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Enormous Shifts in Consciousness

Yasmin El-Rifae, interviewed by Ratik Asokan
Yasmin El-Rifae

Yasmin El-Rifae; photo by Hanan Abdalla

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

In May Yasmin El-Rifae wrote a dispatch for the NYR Online about the response to the war on Gaza in Egypt, where civilians have demonstrated in solidarity with Palestine even as the Sisi regime clamps down on protests. El-Rifae drew attention to the links between authoritarianism in the two countries: 

Less often noted is the connection between Egypt’s repression of its citizens and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The American-backed alliance between the two countries has never been accepted by the Egyptian people, who share a history of anti-imperialist struggle with their Palestinian neighbors. It is becoming ever clearer that there cannot be freedom for people on one side of Rafah and not the other. 

An Egyptian writer and editor who works in multiple locations, El-Rifae is the author of Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution, a history of Opantish, the feminist organization dedicated to combating sexual violence during the Arab Spring. “This account of a brave, generous, and largely unacknowledged enterprise is not only an essential record of modern Egyptian history,” wrote Ursula Lindsey in our February 23, 2023, issue. “It’s a testament to what women are capable of, to what can be achieved through passionate collective action.” El-Rifae is also one of the organizers of the Palestine Festival of Literature, whose participants, in October 2023, published an open letter in the NYR Online in which they called “for the international community to commit to ending the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza and to finally pursuing a comprehensive and just political solution in Palestine.” 

I e-mailed El-Rifae last week to ask her about her history with Israel and Palestine, the challenges that journalists in Egypt face, and the latest escalations in Gaza.


Ratik Asokan: How has the situation changed at the Rafah border crossing since your piece was published?

Yasmin El-Rifae: In May Israeli forces had just invaded Rafah and taken control of the Palestinian side of the crossing. Israel also occupied the Philadelphi corridor, the nine-mile demilitarized strip of land that runs along the border. Egypt has said it sees these occupations as violating the Egyptian–Israeli Philadelphi Accord, the security agreement the two countries signed in 2005 when Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza.

This is all seen as an escalation that threatens to spill over into Egypt, on top of the egregious human suffering caused by the invasion. Egyptians watched along with millions around the world the footage of displaced people being burned alive after the Israeli airstrikes on Rafah’s tent cities in late May. On May 27 an Egyptian soldier was killed in an exchange of fire between Israel and Egypt at the crossing, and Egypt really tried to contain that story—the soldier was not given an official military funeral, for example, and news coverage was strictly state-controlled.

For months before the Rafah invasion, Egypt coordinated with Israel to bring humanitarian aid into Gaza, sending deliveries for inspection, and—as we’ve learned from journalists, aid workers, and United States and other government officials—Israel would send back truckloads of aid for containing a single “banned item,” like a tent pole or a scalpel in a medical kit. As a result, thousands of aid trucks were stuck on the Egyptian side of the border while famine and disease spread in Gaza. Israel also bombed the Rafah crossing at least four times in the early weeks of the war.

After the Rafah invasion, Egypt said it would no longer coordinate with Israel to ensure the entry of aid through that crossing. Since May it has been completely sealed: aid cannot enter and people cannot exit. Egypt says the Gaza side must be administered by a Palestinian body—a demand which Israel refuses—and talks involving the US and the Palestinian Authority have failed to arrive at a new arrangement. On May 24 Egypt agreed to coordinate the provision of aid through the Karem Abu Salem crossing, to the south of Rafah, but the overall amount of aid that’s managed to reach Gaza, including through the US-built pier, which just yesterday was dismantled due to concerns about weather, is a fraction of what’s needed. 

Since the start of the war but especially since invading Rafah, Israel has tried to shift the blame for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza onto Egypt, with the Israeli foreign minister in May saying that prevention of the crisis was “in the hands of our Egyptian friends.” We can and should talk about Egypt’s contribution to the blockade since 2007 and how much more it could have done since October, but it is Israel, ultimately, that is responsible for aid being blocked and going to waste. Moreover, Israel is responsible for making Gaza dependent on aid in the first place, through its occupation and control of the territory by land, sea, and air, and then for destroying the region. 

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There are six other major entry points to Gaza, all of them controlled by Israel. The footage many of us have seen of Israeli citizens vandalizing aid trucks was shot at the Erez crossing. If Israel saw it as important for aid to enter, it would enter. When Israel and the US decided to build the coastal pier, none of the construction materials had any trouble reaching their destination.

Growing up in Egypt, how did you learn about the situation in Israel and Palestine?

Palestine was a central part of the development of my political awareness, which was shaped by the cataclysmic American and American-backed aggressions in the Middle East. Growing up mostly between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as a teenager I had many Palestinian and Lebanese friends whose families had fled the civil war in Lebanon, which gave me some understanding of displacement and exile.

The first real protest I saw was a mass student demonstration against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 in downtown Cairo. In the mid-2000s there was a small but significant leftist protest movement in Egypt—focused on political participation, corruption, and human rights—and their demonstrations were often met with state violence. When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, and then in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, protests were held and aid convoys were organized in Cairo. Mubarak allowed limited expressions of solidarity with Palestine. It was fine if you focused on Israel and the Israeli government but protesters were censored and arrested when they began talking about Egypt’s collusion with Israel—deepening business ties and trade agreements and, beginning in 2007, the enforcement of the blockade on Gaza. In Cairo I remember being unable to sleep during Cast Lead; the idea and the reality of an entrapped population being bombed by warplanes was so shocking, so unbelievable, and it was so nearby.

I first visited Palestine in 2013 and began to better understand the effects of its geographic fragmentation and isolation from the Arab world. It’s one thing to live through neocolonial policies, like the Western-backed authoritarianism that we suffer in Egypt, but it’s something else entirely to see an entire population in a neighboring country get displaced from their land, disenfranchised, and terrorized by authorities brandishing weapons supplied by the US.

What is the mission of the Palestine Festival of Literature? Will it occur this year?

PalFest invites writers and artists from around the world to come to Palestine—to the West Bank—for a weeklong traveling roadshow. We stage free public events with Palestinian writers and partner organizations in multiple cities, and we try to show our visitors something of the diversity of Palestinian life. It is an internationally organized effort with two aims: to break the cultural siege on Palestinians imposed by the Israeli occupation, and to develop and embolden international discourse and knowledge production about Palestine.  

We are not able to take the festival to Palestine this year because of the genocide in Gaza and the sweeping violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. Since October we’ve been producing public events in the US and the UK, whose governments are supporting Israel’s violence with weapons while popular solidarity and engagement with Palestine in Western societies has perhaps never been more widespread and widely articulated. There are enormous shifts happening in people’s consciousnesses and their politics, and so many writers and artists are taking part, or want to.

What is the state of civil liberties in Egypt under the Sisi regime?

The Sisi regime should be understood as counterrevolutionary, both from the way it came to power but also in its ongoing suppression of political expression and organization. It brought an end to the 2011 revolution and promised the public that the age of protest was over. In 2013 over eight hundred people, mostly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, were massacred at the Raba’a encampment in Cairo for protesting the coup against their elected president, Mohammed Morsi. In some ways this was the founding act of the Sisi regime. Since then, the state’s brutality against its own citizenry has gone completely unchecked.

Today there are no structures for meaningful participation in politics and no open elections; freedom of expression and of the press are severely, often violently curtailed. Protests have been banned for a decade. Activists, researchers, and journalists have spent years in prison. This is how, for the first time maybe ever, Egyptian streets have been empty, without mass demonstrations, while a major Israeli aggression is occurring against Palestine.

Yet, as I noted in my essay, there have been some protests in solidarity with Palestine. Even small protests are organized at enormous risk. Shortly after my piece was published, two students were arrested and charged with terrorism for expressing Palestinian solidarity. More often than not, when arrested, Egyptian protesters stay in prison, are held in remand or pretrial detention for years, and then sentenced in a court system that has already disappeared thousands of political prisoners for long periods of time. When I see a photo of a young person arrested for political activity, I understand that they may not be photographed again for years, that they might lose a large part of their life behind bars.

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What motivated you to write Radius? What has the book’s reception been like, in Egypt and elsewhere?

The book is about a militant feminist struggle against sexual violence during the 2011 revolution, a story that may be useful for people who are thinking about the often-messy work of organizing, or dynamics of gender, power, and sex during popular upheavals. More broadly, it is about living through moments of historic or political rupture. Radius documents in the moment when the revolution was morphing into a popular coup, a very confusing and polarized time. I hope it offers a way into this history, which was in some ways overexposed in its early days—think of the kind of romantic images of peaceful protests in Tahrir Square. Not far from those images, however, people were burning down police stations and breaking prisoners out of jail. The revolution had elements of militancy and violence, even as it represented a search for social justice and democracy. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten about Radius has had to do with this complexity. I feel that the book’s publication won’t be complete—certainly not in Egypt—until its Arabic translation, which is still underway, is available.

Can you tell us something about the challenges that journalists in Egypt face today?

Simply for doing their jobs, journalists in Egypt face censorship, arrest, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment. Since the 2013 coup, Egypt has transformed from a country where one or two journalists were in jail into one of the biggest jailers of journalists in the world.

Most Egyptian media today is state-aligned if not state-owned. I worked at and still contribute to Mada Masr, a bilingual site that is probably the most rigorous independent news source in the country. Its website is blocked in Egypt; you have to access it using a VPN (also often blocked!) or through mirror sites. Our office has been raided by secret police, and our editors have been arrested in their homes and held incommunicado. It is a very scary atmosphere to work in. And fear is an enemy to writing of all kinds, especially to journalism. Yet a small number of people continue to seize and maintain an embattled space in which they can write and publish through the darkest times, at great risk and cost.

People find ways of self-expression in any landscape: for instance, there was an explosion of satire in Egypt in the immediate postrevolutionary years. While the state has basically taken control of most film and television production, there remains something wild and ungoverned in the music scene. Without venerating any of this for its own sake, let me say that publishing in Arabic allows you to be part of those bigger social pulses.

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