Reviving Egyptian Waqf to Catalyze Social Change

by Rola Tarek, March 24, 2013

Change starts when citizens start asking questions to solve local issues, and themselves try to find new alternatives to traditional work methods. 

The idea of Waqfeyat Al-Maadi Community Foundation began when Founder Marwa Al-Dali started reconsidering and studying the methods adopted in development work and its funding in Egypt, and placing them within the framework of social entrepreneurship and sustainability.

After noticing that there is a gap between social endowment and development work priorities, she created the foundation as an independent non-profit community in 2007, to reinvent Islamic endowment (or Waqf) in a modern way, using funds derived from Zakat and tithing to improve living standards in Cairo's Al-Maadi neighborhood. 

The idea behind Waqfeyat is to get citizens directly involved in improving neighborhoods based on the needs of local residents.  

“Waqfeyat looks for sources of strength in our heritage and inside our community, and that’s why it is capable of achieving a lot. It focuses on the idea of engaging young people in particular, prompting them to draw on their history and heritage to build a stronger future,” says Al-Dali.

Challenges to Development Work

Development work and social endowment face a lot of challenges in Egypt, namely dependence on external financing, and the fact that most Egyptians are not involved in civil society. 

On the other hand, local organizations and community foundations are often viewed as charities that focus on short-term needs. Both of these models lack a strategic long-term vision that's locally inclusive and promotes an independent civil society. 

“Social endowment should empower and engage others, which makes it a tool for enhancing and strengthening the community. It should also be sustainable,” says Al-Dali.

Waqf's Historical Impact

Waqf can be defined as a donated asset - whether in the form of land, property or money - that is invested in a social project.

One big example is the University of Cairo, which was originally a community university established from charity endowment money. Under Princess Fawzia, daughter of Khedive Ismail, it was funded by the Waqf of certain territories, and has become a leading institution from which millions of Egyptians have graduated.

After independent endowment funds were legally cancelled in Egypt in 1952, all endowment funds became subject to the Ministry of Awqaf, yet Waqfeyat was able to establish itself independently in 2007 through advocacy and lobbying efforts. Now, the foundation works to support new legal frameworks for community foundations and civil society; one recent victory is Article 212 of the new Egyptian Constitution, which allows the establishment of private endowment funds.  

Spreading the Model

One of Waqfeyat’s first programs was the Khan Centre for Arts, “Khan Arts”; another is “Fath Bab Al-Rizk” ("opening the door to livelihood"), which grants rotating loans with no interest from local Zakat funds to citizens starting their own businesses. 

Waqfeyat also advocates to raise awareness about the impact of properly  implemented endowment and supports similar social entrepreneurship initiatives, as well as a Youth Engagement Program.

In 2012, in honor of its efforts in pioneering independent endowment foundations, uniting communities, and leading in Egypt's social entrepreneurship, Waqfeyat was given the African Philanthropy Award.

Now their model is being replicated via other social initiatives, including Mante2ty. As it is able to further advocate for a legal framework that enables foundations to establish Waqfs, the hope is that Egypt can continue to sustainably rebuild its neighborhoods with local support. 

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Rola Tarek is an Egyptian reporter who has worked in several development organizations and is holder of a BA in Political Science from the University of Cairo. She writes on social entrepreneurship initiatives and change movements in the Arab World and loves to search for answers for her many questions. You can follow her on twitter at @RolaTarek or check her blog here.