Prison was the turning point

Mathias Maurer

Helmy Abouleish does not see himself as the second SEKEM generation but was involved with his family from the beginning in its development – when the first houses were built, wells dug and fields laid out, the first herd of cattle arrived from Germany by ship. He was born in Graz, where his father had studied chemistry.

He spent his childhood on his grandfather’s small farm. This was followed by a move to St. Johann in Tirol where he pursued his passions of playing piano and football – and it was in this period at secondary school that he read the Philosophy of Freedom by Rudolf Steiner for the first time. Inspired by a visit to Egypt, and encouraged by their anthroposophist friend Martha Werth, the family decided to move back to Egypt in order to found a holistic development initiative there.  

With all their belongings stowed in three VW vans, the family moved to Heliopolis in 1977 and the sixteen-year-old boy pitched in from the first day in building the farm in the middle of the desert. In his free time he got to know the country through extensive motorbike trips when he wasn’t attending the German school in Cairo.

Then everything happened very fast. In 1985 there was a rapid change from the tractor into business management. The switch became necessary as a result of the absence of his father due to illness. “I as the businessman and trader of our products, he as the visionary entrepreneur. It was an outstanding team,” Helmy says looking back. And so from 1989 SEKEM the business never looked back. “With Eosta and Lebensbaum we found the first trading partners for our vegetables and teas. The local market was also served,” he recalls.

This is also the time when SEKEM successfully persuaded the agriculture ministry to stop spraying pesticides onto the fields from the air. “Our mission at that time was to establish biodynamic agriculture in Egypt,” and that is a goal which SEKEM has achieved: in the meantime there are 140 certified Demeter farms in Egypt to which about nine hundred small farmers are attached who also grow cotton. The textiles could be successfully exported in collaboration with Alnatura (Germany) and Under the Nile (USA).

SEKEM itself employs almost 2,000 staff. SEKEM’s growing prosperity meant that its contacts also increased. Helmy Abouleish was soon sitting on over forty national and international councils, was jetting all over the world and shaking hands with President  Obama and Prince Charles. “I felt like Napoleon,” the dynamic fifty-three-year-old reflects on that time. “I thought the world would come to a stop without me.” The award of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2003 to his father kept SEKEM in the spotlight. “It was like an explosion,” Helmy says. He hardly saw his family. Then the so-called Arab Spring happened which his father Ibrahim described at this year’s SEKEM Day in Stuttgart’s Liederhalle as a four-year volcanic eruption, a disaster under which SEKEM had suffered a great deal. “No one saw this revolution coming, just like the fall of the Berlin wall,” says Helmy. There were energy shortages, transport was blocked and local sales collapsed by 40 percent.  

Before the inner court

Helmy describes his relationship with his father as if he were his father’s younger brother. Of course he will never replace his charisma, natural authority and spiritual aura which holds SEKEM together to the present day, but perhaps he will be able to carry it into the future in a new form.  

It is like a stroke of fate: Helmy is 49 years old when the arrest warrant arrives. He is held in custody with 56 former ministers, television people, politicians and entrepreneurs in Cairo’s Torah prison. There is a strict order to the day, he keeps a diary, starts reflecting about things, takes a hard look at himself, thinks about the course of his life, has many conversations with friends who are fellow inmates about questions of belief and starts to pray regularly as a Muslim. The enforced timeout in prison appears like a bizarre event: his four daughters enjoy finally being able to see their father and be together and talk with him for two or three hours at a time. When he was free he barely had time to read, for the daily morning circle, for cultivating friendships.

He realises that soap box oratory, declarations of intent or politicians will not change the world but only the civil society engagement of the people affected. “I told myself that it was a good thing that I am here,” Helmy recalls. He reads the Koran, studies the spiritual side of Islam, Sufism, and reflects on his need for deepening, quiet and religious contemplation. He sets new goals for himself and recognises that he will only be able to develop his own future and that of SEKEM out of his own inner self. “With this turning point a new era began for me,” Helmy says, “because we only develop real efficiency through spiritual work.”

After his return from prison he restricts his international activism, concentrates on SEKEM’s needs and the country’s agriculture, particularly on supporting the third generation locally through kindergarten, school, vocational training and university. He sets up a family council in which ideas are developed in order to be able to act from out of the future. “To do that we have to develop our spiritual abilities together,” he says.  

Helmy Abouleish is underway to himself in order to build SEKEM’s future.