Egyptians are hungry for dignity

Shimaa Helmy--known to many people from her Internet reports under the name "Shimaa from Tahrir Square"--is an Egyptian activist from Cairo who participated in the January 25 Revolution, from day one, through the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, until she left for the U.S. late last year to speak on the uprising. She is one of four subjects of a forthcoming documentary film about the revolt, produced by Four Corners Media.

Since she came to the U.S. in October, Shimaa has given several speeches and participated in conferences and teach-ins at Yale University, Harvard University, New School, Simmons College, Tufts University, the University of California-Berkeley and others. In Egypt, she was a teacher of Arabic for non-native speakers, an English-Arabic translator and interpreter and a freelancer writer. Since coming to the U.S. she became very active with the Occupy movement, especially at Occupy Wall Street.

Jeremy Tully spoke with her about developments in Egypt since the revolution.

Crowds gathered outside the state television building to celebrate the downfall of Hosni Mubarak (Zuma)

WHAT WAS your experience of the January 25th Revolution? Were you an activist before?

BEFORE JANUARY 25, I was an anonymous blogger. Most of my activism was only online until January 25th was announced. I came down with my siblings to Tahrir Square. Since then, I have been very involved in the new movement.

I was in Tahrir Square every day and camped there from early February almost until March 9, when the army came and evacuated us by force. While I was there, I was concerned with how non-Arabic-speaking media were portraying our story. I made contact with as many foreign journalists as I could--speaking to them and helping them out.

I would take as much footage as I could from the square, then go back home and upload it online. I did this non-stop for most of the 18 days. I didn't really sleep much, maybe only an hour a day.

During the 18 days, I was detained by the military. It happened on February 4, two days after the Battle of the Camel. Being detained shaped my understanding of the Egyptian Revolution. It was the military detaining activists from Tahrir Square. The common sentiment of Egyptians was that the army and the people were one hand, but being detained taught me otherwise.

They detained me along with other journalists, and when they investigated us, they were very harsh, telling us what we were doing was illegal, that we're not supposed to take pictures, and that I shouldn't be walking around with foreigners.

They ended up releasing us because we managed to get rid of the footage'so that when the army searched the video equipment, they didn't find any evidence against us. For them, "evidence" would have been pictures from Tahrir Square.

After Mubarak stepped down, I was at the square every day until March 9, when they kicked us out. I was involved in the No to Military Trials campaign in Egypt because lots of people I know were detained and abused by the military, and I had to do something about it. I was trying hard to connect with the victims of the uprising--the second generation of activists who had never been politically active before.

I also supported April 8 military members who defected from the army. We organized campaigns, marches and protests in front of the ministry of defense against their detention.

WHAT HAPPENED to the officers who joined the revolution?

THEY STARTED their activity on Facebook just like us. They declared they no longer approved of what SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] was doing--especially the military trials for civilians and virginity tests for female protesters--and they were not honored to be part of this institution. They said they would join us on April 8. When they came down, between 40 and 50 officers showed up, and they joined a sit-in of 3,000 people in Tahrir Square.

The army and police showed up later that night at 2 a.m. and evacuated Tahrir Square by force. They killed three army officers and detained the rest of them. An unknown number of civilians were also killed. Some civilians were detained and accused of starting violence. The army officers were sentenced to 10 years in military prison and later on, it became three years--just for joining a civilian protest. They are still in prison.

On May 27, we had what we called the Second Revolution. I helped in organizing this day. Some army officers were helping us online and trying to promote the day. They were detained from their houses just for participating online in politics. Even if you're an army officer, and you're trying to criticize SCAF and speak against it, you risk ending up in jail.

WHAT IS the relationship between organizing on the streets and talking to people online?

THE PEOPLE you need to talk to on the ground are completely different from people you connect with online. We organize online because it's not safe for us to organize in public. You have to keep a low profile because anyone can be subjected to military detention and trial at any time.

Only 6 million people in Egypt have Facebook accounts. And the rest of the people are living below the poverty line--they don't have access to the Internet or even electricity. And these are the people we need to talk to.

That was one of the biggest challenges we were facing and are still facing. We don't have independent television stations, and the state TV is under the army's control. If you speak out against the army in newspapers, you might be detained, or your newspaper might be shut down. You have to connect with people at their basic needs in order to get them on your side. That's one of the biggest challenges we've been trying to overcome. And it's still a challenge.

After the army evacuated Tahrir, I got stuck inside and online. I was able to connect with like-minded people. But May 27 made me realize we had to do more to connect with people face to face.

I began trying to reach out to families of the detainees, families of the martyrs, all the people who were victims of the uprising. I tried to bring them together on the ground, because they don't have access to the Internet. They come from poor neighborhoods and different parts of the country.

But people are also still using the Internet to organize. Recently, there was a statement from over 50 revolutionary pages that have over 1 million followers calling for demonstrations against SCAF on January 25, the one-year anniversary of the revolution.

THERE HAVE been many strikes during the course of the revolution. Do you feel the Egyptian people are aware of these strikes? Do they side with the workers or SCAF?

UNFORTUNATELY EVEN some of the activists don't support workers' strikes, because they think it's completely unrelated to the revolution. I personally think that workers' strikes are an essential part of the whole revolutionary process Egypt has been going through.

The propaganda of the military council is that the strikes are stopping the cycle of production, and the economy is going down because the workers are complaining and not working. I remember a lot of workers were subjected to military trials just for striking. They have been under several occasions since Mubarak resigned.

My feeling is the youth should cooperate with the workers. This is what happened back in 2008, when the biggest strikes happened in the Mahalla textile compound, and the youth supported it. We were not there--it was the workers who started the whole thing. And it happened again right before Mubarak resigned. They switched the whole direction of the revolution.

Unfortunately, you don't read good coverage or any news on workers' strike. They're widespread all over the country, but the entire focus is on Cairo and Alexandria, and that's it.

YOU LEFT Egypt to come to the U.S. in late October. Why?

I WAS invited to speak in a conference about my participation in the revolution and a documentary film on the revolution that follows me and several other Egyptian women. Then I got involved with Occupy Wall Street, and I got to speak at different universities. I ended up organizing protests here in the U.S. with American and Egyptian activists. I feel I'm helping the revolution even if I'm not in Egypt anymore.

At the same time, I really wish I were back in Egypt right now, doing something on the ground. But I'm trying to make the best of my visit here in the U.S., in raising awareness and connecting American and Egyptian activists. It's been fun, rewarding and working well.

SINCE YOU'VE been here, the Occupy movement has really taken off. Do you have any lessons for the Occupy movement?

MY ADVICE would be that Occupy activists should talk to the 99 percent, not just on behalf of them. We should take the occupation to our blocks. Activists should be really strategic about what they really want to do.

Our mistake back in February was when people imagined they could have a successful revolution in 18 days. That wasn't true. People should plan for three years from now--what do we want to do with our movement, why are we doing all of this, and where are we going with it?

Before I came here, the only information about Occupy Wall Street I had was from the news and American activists involved on the ground. Seeing it on the ground in reality is completely different.

I think it's too early to judge a few months old movement. It will take us some time to make a good judgment about it. I really like the slogan of we are the 99 percent and the central idea of Occupy that a small proportion of people--the elites everywhere, not just in the U.S.--are controlling politics and business, and the majority of people have no say over anything. But this should change with the uprising in the Middle East and across the world including Occupy.

WHAT DO you say to activists in the U.S. who want to stand in solidarity with the Egyptian people and support the revolution?

FIRST, WE need a strong Occupy movement here and a strong infrastructure. A strong movement in the U.S. would influence and reflect on all movements elsewhere.

The most important thing is to do something about the U.S.'s foreign policies. The U.S needs to reconsider the military aid that goes to Egypt. This is something U.S. activists and Occupy Wall Street activists can do to support the Egyptian Revolution. Occupy should also spread awareness of the struggle of the Egyptian Revolution, because the revolution is not in the mainstream media anymore.

The U.S. supplies $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military every year: tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, tanks and all kinds of weapons. Most of the Egyptian military's weapons are made in the U.S.

In New York, we did a protest against Combined Systems, one of the manufacturers of the tear gas the U.S. supplies to the Egyptian military. A group of Egyptians in the U.S. and American activists on Occupy Wall Street worked to make this happen. We protested their main investor, Point Lookout Capital, which had an office in Manhattan. The tear gas itself is made in Pennsylvania.

IN NOVEMBER, there were large demonstrations in Egypt, after months in which street demonstrations were much smaller. What do you make of this development?

THE PREVIOUS few months were the incubator of what is happening now. The frustration was there. The anger was there. The military council was creating enemies everywhere, starting with journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and even political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

For example, there were clashes in October, in Maspero, during the Coptic marches. They were targeting well-known activists like Mina Daniel and Alaa Abd El Fatah. They wouldn't have done this before, but now they're doing it very openly. We can no longer pretend that everything is fine.

WHAT WOULD a victorious revolution mean to you?

THE RELEASE of all the political prisoners and the civilians who were tried in front of military courts, the lifting of the state of emergency, getting our factories and institutions back, and handing power over to a civilian government.

The media really like to portray it as a pro-democracy movement. I think it's not just about democracy, voting in elections, reforming the system or reforming the way the system is functioning. We failed to reform it for the past decades. The basic slogan that the January Revolution people came out with was "Bread, freedom, social justice." Egyptians were hungry for being heard and feeling dignity in their country.

Until now, people are being tortured in police stations and military jails, and we lack basic human rights. It's too early to start fighting over ideologies or talking about elections candidates when the system we came out against is in power still.