with sheep prices reaching about 1,500 Egyptian pounds (Dh1,000) and goats going for 500, the need for donated meat during Eid is greater than ever. Cows cost more than 5,000 pounds and are out of the range of most households.

“This is one of the worst seasons in years,” said Abu Ali, as he was crossing the street with his sheep and goats. “I think many people can’t afford buying cattle, they just buy from the butcher or just don’t eat meat at all.”

“Meat? Can’t remember when was the last time I ate or bought meat, but can remember what it looks like,” said Sayed Awadin, who shines shoes for a living. “I look at it in the butcher’s window every day.”

For the past few months, a private radio channel has run ads reminding listeners that many people in upper Egypt have not tasted meat for years and asking them to contact Al Orman Charity, which will slaughter and distribute meat.

“Let’s make more Egyptian houses celebrate the Eid,” read an ad in Egyptian newspapers placed by Egyptian Food Bank, also promising to buy, slaughter and distribute meat “to the really needy across Egypt during Eid and throughout the year”.

“It’s Eid… Let’s be optimistic,” said the Dec 6 editorial of Al Ahram, the leading state-owned daily. “It’s time to change our pessimistic outlook. Yes, there are lots of problems and pressure, and sad talk is more prevalent than happy one here. Everybody is blaming the government for its impotence to solve those problems, and the government is blaming people back for having too many children who are eating up all economic reform plans.”

But the columnist Belal Fadl in the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm Sunday yesterday wrote: “Charity in an oppressive community is absurd.

“Because the decaying regimes that don’t want reform welcome those who provide tranquilisers to people to delay their protest against oppression and deprivation.”

The situation is so dire this year that some cattle merchants in low-income neighbourhoods are selling their animals on instalment payments, others rent the animal to people who want to boast among their neighbours.

“We rented a sheep from a butcher in Al Salam neighbourhood, where I have lived with my son and his family for years,” said Um Ahmad, a woman in her eighties. “So my grandchildren can play with it, and we pretend that we can afford to buy a sheep, which we will return before the start of Eid.”

She said her family is counting on a family she used to work for as a maid years ago to donate meat for their Eid meals.

For Mr Gamal and his Facebook group, pessimism is high as their efforts to help were so forcefully rejected.

“My generation is not happy. Egyptians in general are not happy. When about 100 members from the Facebook group met for the first time for Iftar in Ramadan, we realised that even those who are working among us are not fulfilled and very worried about the future,” he said.

“Things are so unclear in Egypt, nobody is sure what will happen in the coming 10 days for instance, which makes me afraid to have children. Nobody understands what’s going on.”

nmagd@thenational.ae



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