EgyptFeatures/Interviews

Special needs Egyptians mobilize for political and social rights

Egyptians with special needs have been protesting for their rights both before and since the revolution. But as they remain marginalized and their grievances are yet to be resolved, activists are thinking about what form of organization would best assist them in realizing their rights.
 
While some have suggested a specialized political party, the main proposal gaining steam is for a government body to look out for the rights of Egypt’s disabled.
 
Yousef Mosaad, a special needs activist often seen navigating his wheelchair around Tahrir Square protests, founded an NGO, the National Front of the Disabled and Victims of the Revolution, during the uprising. The front includes around 100 people with special needs, and another ten people injured in the revolution.
 
Mosaad hopes to see the establishment of a government body “not only to protect the interests of all Egyptians with disabilities, but also to provide these people with equal opportunities in employment.”
 
After protesting for several days outside the Council of Ministers in March, a delegation of persons with special needs was allowed to meet with interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The delegation criticized the role of the parliamentary committee for people with special needs, and even called for its dissolution, claiming that it does not represent them.
 
In a subsequent meeting with Sharaf in August, the delegation proposed the establishment of a National Council for Special Needs. Since then, they have been busy drafting a founding program and bylaws for the council, according to Mosaad.
 
Although there has been no official decree or authorization to establish one, Mosaad believes that such a council would be of more utility than a specialized political party.
 
"We disabled people must unite and organize for our collective interests. We hope that the revolution will serve to protect our rights, but we know that we must work towards that end ourselves," he says.
 
Hassan Youssef, a lawyer and the director of the Shumuu Association for Human Rights and People with Disabilities, points out that a Supreme Council for Disabilities was established in 1975.
 
"This council was an organ of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, yet it convened only a handful of times in over 35 years, and it never actually served its functions. This council is still present today but is not active in any way, shape or form," says Youssef, who is helping draft the proposal for the new council's establishment.
 
He wants the new council to provide micro-loans, vocational training, and legal advice, along with subsidized housing and medical assistance. The council, Youssef says, should be “answerable only to its constituents and to the council of ministers."
 
Youssef is currently involved in drafting proposed articles for Egypt's new constitution, and electoral laws which allow for more participation and representation of special needs persons.
 
Another special needs activist, Mohamed Salah, director of the non-governmental Lasta Wahdak Association (meaning You Are Not Alone) agreed that there is a need to establish a new Supreme Council for Special Needs.
 
"A political party for persons with special needs may sound like a good idea, but in reality it is a two-edged sword. If such a party comes into being then the authorities will doubtlessly wash their hands of our concerns altogether,” Salah says. "I'm sure they'll tell us: You have your own party now – resort to it, not us – for the resolution of your problems."
 
Salah says people with special needs typically do not have the capital or resources to establish an effective political party. He added that the extant political guidelines for the establishment of a party require additional money and resources.
 
"Those special needs activists who have been calling for the establishment of a party are also calling on authorities for monetary exemptions on notarizations, and exemptions from the renting or purchasing of regional offices and headquarters," Salah says. “They might as well ask to be exempt from establishing such a party altogether!"
 
Hisham al-Arabi, a special needs activist known as an advocate for a specialized political party, could not be reached for comment.
 
Numerous activists have implied that the state should shoulder the burden of assisting Egyptians with special needs – in terms of medical assistance, employment opportunities, and legislation.
 
"We are attempting to establish this state-sponsored council in hopes that it will help issue, enforce and implement laws to protect us," said Salah. "We say this although we have not received any confirmation from the authorities that such a council will be formed."
 
According to domestic legislation issued some 30 years ago, public and private sector industries are required to allocate five percent of their employment opportunities to persons with special needs. Activists say that such legislation is, in most cases, not enforced.
 
"The public sector does, more or less, stick to the quota. Yet private sector companies often chose to pay fines rather than employ the five percent. Sometimes private companies pay disabled persons a small sum of money each month, but tell them to stay at home," Salah said.
 
"We don't want charity; we want employment opportunities."
 
Youssef says that the challenges facing Egyptians with special needs go further than a lack of political representation or government interest. There is also a more basic problem of statistics.
 
“Egypt's statesmen have not had the political willpower to issue accurate statistics regarding the actual numbers of disabled persons, or Copts," Youssef says.
 
Youssef claims that the government statistics agency, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), has deliberately issued inaccurate statistics, drastically diminishing the numbers of disabled persons in Egypt. 
 
The United Nations' World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Egyptian civil society organizations estimate the percentage of disabled persons to be around 11 percent or more, around 8.5 million people.
 
Al-Masry Al-Youm was unable to obtain CAPMAS statistics, but Youssef claims that 2006 statistics from the government agency put the number of disabled at between 1 million and 2.5 million.
 
"I hold CAPMAS responsible for these intentionally flawed statistics" said Youssef. "Accordingly we have no accurate numbers, geographic locations/breakdowns, trends or patterns on which to base our services. This was done in order to decrease allocations for the disabled in the state budget." 
 
Youssef argues that Egypt's domestic legislation does not serve to protect people with special needs.
 
While the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Law (39/1975, and the amended Law 49/1982) does stipulate the five percent quota for employment opportunities, "this allocation was largely ignored by the old regime." 
 
Persons with disabilities hope that the government will heed their demands for employment opportunities, facilities to assist disabled people with finding work, and/or subsidized housing units when this government-sponsored council is established.
 
Mosaad also hopes for the provision of handicap-accessible buses, metro platforms, sidewalks, governmental buildings, and public spaces.
 
The lawyer claims he initially supported a specialized political party, but later found the idea "too isolationist."
 
Youssef added: "We support the integration of all disabled persons into society. This is why a party exclusively for persons with special needs would reinforce the concept of isolation, not integration."

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