ICA REPORTSICA MENA (Middle East and North Africa)

Thriving in Egypt’s turbulent times

By Martin Gilbraith

I joined the ICA as a volunteer in Egypt in 1989 but stayed on for six years as part of the permanent staff. When I returned in June, I had not been back for maybe 10 years. It was great to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and to a place and context where I spent some formative years.

Much has changed in Egypt, as it has in the world, in the ICA and my own life. So my visit gave me plenty of cause for reflection. It also gave me a welcome opportunity to use my Arabic again with those who had been around when I first learnt it. I was pleased to find it was relatively effortless.

The impact of the revolution and subsequent events was noticeable - from the security in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the burnt-out government buildings in the city of Beni Suef.  Politics was an ever present subject when people talked, something I had not encountered in Egypt before.

Egypt’s population has grown at a tremendous rate, and its urban sprawl has continued to extend into the desert. When the ICA began a Human Development Project in El Bayad in 1976, the desert village was accessible only by boat. When I worked there, it was also accessible by bridge from Beni Suef and by a desert road from Cairo but it was still a remote and clearly distinct community.

Now it has been absorbed by Beni Suef – there is a university campus next door and apartments on what used to be ICA’s demonstration desert reclamation farm. Many of the village’s stone houses  have been rebuilt or replaced in concrete. The ICA training centre where I had lived and worked, however, looks remarkably the same.

During my time in Egypt, the ICA team grew from a low of around a dozen resident volunteers in the village to around 35 salaried employees in El Bayad and Cairo, with up to 15 or 20 grant-funded programmes operating at any time.

In subsequent years, the staff grew to more than 100 people in five offices nationwide. It operated  more and larger programmes across Egypt and the region. It then shrank to a small team which has  remained with the ICA all these years. They have sustained the organisation through changes in leadership, a dramatic fall in project funding and then the turbulence of the revolution.

I enjoyed meeting old friends and colleagues, some still with the ICA and others who are not. I also met some of the 65 or so bright young staff who joined last year and some of ICA’s long-time external partners and supporters in Cairo.

As Iheard about ICA MENA’s newprogrammes, strategies and plans for the future, I sensed a vigour as well as a conviction that ICA has a valuable role to play in Egypt’s future. There is also a strong commitment to renewed collaboration and partnership with ICAs and others beyond the region. I urge ICA colleagues everywhere to support them in whatever ways they can – and take the opportunity to learn from their rich experience as I have.

Martin Gilbraith (president@ica-international.org) is president of ICA International.

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