Sunday, April 19, 2015

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Abdalah Helmy, Egyptian Revolutionary: We Want to be an Equal Partner With Europe and America

Think Africa Press discusses the Egyptian "revolution" and its prospects with the Secretary General of the Egyptian Revolutionary Youth Union.
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Abdalah Helmy was one of the leaders of the Tahrir square uprisings in Egypt. After the fall of Mubarak he became the Secretary General of the newly formed Revolutionary Youth Union. He, along with other potential Egyptian leaders, are being courted by countries around the world eager to influence transition in Egypt. Last month Helmy was part of a delegation to the United Kingdom. After a busy day of meetings with members of both Houses of Parliament, the UK government and the Mayor of London, Helmy met me in Westminster to share his thoughts on the momentous events of January and February and what happens next.

What made you a revolutionary?

It started with the killing of a boy in a police station. It was not the first time someone had been killed in custody, but this time, it was a middle class boy. He was not a terrorist, or an Islamist or an extremist. He was a middle class boy, just like me. So I felt unsafe. Every home in Egypt then felt unsafe. We thought that they can kill you at any time for anything. It ceased to matter whether you were middle class or educated or had some money. Anyone could be killed.

The second thing that made me a revolutionary was the fraudulent elections. The problems with the elections were as obvious as someone walking naked in the street.

After the initial excitement of overthrowing Mubarak has passed, how do you ensure practical progress towards your aims?

Progress is now happening. There is a roadmap that the military council has drawn up for democracy. There are two opposing groups. One supports the roadmap to achieve democracy step by step; the other opposes it, believing that we should develop our own roadmap. There is a competition on the ground, people have many opinions and we are trying to gain a compromise between the two. So as I see it, democracy is working now. 

What is the path you are arguing for? What are the outcomes of your debates?

We are looking for a space in which everyone can live freely and fairly in a proper way and can have a say in what is going on in our country. This is the state that is dreamed about. It is not only for freedom, but also prosperity. Good management of the state really matters and if the revolution fails to put bread on the table then we will have failed.

At the moment many onlookers are calling this a revolution without ideology or guiding principles and strategies. You’ve just alluded to structural and social changes, what are the steps that should be taken to bring these about?

The revolution is all about social demands. Safety, security and flawed elections brought people on to the street initially. Police violence helped keep people on the streets. But they stay on the streets because of social demands. I represent a liberal ideology but we do care about people getting food and money to live. If not, another revolution will happen.

Do you think that the structure of democratic institutions and the constitution are more important than the person who happens to be elected as president?

Yes. We can have a frog governing Egypt, as long as we have a system that the frog can work with. We are thinking more about institutions - what capability these institutions have to govern the country.

What are the policy or structural changes that you’re arguing for? How would the economy move quickly from what it currently is to one which provides more for the majority of the people?

This is something everyone is thinking about. From our party’s perspective, it’s about participation - an open scheme of participation. Egypt has a lot of natural and economic resources. We need a very fast and transparent flow of information. We need to restore the stability and security of the country to attract tourists and foreign investment. We are very keen to restore the business environment, reduce corruption and present Egypt as a place for everyone to invest in.

We need to break up the monopolies. We can’t have one company dominating a market – we need ten. This will force competition. This is how we see prosperity in the long-term. And in the short-term, if one million tourists visited Egypt in the coming six months, we won’t have a deficit in the budget. We have everything ready - sand, sun, diving, monuments - but we need stability.

What are your views on the internal ructions within the Muslim Brotherhood? For example, the youth of the party splitting away and forming their own party.

It is healthy, very healthy actually, that everyone now is empowered to say ‘I can do it’ and then go on and do it. This is what happened in Turkey. I think in Egypt it’s going the same way. We are going to have a party that understands people’s demands.

It’s been said that the Revolution didn’t really include those that were excluded from society in the same way that it did for people who were middle-class and educated. How can people who are outside of that group join in?

January 25th itself was a middle-class revolution. But by the third day, January 28th, it was everyone’s revolution. We saw everyone on the street because they had one message: “if you don’t do it today, we will do it tomorrow”. It was everybody’s revolution - not just the middle-class.

And now the revolution has happened, people like you are in leadership positions. How do you make sure that you represent the interests of workers and the disenfranchised?

Politicians must continue to listen to the public or else they will be kicked out of power, and someone else who is listening to the public, will come into power. So it’s a public demand to have free elections. Democracy is a process and we must continue to improve it.

How do you view uprisings in other Arab countries? After Egypt has its constitution, will Egypt play a more active role in helping other countries that are trying to go through process you've just gone through?

Firstly, once the Tunisians made the revolution, we in Egypt realised one thing - we must pay the price before we get freedom. The price is blood and we as politicians must be in the front lines of the coming movement. This is what happened. This is what we learned from the Tunisian Revolution. Secondly, Egypt is a model. It’s happened like this many times before and it will happen this time. So we are focussing mainly on building the model, clarifying how it will work and how we will succeed. Then this automatically will be transferred to other places.

We are also connecting Syria, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain with our experience on Facebook. I’m the Secretary General of Revolutionary Youth Union and this is replicated in all those places and in all countries seeking media connections, knowledge, solidarity, special techniques on feeding people on the streets and so on. So it is a local ground support on revolution and strategic support on successful modelling that we must present to the world so they can copy and work with us.

And out of this revolutionary organisation, you then build the new civil society?

Yes, we believe that democracy is not only about elections, but a strong civil society with lobbyists, think tanks, NGOs working to represent the public so that their demands can be transformed into policies. So the government will only govern, but who will really manage the country? We do not want a big strong government, but a big strong civil society that can bolster government.

What role do you see for the trade unions within that?

The trade unions are a major part of the civil society. The main focus now is creating independent trade unions, not the government trade unions. We need not just one trade union to represent the workers, we need several unions in competition. So the ones that really represent and are really active will gain support.

Once Egypt has gone a bit further along this process and has entrenched democracy - and this process doesn’t have an end point - how do see the country’s role within the region, the African continent, the Middle East?

It’s so complicated. Our eyes will not be Eurocentric - we will use our finance and trade and technology to serve our African friends. We want to position Egypt as a tunnel to Africa - open to Europe, but also open to Africa more and more.

Actually, the revolution is against international aid. We want Egypt to be an equal partner with Europe and America. If it is in all of our interests, we will work together. No more loans. We want to work on investment, partnership, education, industrial and knowledge transfers, working together to solve mutual problems.

This is how we envision the new Egypt’s relationships with foreign states - equality. In Arabic it’s called niddiya.

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I'm surprised at his claim of Egypt being a model, especially in a context where so much is left to be figured out! Why would-and should- Egypt's new model be "automatically transferred to other places"?

I'm more surprised at this:

"He was not a terrorist, or an Islamist or an extremist. He was a middle class boy..."

So middle class boys can't be terrorists, islamists, or extremists - is that right?