the Fundamental Principles
Putting neutrality to the test in Cairo’s Tahrir Square
Just over a year ago, the revolution in Egypt began as part
of a wave of events that shook the Arab world and continues
to change Egyptian society today. Amal Emam is a medical
doctor and volunteer with the Egyptian Red Crescent Society,
as well as a member of the IFRC’s Youth as Agents of
Behavioural Change initiative. Red Cross Red Crescent magazine
took a moment during the 2011 Statutory Meetings to ask about
her experience during the past year.
In the midst of ongoing changes taking place in
Egypt and throughout the Middle East and North Africa,
what are some of the biggest challenges you have witnessed
for humanitarian action, specifically for the Egyptian
Red Crescent Society (ERCS) and for yourself as a volunteer?
of the main challenges for the ERCS is practising the Fundamental
Principles — such as neutrality and impartiality — during
situations such as we have seen in Egypt.
We teach the public that the ERCS is neutral and impartial,
but in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult for people
to believe it. And we must balance this challenge with the
humanitarian aspect of our work, in terms of gaining access
and intervening in situations. What we intend to do is to
help people; whether they are protestors or not, whether
they are from the army or not, we are there for everyone.
So this has been a major challenge: to demonstrate and gain
recognition from all parties based on our principles. And
we did succeed.
For you personally, what was one of the hardest
moments, as a volunteer, to try to uphold these principles?
For me, it is always difficult to find a balance between
being compassionate with people, but at the same time not
to be too emotional. It is also a huge challenge to work
under such violent and unsafe conditions, while in addition
trying to convince others to join us.
For example, some volunteers rightly questioned going to
Tahrir Square as part of a Red Crescent team. “You
are going to your deaths,” they said. But we would
respond, “There are people already dying there, so
we need to enter.” Looking back however, we saw how
volunteers can play an active role in these situations and
how they can recruit other volunteers to do the same. We
proved that we were able to intervene and to save lives,
while keeping our neutrality.
Is it challenging for volunteers to separate personal
feelings about the revolution?
Yes. This is the
type of situation where I argue that it is hard to maintain
the principle of neutrality. Many young ERCS volunteers
were at the heart of events, enthusiastic to participate.
Yet they understand that humanitarian work is more important
than being part of the revolution — it
is really a huge role. We know that not everyone can participate,
or there will not be anyone to provide protection and save
lives. ERCS volunteers know that we have to take off our
personal hats and put on our humanitarian hats and be respectful
What is your opinion of the role of youth, particularly
Red Crescent youth, in terms of promoting a culture of
non-violence and peace in Egyptian society?
We have already been working on building skills for non-violent
communication through meditation and mediation. We aim to
promote a culture of non-violence and peace by serving as
a living example.
We have trained rescue teams on this approach and have seen
how it makes a difference. One first-aid rescue team in Tahrir
Square, for example, helped spread a culture of non-violence
and peace through their actions. The public saw volunteers
performing first aid in a peaceful way — dealing with
people in a non-violent way, acting with impartiality and
open to everyone. The first-aid team did not discriminate — whether
someone was poor, a woman, a child or from the army.
The volunteers are not just providing a service. They are
delivering themselves and delivering values. They provide
peace through their actions. This is why many who were injured
preferred to go to the first-aid rescue team of the ERCS,
because they felt there was something different.
In light of the political
events, do you see this as an opportunity for the Egyptian
Red Crescent Society to reposition itself vis-à-vis
the Egyptian government?
The ERCS was established in 1912, so we are 100 years old
in 2012. We have a well-established reputation as a network
of volunteers and resources. However, in the coming months,
the ERCS must continue to raise awareness about who we are,
our values and principles, and to show we are part of a larger
humanitarian organization, a Movement based on humanitarian
Any other final thoughts on the challenges and opportunities
ahead for Egypt?
Now in Egyptian society, there
is a big surge towards voluntary work. There is a big call
for people to take action for the community. If you are
searching for an opportunity to promote change, this is
the time. People are prepared for change. It has happened
on the political stage, but I am sure we will also be able
to do it at the ethical level — meaning
we will be able to change our attitudes, mindsets and behaviour
in the Egyptian community.
But we have a lot to do for this. We need people to respect
diversity, to be more peaceful, to be really open to diversity,
and to know that they can do it. We need our people to feel
self-confident and break the wall of fear that was there.
We need our youth to know that it is their time.
volunteers are not just providing a service. They are
delivering themselves, and delivering values. They
provide peace through their actions. This is why many
who were injured preferred to go to the first-aid rescue
team of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, because
they felt there was something different.
Amal Emam, medical doctor and young volunteer with
the Egyptian Red Crescent Society”