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When the law is the obstacle

Youseef Sidhom | 15 August 2010

 A major problem in Egypt is that the average Egyptian has an unfailing sense that official authorities have no better business but to lie in wait for any successful project or effort that the average Egyptian has achieved, ready to pounce and stamp it out at the first viable opportunity. And it takes no genius to guess that the official abortion of the average Egyptian’s efforts and works is always absolutely legal. Laws and regulations are public information and are available for all to know; yet the common complaint is that no matter how much one struggles to abide by these laws and regulations, one ends up discovering that some minute or special detail—the existence of which one was typically unaware of—has been overlooked in the final work. More often than not such a detail is some new ministerial or administrative decision published after the law was issued, to fill some gap in the law. So instead of blocking the road before law breakers by closing all the loopholes in the law, officials make it more difficult for the decent citizen to carry on decent work. In my opinion, executive or administrative authorities should not be indiscriminately insistent upon the literal application of regulations to the point of rendering them stumbling blocks before projects that serve the community, but should recognise when decent projects ought to be encouraged. This would definitely be a step towards ending the perennial distrust between Egyptians and the State.

Sister Sabine of the Coptic Association of Jesus and Mary’s Sisters (CAJMS) came to me with the following story: Since 1991, CAJMS has been running a licensed nursery in Muqattam, under the name of the Nursery of the Sisters of Love. The nursery accepts children aged between two and five, and serves Muslims and Christians alike. In 2002, CAJMS informed the local social affairs directorate that the nursery would be temporarily closing its doors for repair and maintenance works. In October 2002, a decision was issued by the directorate to close down the nursery owing to “there being no children there”. Even though the decision was absolutely legal—it was backed by the law No. 12 of 1996—the reality on the ground was that the social affairs directorate never bothered to look into the matter before hastening to apply the literal text of the law.
Once the repair and maintenance work was done, the nursery reopened its doors since the neighbourhood was in dire need of its services. Anyone living in Egypt knows how much Egyptians, Muslims as well as Christians, seek and trust the services offered by sisters—or for that matter brothers too—especially in the schooling, health, and social services domains.
But the social affairs directorate had a different plan for the nursery and, beyond doubt, this plan was absolutely legal. The directorate asked CAJMS to apply for a new licence to run the nursery, and demanded that all the necessary documents should be submitted. This put those in charge of the nursery in a real dilemma: what if problems arose regarding the papers and documents submitted, especially taking into account the fact that the nursery was already running? What if a new license was never issued? Was the social affairs directory doing all that as a pretext to wiping out the nursery? 
It is here that all the ingrained Egyptian fears came into play. Was the State lying in wait for minor mistakes rather than trying to make things easier? No-one can argue against the importance of a reliable nursery for a modern-day working mother. So it would have been perfectly normal to expect authorities to offer ease and flexibility in procedures where nurseries are concerned, especially once they prove their seriousness and comply with all the basic tenets of their mission. 
I refer the case of CAJMS nursery in Muqattam to the Minister of Social Solidarity for a final say.
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