Opantish, Tahrir, and a Feminist Revolution: Yasmin El-Rifae in conversation with Lucia Carminati
Yasmin El-Rifae and Lucia Carminati first met in March 2023 in Cairo, when El-Rifae presented her book Radius. A Story of Feminist Revolution at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Zamalek in dialogue with Sally AlHaq. What follows is a conversation that took place later, between London and Oslo, out of the desire to spur a debate that seems all the more urgent and relevant. In a hybrid and powerful narrative style, El-Rifae probes a history of women’s resistance that happened in Tahrir in 2012 but reverberates elsewhere and every day.
Lucia Carminati (LC): What were the circumstances in Egypt at the time when Opantish formed?
Yasmin El-Rifae (YER): It's almost two years into the revolution. In the fall of 2012, we started to see a pattern of mob sexual assaults on women in Tahrir Square. There had been assaults like this in the square in the past, but they had been one-off instances. What was happening in October and November of 2012 was repeated: every night there were accounts of attacks during which initially a small group of men would form a circle around a woman, and a crowd would grow, and in the violence and chaos women were stripped, beaten, raped.
At the time, Tahrir was still a very important space. It was a public square, which informed its identity and what was happening in that space. The way people were using it changed from week to week. Sometimes you would have protests, sometimes families would just have picnics. In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt, and it was quickly losing popular support. By the time these attacks started happening, what it felt like on the streets around Tahrir was that the Brotherhood had abandoned its promises about political freedoms and social justice and was seeking its own agenda.
These attacks were read as political attacks. People weren't really sure who might be behind them, whether they could be possibly the Brotherhood itself or whether they could be police or members of the old security apparatus. The effect was to make the square unsafe for women, to limit women’s ability to participate in the revolution. We still don't have a concrete answer for who was behind the attacks, but what we know was that almost immediately, people started to respond. Women started speaking out more and more about what was happening to them, posting their accounts on Facebook, women who'd had this happen to them themselves, but also people who'd witnessed something shared their own accounts too. People started trying to intervene in ad hoc ways. Groups of people started to go into the square anticipating that these attacks might be happening and trying to intervene in them. And so Opantish grew out of some of these more spontaneous efforts. People came together and formed a more organized group.
LC: You describe in your book the complex mechanisms of this organization on the ground and offer a very vivid account of how things worked, the necessary objects, the required procedures. While you do reflect on the complementarity of logistics and management [p. 139], why did you think that lingering on such concrete matters mattered?
YER: It mattered on a couple of different levels. I obviously had a drive to get this piece of feminist history, this very strange story in many ways, down somewhere, narrated, told. I had the sense that it was going to disappear with time. There are so many experiences of the revolution, collective and otherwise, that have not been narrated. So I wanted to do that for important historical and political reasons. But I also wanted to do it in a way that showed what it felt like to be there doing this work, the objects, the logistics. Political questions, or more abstract questions, were always actually rooted in an embodied physicality. Questioning whether women should be in the intervention teams on the ground even though it's such a great risk to them was in the end a political question. But it was one that was literally about physical bodies, and where and how they could and should move. Figuring out the work that we had to do was how politics were mediated and lived.
I also wanted to show how the organization came to build itself and learn how to work better and change its operational structure. It developed out of the lived experience of the work. You're just consumed by the tasks at hand. By writing I tried to show some of the tactical and strategic lessons we learned, and it’s in those lessons and in that work that the more philosophical, wider insights and reflections were revealed about how people work together, what happens to people in crowds, and different ways of dealing with people’s capacities for violence. Maybe there's something that we experienced, that we learned, that could potentially be useful in other contexts. In the back of my mind I had women or people in some other historical moment. Maybe it can just be one source of information. But beyond that, on deeper reflection, I think a lot of what we learned can potentially be useful and carried over into other parts of life, not just when we're being physically attacked.
LC: You have raised the potentially fraught question of whether women should be in the intervention teams on the ground, an issue that comes up repeatedly in the Opantish meetings you describe. How did you go about those issues that could highlight internal rifts in the group?
YER: The rifts and the disagreements were actually some of the more important and interesting things to think about, both for me and the other organizers and people I interviewed. We all felt we had to reflect on this and on how we navigate issues of control over the group's identity and inclusion and exclusion and power dynamics. And every collective political effort has these disagreements and has to navigate power dynamics. And I think the only way to write a useful account of something like this is to include them. We have to get better and better about talking about these dynamics and cracks and how to navigate them. Putting it on the page felt like an essential part of the work to me.
The characters in the book are based on real people I interviewed. I did not want this story to portray Opantish like a feat that was done by these perfect, heroic, brave feminists. It was done by people who could be brave and extraordinary and could also be short-tempered and deeply flawed and thoughtless. That's the way that groups like this are made and that's the way that everybody is. I was really not interested in flattening things to make them seem ideal. And I needed to do this interrogation myself, as a person who had been involved. The book was a way for me to process everything that we'd been through, or at least some parts of it. I'm sure I haven't processed everything.
LC: You describe how frustratingly impossible it was and still is to clarify whether the attacks were orchestrated or not. How did Opantish cope with those potential allies or revolutionary comrades who could change sides swiftly and unpredictably and become themselves perpetrators [p. 84]?
YER: This touches on the question of change and changeability and how we might influence one another. The story of Opantish is the story of a devastating double betrayal. First, these people whom you thought were your allies in the square now sometimes are the harassers. And then it's the betrayal of the square itself, of the masses who turn. This is all happening as we're building up to the coup, and the square is turning into a military rally. The powerful takeaway for me from Opantish is this: grabbing hold of the changeability of human beings, which is at the core of this betrayal, and saying “well, maybe we can use this.” This is most clearly articulated in the chapter focusing on a person named Adam in the book [“It’s like whispering into someone’s ear at a death metal concert and talking to them about Plato,” p. 79]. He and his teammates are approaching people in the mobs who are actively participating in the violence and enlisting them to join the team efforts to save women, the women being attacked. And this is built on the experience of women who had been attacked by men who were either saying they were helping them and then attacking them or actually managing to harass them as they helped them out of the square. So it’s taking this human trait that has played out in these horrific ways and saying “how can we make this work for us?”
If I move into the present moment on the Left, way beyond Egypt, in the United States and in the United Kingdom as well, there is an abdication of the idea that we can actually change one another, maybe especially so when it comes to issues of sexual and gender violence and beyond. We have developed a better language for these packages of injustice and oppression and so on, but we do not try to speak to people who are different than us, bring them in. We expect people to show up with the “right” politics, or not, and if they don’t then we call them out and stop there. But where’s the work, even within our own circles? Where’s the actual politics?
LC: This then begs the question: how Egyptian is this story? How much is it about Egypt and its revolution and how can it relate to situations elsewhere?
YER: Like in so many feminist stories and experiences, basic bodily violence here tried to push women out of history. The effect of those attacks—whoever was behind them—was to ensure that the square, the revolution, was not a place that women could be in. The initial response from many people within the revolution was to deny the violence was happening, to not deal with it. It further enabled that goal. Feminist struggles are both extremely specific and local, but also completely global and connected. It could have happened in any other place. It was a moment of rebellion that allowed for people to spontaneously bring themselves together and do this work. None of these people were particularly experienced in fighting or dealing with crowds or whatever. These were filmmakers and artists who had been involved in the revolution in different ways. But it’s about being in a revolutionary moment and understanding the political stakes of these kinds of gendered, sexual, sexualized attacks.
I was interested in putting the story down as a piece of Egyptian feminist history, especially in the face of the erasure of the history of the revolution and all of the different stories within it, of which Opantish is one. Moreover, in Egypt we have a particular kind of disconnect between generations about feminist activism or history, with the exception of niche bubbles on the Left, where people know each other on a personal level or families share certain histories. I don’t think that will be achieved until the book is translated into Arabic.
I was also motivated to use the story against all the very political and racial tropes about Arab women and men. By writing the book in English, I was very aware that I was speaking to a market that is used to seeing Arab women as victims and criminalizing Arab male sexuality. This story goes against that by its very nature, because women are being attacked, but women are also fighting back.
LC: Would you say then that your ideal reader is an English speaker or an Arabic speaker or just a broader non-academic audience?
YER: I didn’t write Radius with an academic audience in mind; in fact, I tried not to get too hung up on who the readership would be, because I find it very hard to write to an imagined reader. I think I was mostly just figuring things out myself. The book was mostly written as a series of fragments rather than as planned chapters, and then I wove things together in a way that I felt would tell the story best and allow for these multiple perspectives, multiple modes of text to co-exist. Some passages are reconstructed scenes in which you’re seeing something on the ground through the eyes of the character. There are excerpts from interviews. And then there are, especially towards the end of the book, first-person passages written by me as the author, with a more reflective voice coming from a post-revolution moment. I wove all that together in a way that, besides being quite experimental, also allowed the book to have some sense of unity.
I was always mindful of the fact that I was writing about people who are real and still alive. Some of them are friends of mine or people I still know and see. I was always mindful of respecting them, their lives, the real experiences which they had shared with me. That really grounded me, as I was writing and drafting and redrafting and trying different forms around the idea that there are going to be conflicting memories and narratives. Sometimes even the same person might remember something one way one year, and a different way the next, or may lose their memory at some point. I had to find a way of accepting this instability of memory while also grounding the book in some kind of truth. Everything in it had to be real, something that really happened, something that someone really remembered and told me, while understanding it was never going to be a complete account. Contradictory narratives are themselves part of the story, of the continuation of life after these big experiences.
LC: Speaking of retrieving slipping memories, as suggested by Farida in her opening quote [“I’ll always be looking for the gaps between what you’ve written and what I remember,” p. 7], how did you tackle the challenge of asking interviewees about their own traumatic experiences?
YER: I just had to push through it. I had a period very early on where, whenever I needed to reach out to ask for an interview, I would pause, read the email a million times, go over the text message, and agonize about how to phrase things. But I realised, through a conversation with Farida actually, that this was part of the work, that I had to reach out to people because people can say no if they don't want to do it. It's worse to not invite them, to make someone feel excluded from the effort, from the project. And I also realised that, especially in those first three years after the coup, we were all traumatised anyway. Everybody I wrote to did in fact want to talk because there had been so little of that.
LC: Regarding those years after the coup and beyond, you spell out clearly that thinking of the revolution as simply having failed is simplistic [p. 169]. What would you say happened with the revolution?
YER: It's simplistic to say the revolution failed. Two things happen in that construction. On the one hand, you are reducing the revolution to the question of gaining political power. In that sense, yes, absolutely. It was defeated. We, the revolution, brought in an era of political devastation, which we're still living in, an absolute crisis. But saying that also locks the people who are in it into a narrative of defeat. And you remain forever defeated. There's something unchangeable in that construction. You're just going to remain defeated until the next revolution happens. It puts you in a waiting game. The afterlife of political defeat within individuals is a serious thing. There are all kinds of costs on people's personal lives, their mental health, their ability to work, not to mention the people who have been killed, jailed, exiled. These are all ramifications of that defeat. It becomes very hard to think past or around defeat in these terms.
But the thing that's lost is that a place and people in it are changed forever when something like this happens, regardless of who takes power. Everybody has been changed. The city has been changed, for better or for worse. The “better” can be hard to trace, but when we use this reductive language and sweep things under the rug we also become unable to understand what is happening in the present moment, and how it all connects. You stop understanding that what is happening to you in your city is all about the counter-revolutionary effort. In Cairo, they have been able to eviscerate public space because of the massacre in Rabaa, because of massacring hundreds of people in a public square. There's been no sort of social examination or dealing with that atrocity. When an act like that happens, of course there is no public space for years to come. Who is going to fight for public space or political space when brutal violence and fear secure power for this regime? These things are connected. Through the prism of defeat of the revolution, you lose sight that that is the outcome of a specific history. It all become one long, flat, depressing story of a people who have been forever repressed, forever controlled. We lose the things that we know, the things we have learned.
LC: What is the legacy of Opantish?
YER: If I had to put it in those terms, I would say it's really a legacy of women being victims and agents at the same time and not needing to be defined by either identity, either label. These are things you can be in the same moment. That is a useful contradiction. It is useful to remember that we can be both, especially when the violence continues. People still feel that when they speak out about being violated or abused they have to perform a brave, heroic survivalism, which is taxing and exhausting and can also feel diminishing of the harm they've lived. But we also don’t want to be victimized or to have to perform some ideal victimhood. You don't have to be either thing. You can push back at those labels and identities, which are just easier for society to process. The only reasons we feel pressured to bear them is that it makes it simpler and easier for everyone else to deal with.