Kamal al-Helbawy is taking a break from a busy day of media interviews and meetings with revolutionaries to eat grilled fish at a simple seafood restaurant in Nasr City. The 73-year-old has just taken his first bite when a man wearing a pullover and a dress shirt approaches the table.
Without any introduction, he begins questioning Helbawy on how a proper Islamist should vote in the upcoming presidential election. “What happened was wrong, right? With Shater ... That was the wrong thing for them to do, right? So we should all give our votes to Abouel Fotouh, right?” he asks, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent nomination of Khairat al-Shater for the presidency, a betrayal of their previously stated commitment not to run a candidate.
Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a reformist leader within the movement, was kicked out of Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization when he announced his candidacy last summer. That is who Helbawy is backing.
Content with Helbawy’s approval, the man walks away and Helbawy returns to his lunch. He knows he only has a few minutes to eat, because a pro-revolution, anti-Shater Islamist is in high demand these days.
Helbawy’s bald head and trim white beard suggest his age, but he still seems to have the energy of a man far younger than his years. A return to Egypt after 23 years in exile, and the prospect of participating in a viable revolutionary movement, has undoubtedly rejuvenated him. A lifelong member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of its Guidance Bureau, he resigned last week to protest Shater’s nomination. Still, though, he feels a connection to the group that has been such an important part of his life, including being the main reason behind his exile.
“Despite my deep sadness [on the state of the Muslim Brotherhood now], my conscience is clear that I am not participating in this nonsense,” Helbawy says.
It was the unfortunate resolution of a profound and defining relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood that began when Helbawy joined the group as an 11 year old in the village of Kafr al-Batanoon in Monufiya Governorate. From that time on, he was a dedicated Brother at the heart of the conflict with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime, then working for the movement in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and London. As one of the Brotherhood’s early travelling men he became a founding member of the Brotherhood’s so-called International Organization when they began trying to realize their global project in the late 1970s.
Helbawy returned to Egypt in the beginning of March 2011, greeted at the airport by Muslim Brotherhood heavyweights like former Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef. Almost immediately, he began coordinating with youth groups and activists within and without the organization to push forward the group’s demands.
But in the midst of this revolutionary period, where it seemed as though anything might be possible, the Brotherhood leadership immediately began playing hardball politics.
“They were flip-flopping in their position and aspiring for power in a way that did not differ much from the National Democratic Party,” Helbawy says, referring to Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party. The Brotherhood had initially stated that its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, would only contest a third of Parliament’s seats. Now they control almost half. At the same time, the group’s leadership, which many speculate is dominated by Shater’s will, began to ostracize members who didn’t go along with their political agenda.
“They veered away from the revolution, and toward politics,” Helbawy says.
Helbawy first voiced his opposition to the Brotherhood’s political plans before the 2010 parliamentary elections, from London, where he spent the last 20 years. “The Brothers must convince political parties and national forces to boycott the elections and stand as one behind [pro-democracy leader Mohamed] ElBaradei in his call for civil disobedience,” he said then. The Brotherhood declined the calls to boycott and instead participated in one of the most fraudulent Egyptian elections in recent memory.
For Helbawy, the Muslim Brotherhood’s greatest draw lies not in its pursuit of political power but in its original doctrine, as outlined by Hassan al-Banna, the school teacher and preacher who founded the group in Ismailia in 1928. “His real teachings could have actually led the Brotherhood to have a leading role in the new world order through intellectual propositions, fighting for justice and against oppression, and educating the youth,” Helbawy says.
Those ideals first brought Helbawy abroad and into his career as an international Islamist. In 1974, the Brotherhood sent him to Saudi Arabia to work on creating Islamic curricula for the the Islamic Education Trust. He went to Pakistan in 1988 to coordinate with the mujahideen of Afghanistan fighting against the Soviets. While some Arab Islamists joined in the fighting and were radicalized by their experiences in the Afghan mountains, Helbawy says his role was strictly humanitarian.
“They did not need or want fighters, they needed people to take care of their orphans and widows, and to help provide for them materially while they fought,” he says.
By the time he was ready to return home, Mubarak’s security forces had decided to persecute Islamists who had gone to Afghanistan, seeing them as potential radical opponents. At that point, Helbawy went to London. Despite having a degree in literature from Cairo University and a post-graduate degree in management, Helbawy taught courses on political Islam in more than one university in London, but refused to accept money from the state, earning a living from private ventures, such as on a senior citizen’s home he recently sold. “I learned this from the Brotherhood, to always be self-sufficient. That is why I will defend the group against those who say they are funded from abroad.”
During Helbawy’s time abroad he became a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, first in Asia and then in Europe, part of the Brotherhood’s plan to be globally influential through education curricula and an expanding network of members. He says, however, that “the international organization was never able to take full form because of security restrictions. He resigned as spokesperson 1997.
Helbawy’s time in London and away from the Guidance Bureau in Cairo also had other effects on his political activity. In the last 10 years, unity has become a central pillar of his thinking. Since 2004, Helbawy has been secretary general of the Forum for Islamic Unity, a group that began to promote Shia-Sunni understanding in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq that released sectarian tensions around the Middle East.
He also believes that maintaining unity on the streets is the only way to attain the revolution’s goals. He is currently working on a project that will promote national unity. He may have firm credibility on which to build such a program. On a recent afternoon, days after his public resignation from the Brotherhood, Helbawy was driving through a crowded street in Cairo, when a driver stopped next to him and yelled, “God protect you! I’m telling you this and I’m Christian.”
The ongoing uprising in Bahrain, where an autocratic Sunni monarchy rules over a majority Shia population, has also reinvigorated Helbawy’s interest in unity — and his disappointment with the Brotherhood’s political cynicism. “I never thought I’d see a Brotherhood leader as a king pleaser…nonetheless to a king who killed his own people,” he says, referring to glowing praise offered by a Muslim Brotherhood leader to King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain during a conference in Kuwait last month.
Now, Helbawy’s days consist of trying to bring together disparate Egyptian movements and offer whatever support he can give. He regularly meets with the 100 Committee, an ad hoc group of intellectuals, politicians, and pundits trying to develop a united revolutionary front for the presidential elections, by forging an alliance between Abouel Fotouh and Karama Party candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. He is also in touch with dozens of youth groups who request his assistance.
On a recent day after his resignation, Egypt Independent accompanied Helbawy to three media interviews, a visit to Gamal al-Banna, an anti-Brotherhood Quaranic scholar who is the brother of the movement’s founder Hassan, a meeting at a coffee shop with a member of the Union of Revolutionary Youth, and then a visit to Seif al-Islam al-Banna, Hassan’s son and a lifelong Brotherhood member, who is now ill. At night he prepared for the next morning’s meeting with the 100 Committee.
In spite of his resignation from the group and public criticism of its decisions and leaders, Helbawy’s heart is still with the Muslim Brotherhood. “Even when I criticize publicly, I’m hoping it helps reform them,” he says. “I can never detach myself completely from the Muslim Brotherhood, even if I wanted to.”
That is because even if he disagrees with their political moves, he’s committed to the Brotherhood’s ideas for Islamist government. “I agree with having a nation based on Islam, but in so far as it respects Islam’s basic values of respecting equality and human rights, providing basic necessities to your communities, and preserving the society’s dignity,” he says. And he also still believes in the anti-imperial stance that used to mark Islamist discourse — at least before it got a seat at the table of power.
“Our compass and point of reference cannot always be the US,” he says, pointing to the Brotherhood’s willingness to deal with US senators. “The Brothers have not changed that. Even when the Islamic revolution in Iran happened, first thing they [the Iranians] did was give the Israeli embassy to Palestine.”
But more than its abandonment of Palestine or its two-faced politicking, it is the Muslim Brotherhood’s abandonment of the 25 January revolution that galls Helbawy. Parliament’s inability to push forth any of the revolution’s demands and the group’s decision to stay away from applying popular pressure were some of the core mistakes, in Helbawy’s view.
“I cannot stand in the ranks of people who turned their back on the revolution,” he says.