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Exploring 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?
One 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 of everyone.

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 principles.

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.


















“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 Egyptian Red Crescent Society, because they felt there was something different.
Amal Emam, medical doctor and young volunteer with the Egyptian Red Crescent Society”



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