Interview: Shima'a Helmy and the future of revolution

Shima'a Hilmay

If the iconic image of protest in the 60's is a hippie slipping a flower into a gun barrel, the image for this generation's protest may be a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab and holding up a cell phone.

Shima'a Helmy is one of the young Egyptians who led that country's uprising in January of 2011. Using social media, street canvassing and her own steely determination to change her country for the better, 21-year old Helmy forewent her studies to help galvanize a revolution. The rest is quite literally history. 

Now a full-time human rights activist, Helmy joined filmmakers and friends Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton onstage at PopTech to talk about their collaboration on an upcoming documentary film If. The film will explore what it's like being a young revolutionary through the eyes of four different Egyptian women (including Helmy), although as Garen states, their story is far from over. 

Helmy joined us for a talk in which she proves herself to be every bit as passionate as a clip from the upcoming film shows. 

PopTech: Can you speak to the dichotomy between being a devout Muslim and being an agent for change? How do these things influence each other, guide each other?
Shima'a Helmy: I think if you look deep inside the real essence of Islam, you'll see that it revolves around the fact that the Muslim is supposed to be a positive person in his or her society. They should help others, they should be cooperative, and they should try to be as positive as they can.

The situation in Egypt was against the real essence of Islam. You had corruption, you had social injustice, you had torture, you had everything against what a Muslim is supposed to be like and what the ideal of Islam is supposed to be. When I was growing up, I was trying to be a good Muslim at the same time as being a good citizen. You could say that being an active person is an essential part of being a Muslim. It’s the combination, and that following the guidelines of Islamic teachings is at the core of what people in the modern world are trying to do. All these concepts of democracy and human rights are actually found in Islam. It’s just that people don’t know. 

What did it feel like, that moment of decision for you, when you decided that you were going to get involved in the uprising?
I didn’t imagine something like this happening in Egypt. I didn’t believe in my country. I felt like I was just here for a particular period of time and then I was leaving forever. I was focusing on my studies, trying to study something very complex like biotechnology, only to distract myself from how terrible the situation in Egypt was. And then, when this whole thing started, I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate. But I went with my sister, and then when we saw people around, and we saw it’s not really that hard, as soon as you cross the line of fear it just happens.

I love what you said yesterday on the PopTech panel too – you make your choice and it's decided.
And then everything starts to be very easy. You feel this feeling of collectivity and that you are all together, one, hand in hand. 

Have your feelings about Egypt changed since this has happened? How has if affected where you will choose to live and have your career?
When we felt like the whole world was celebrating our great victory, it was kind of overwhelming. Everyone was looking at Egypt and focusing on what we, the youth, had done. But afterwards when people started to be distracted with other countries, other revolutions, they were not paying attention to how terrible the situation was again becoming. The regime was actually being rebuilt, because Mubarak left his loyalist men in power. I started to feel different, like I’m the only one who’s talking about the negative side. I was still critical, especially when I got detained on the 4th of February, before Mubarak resigned. There was something missing and I was trying so hard to figure out – what is it?

It turned out that what happened in Egypt wasn’t really a revolution, it was an uprising. People have started to feel depressed, like they used to be. They no longer care. With censorship and media control by the army, it’s hard to get information to people what is really going on now.

How are you using social media to help get the word out?
We were using social media to establish a virtual place, a virtual world, where we could all come together and discuss ideas and do the stuff that we’re not able to do in public. This is how the whole thing started. It helps a lot in reaching people outside of Egypt, and maybe in other cities around Egypt, not just in Cairo and Alexandria.

The thing is, we’re still stuck in social media. We have no platform to reach out to the majority of the country, they have no electricity to have Internet in their houses. So you don’t have these kind of people in your audiences, you're just talking to yourselves, and we just keep going in circles and circles. My idea has always been that you should work also in the streets. You shouldn’t just keep yourself on a computer with your Facebook or Twitter account and just get adulated. The outcome will be very disappointing. And this was clear when we tried to come back to the streets and we didn’t have anyone on our side. I guess the solution would be with maybe awareness campaigns, going out to the people in their places, because they’re not gonna come to us.

If you could tell the rest of the world something about Egypt, what would you say?
A friend of mine told me once: our fighting in the whole world is fighting against censorship and for knowledge. If people are unaware, if people are ignorant, they’re not going to do anything. Think about the fact that the U.S. gives Egypt two billion U.S. dollars annually, and that we are the second largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel. You should be aware of where your money goes. 1.3 billion dollars of this money goes to train military in Egypt. These weapons are used against peaceful protesters, the military is censoring information and controlling everything. Be aware of where your money goes.

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