Egyptian online collaborative learning platform Tahrir Academy declared in a statement this week that it is halting its activities due to limited financial resources.
Registered as a NGO, the organization could not secure sound financing that would adequately sustain its activities, given restrictions it has been facing.
Tahrir Academy falls under the Nabadat Foundation, an NGO founded by leading Egyptian cyber activist Wael Ghonim. The non-profit organization aims at “fighting poverty, improving education, raising awareness around political and human rights through utilizing technology and the Internet.” Facing a systematic smear campaign for his political orientations, Ghonim had to flee the country and distance himself from political activity.
The academy is an online learning platform that aimed at creating an Arabic online video library that offers educational content to Egyptian students at preparatory and secondary schools.
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.
The organization’s curriculum depended on crowdsourcing volunteers’ efforts in providing content, which was revised and produced in a new and creative form that challenged traditional means of learning.
However, the harsh financial conditions surrounding the organization forced it to cut down its 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 limitations 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 enough chances to do so.
“While the founders are unable to self-finance the project from their own pockets and our inability to raise enough donations, Egyptian laws prohibit NGOs from engaging in profit-based commercial activities to even cover the academy’s expenses,” the statement said.
The academy’s co-founder, Seif Abu Zeid, told Mada Masr that the organization’s business model depended initially on three proposed sources for funding: content creation for private companies, attracting sponsorships and advertisers, as well as 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 explained that receiving foreign grants was never part of the organization’s plan. “Foreign funding is never a sustainable solution,” he explained.
The government has also been putting more restrictions on the receipt of foreign funding by independent players and — with a Penal Code amendment imposing up to life sentences and death penalties for conducting funded activities that are deemed to harm national security, as well as a new NGO law — the risks of receiving aid are rising.
“I’m not sad because it ended, I’m happy because it happened,” Abu Zeid concluded.
Ghonim, the founder of the mother organization, was the admin of the famous Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed,” created in response to the brutal killing of Saeed by police — an infamous case of police brutality leading up to the 2011 uprising. An Alexandrian citizen, Saeed quickly became a symbol for victims of repression in Egypt.
The page took the lead in calling for the January 25 revolution and became one of the mobilizing forces for the uprising. Both the page and its creator went silent following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and the takeover by a military-appointed government, shortly before the election of military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president.
News of the closure of Tahrir Academy came amidst rising concerns of civil society deterioration and increasing state control over its activities. Despite the organization’s development approach and its clear steering away from politics, its inability to survive raised questions about what type of civil society activity and youth engagement can be afforded through the law.