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‘There is no such thing as a revolution starting and ending in a couple of months’: an interview with Egyptian activist, Yara Sallam

Egyptian human rights advocate, Yara Sallam, stood up to be counted when Egypt’s revolution was in full tilt and paid the price for it: fifteen months in prison. The prison spell did nothing to diminish her resolve and since her release last year, the outspoken activist has shown no signs of backing down from the fight to ensure that the powers that be uphold the human rights of every Egyptian. This Is Africa’s Nancy Onyango caught up with Sallam on the sidelines of the recently concluded Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) forum in Brazil. She opened up about why some North Africans don’t feel “African,” her experience behind bars and why she thinks Egypt’s revolution is far from over.



TIA: To start, would you mind to tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Sallam: My name is Yara Sallam and I work for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). It is an Egyptian human rights organisation based in Egypt. I work on the EIPR matters related to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the United Nations human rights mechanisms.

My interest in human rights was sparked 16 years ago when I joined an organisation that fought for child rights. While at university I also tried as much as possible to involve myself in activities related to human rights. Previously, worked at EIPR on religious freedom, transitional justice, and I also started and headed the women’s right’s defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies for almost two years. I interned at the ACHPR as a professional legal assistant. I did my masters in international human rights law. That is my work portfolio.

TIA: You mentioned before that you were in prison for 15 months. Why were you arrested? 


Sallam: I was arrested because I took part in a protest in support of political prisoners. It was in June 2014. The police dispersed the protest violently. They were throwing glass on us and we were arrested. The sentence was handed down very fast. We got three years in prison.

After an appeal the sentence was reduced to two years but then nine months before the end of our sentence, the president issued an amnesty for a hundred individuals. The amnesty included our case which involved about 24 protesters. So I came out of jail last year.

TIA: How was life like in prison? 

Sallam: We were quite privileged because we were women. In Egypt, the women’s prison is better than the men’s prison. We were also privileged because we didn’t belong to the Muslim Brotherhood branch of politics. We were treated better than them. All seven of us were in one cell together with another woman who had been imprisoned on separate charges.

TIA: Would you like to expand on that? What do you mean when you say you “were treated better?”


Sallam: It means that we were allowed to get letters from friends and family and we were allowed to read as many books as we wanted. In short, we had more access to the outside world than them. The seven of us that were arrested together didn’t experience any kind of torture. We were locked up for twenty two hours a day with breaks for either family visits or the one hour in the morning and evening for walking.

TIA: Can you give us a sense of the political landscape in Egypt?

Sallam: At the moment we have [Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi as President. He came into power in June 2014. He was the head of the military back then and overthrew Mohamed Morsi, our first civilian elected president. Ever since Sisi took power, there have been a lot of enforced disappearances, a lot of people thrown in jail, a lot of people killed. The human rights violations are getting worse and worse.

This situation is not being compensated for with gains in other areas either. He is not doing anything. It has been two years of him saying he is fighting terrorism but still our soldiers are being killed in North Sinai. He’s also been saying the economic situation is going to get better but it is not getting better. Prices are on the rise. People are protesting. A lot of medication is not there anymore in the pharmacies. Even children’s milk is not being sold. There are a lot of problems at the moment and I think it is going to get worse.

We’re also living in a time when the space for civil society organisations is shrinking more and more. There is a huge backlash against human rights organisations receiving foreign funding. So it’s not going well for either the human rights people, the independent activists or even the artists on the street. Anyone who is doing anything against the status quo is taken away to be put either in prison or in detention.

‘There is no such thing as a revolution starting and ending in a couple of months,’ says Egyptian activist Yara Sallam (Photo credit: Tahrir Square on December 23, 2011. Omar Kamel / Flickr)

‘There is no such thing as a revolution starting and ending in a couple of months,’ says Egyptian activist Yara Sallam (Photo credit: Tahrir Square on December 23, 2011. Omar Kamel / Flickr)

TIA: There are a lot of youth-led protest movements across Africa. Are you in touch with some of the activists from Sub-Saharan Africa?

Sallam: I consider myself African. I know a lot of people in North Africa don’t attach themselves to the continent but I consider myself a North-African feminist. I am touch with some feminists and I am trying to be engaged as much as I can.

TIA: You just touched on something very interesting. You say that many North Africans don’t consider themselves as Africans. Why is that so? 

Sallam: It’s complicated because many North Africans also don’t consider themselves Arabs. I think what’s at play is a very nationalistic attitude and also a lot of arrogance mixed in with a lot of ignorance. We don’t want to be called Arabs because Arabs for us are those in the Gulf and most people don’t think highly of them. 

There is also a bit of an inferiority complex going on. For example if someone was to have a second passport, they would love for it to be a Western passport, you know, American, Canadian or European, because we don’t think of ourselves as a mosaic with several identities. I think people just want to be associated with others that they think highly of other than themselves. I lived in Gambia for six months and I always felt more at ease than in any other country. I lived in the US and I didn’t feel that comfortable. So I think it is about understanding that we have multiple layers of cultures and to know there is a lot of value in this diversity.

TIA: You mentioned before that the democratic space in Egypt is shrinking but the revolution is still ongoing. Most people refer to it as the Arab Spring and give it a timeline and according to which the revolution is over. Is this true? And how are young people navigating the shrinking democratic space in Egypt?


Sallam: The Arab Spring is a Western terminology and I completely disagree with it. If anyone reads history, they will know that there is no such thing as a revolution starting and ending in a couple of months after achieving everything it wants. Not even a couple of years are enough for that to happen. It takes time for everything to move around. Achieving change in the society and the change in thinking is a slow process.

I don’t think that the generation that saw their friends and family being killed, entered the morgues, were shot themselves or were imprisoned would ever deal with things as the older generation did. The older generation said, “enough chaos, let’s sit down and see what political agreements we can reach.” It is completely unfair to the younger generation.

I think young people now are mostly engaging in politics in universities and independent political movements such as “6th of April” or engaging in artivism. I think there’s a lot of distrust in political parties in Egypt at the moment from the younger generation. They are quite rebellious towards any form of structure and anyone who would sit with a regime that has pursued a policy of political massacre right from the beginning when they killed more than one thousand people at a Muslim Brotherhood sit in.

TIA: Lastly, what books would you recommend to readers on the continent if they want to better understand Egypt? 

Sallam: I would recommend a novelist called Sonallah Ibrahim. I read lot of his work but if there is one book of his that could really help readers to understand the Egyptian context and the evolution of our society then it has to be his novel Zaat.


TIA: Thank you Sallam