Naila Farouky - "People Would Say Our Region Is Not Ready for Democracy"




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Mar 18, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Naila Farouky - "People Would Say Our Region Is Not Ready for Democracy"

The CEO of the Arab Foundations Forums discusses continued unrest in Egypt and beyond, and the role of international philanthropy Naila Farouky considers the ecosystems of philanthropy with Bettina Warburg in a group activity.

“I can tell you with certainty that over at least ten years, those of us who were in tune enough, either because we were actively working within the socio-cultural situation or the economic situation or the class divide, we saw it [the revolution] coming.”

Naila Farouky is extremely intense as she recounts her experience of the Egyptian revolution when we meet at the recent “Value(s) for Money” session in Salzburg. Of course, her fiery passion is testament to her dedication for social change in the Middle East region as a whole; but Egypt, where she has lived and worked, has a special resonance for her that cannot be denied. “I can’t say with any certainty that we saw it coming in January 2011, but we knew there was something.”

Egypt’s revolution is still an ongoing crisis in the country. Government ministers are likely to resign or be ousted from one day to the next and the fragility of the country is no better emphasized than the continued malaise that shrouds Egyptian life.

“There was a bottle neck: you know how you can feel and physically be in a space, and recognize the energy of that space will no longer be able to sustain, and there was very much that feeling,” says Farouky.

“The fact that it was revealed so quickly that such big numbers went out into the streets was a shock and it continues to be a shock. We did it once [brought down a regime], it happened, February 2011. But then less than one year later in terms of elections – elections were in June 2012 – by June 2013, we brought somebody else down. That is a double shock; it is even triple the shock.”

Farouky, who was recently appointed the CEO & Executive Director at the Arab Foundations Forum, is certainly still coming to terms with the magnitude and sheer scale of this overwhelming sentiment in Egypt. When the revolution really took hold, she quickly returned from the US to be a part of one of the most defining moments of her generation. “There had been this kind of settling complacency in Egypt,” she reminisces with a haunting concern.

“Given the fact that we had been ruled for 30 plus years by the same man, with all the corruptions, and rotting from the inside that tends to take place in regimes that are akin to dictatorships, there was this acceptance that this was our lot in life. Then to see in my lifetime, in my relative youth, that this sort of change could happen overnight – something that we expected to take a hundred years – literally happened in two weeks.”

The drive and force was unprecedented, even for those who, like Farouky, had kept an eye on the developments. It was not so much that the people were asking for the rights to which they were entitled, but a sudden rousing from a sense of lethargy that was widespread.

“In a country where we sustained and accepted this kind of repression for 30 plus years to have all of a sudden felt this sense of freedom and of empowerment and this entitlement to the empowerment, which is very important, because for a lot of us who were critical of our own country and our country’s complacency, a lot of it was questioning ‘how are people not taking their rights and not standing up and demanding them?’”

Identity, and identity crises, were drivers here: suddenly through social media, through television and through print, voices of the youth, the marginalized and the minorities found they were able to speak out against a regime that had driven Egypt to the brink. The revolution was, in many ways, long overdue, and outside aid that doesn’t recognize that is something that annoys Farouky daily.

“People would say, and it is a phrase that I despise from foreigners or Arabs alike, that our region is not ready for democracy. That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard because I don’t think there is such a thing as being ready to be an empowered individual or empowered citizen.”

Empowerment has certainly been a mantle of Farouky’s life. (Even her mother was once dubbed the "Jane Fonda of Egypt" in New York newspapers thanks to her booming fitness centers.) She is not one to take such gross slurs about her country and the region as a whole lightly, and suggests that philanthropy should play its part in boosting and shouldering the Egyptian revolution effort to better foster a transformation.

“There are tools that need to be put in place, there are rights that need to be in place to utilize those tools, but you cannot say that a person is not ready to be empowered!

“The Arab Foundations Forum can play a very important key role and that is to help the sector and guide the sector and learn from the sector on how to better frame the strategies that you are putting towards utilizing these resources, that you’re putting towards a better philanthropic strategy for a region. I think the philanthropic field or the sector has kind of been playing catch-up: there are several different social issues that confront the region, but then to suddenly face this reality that you now have a generation of citizens who are empowered enough to topple regimes, it scared the bejeezus out of a section of the region [investors].”

Returning to Egypt meant that Farouky could use her persuasive rhetoric to engage in local reporting and philanthropy promotion. She helped a friend launch a new round-up of the situation in the country, the bi-lingual news review called Midan Masr. In a country where the revolution was based on sources of information to spark continued demonstrations, the resource was invaluable in reflecting on the progress made across the state, as the first bilingual newspaper in the region. “It covered everything having to do with Egypt and tangentially with the region in respect to the current and immediate political situation we found ourselves in.”

Of course, Farouky was not new to the media discipline. Her previous work has included extensive media production projects and project management for Sesame Workshop, the company that owns and produces Sesame Street. Her experience there facilitated a better understanding of strategic communications and creative project planning; things she believes are key skills in innovative philanthropy planning, which she has put into play in her new role as CEO at the AFF in Jordan.

“We think the things that we can offer [at AFF] to really enrich this sector the most with are networking opportunities that allow intersector and extrasector opportunities to allow people to come together and collaborate, a sharing of knowledge and research and resources and to be able to make information accessible to our members.”

The collaborative efforts are at the heart of AFF planning. But Farouky is all too aware of the fragility of interlinked, international philanthropic efforts when she considers the role of American philanthropy in Egypt and in the Middle East region as a whole: “A lot of times when an American entity comes into not just the Arab region, because I have worked in South East Asia, and I have even worked in Australia with American money, the question is always: 'What’s the ulterior motive?'

“Even if this money is coming with very few strings attached and even if this money is coming for a cause that is primarily the cause of the grantee and not the grantor. There is always this question: 'It is American money. What does it really want?' And that is the reputation it has.”

Prejudging American finance in this way limits the scope of international philanthropy in the region. Mistrust of foreign aid sources has grown substantially, and, whilst it is understandable that the Egyptian government want more local investors, their sometimes provocative approach has the potential to sour international relations further.

“The US suffers from the reputation that their foreign policy is so not in harmony with what the region feels it needs that it clouds the judgment and it clouds the way we are able to collaborate in giving. So my response has always been it is a two-way street, and I honestly think that the onus of responsibility relies on both the giver and the taker.

“[Countries] will take it [aid] when it’s convenient and then something like the Arab Spring will happen, this big implosion politically will happen, and [the country] will be threatened with that money being pulled away. But it’s not about your ego now; you can’t come now to me [after all these years of accepting the aid and using it] and say this money was useless after all these years and you can’t exclude them [America or other foreign investors] from a process that they are willing to be a part of.”

International philanthropy then is not just about monetary donations or creating sustainable growth; rather, it is bound in ideas of culture and cultural norms. To be truly invested in an area, you need to foster a greater understanding of the habits, social activities and cultural events of the people there, suggests Farouky. Philanthropy is not one-size-fits-all, but America often fails at this hurdle.

“What America lacks the most in any of its approaches, whether it’s political, whether it’s economic, whether it’s philanthropic, whatever, it lacks the capacity to truly absorb nuance. It is not a nuanced culture; it is a very straight forward culture. If it is not spelled out, it is very difficult to collaborate because they don’t always understand what the underlying factors are.”

Wider implications are all too clear for Farouky, who recognizes that politics and philanthropy are often a grey area for crossover. “When philanthropy starts to get involved in politics, there is mistrust surely on a personal level I feel, and a lot of it has to do with governments versus governments and not necessarily people versus people, and not necessarily even philanthropy versus philanthropy.”    

Naila Farouky was a participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change", which was sponsored by Hivos. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the