The Prison State

How Egyptian Governance has Devolved into Tyranny

On August 14, 2013, Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as the photojournalist Shawkan, had joined street protestors in Cairo’s Rabaa Square to document the now infamous sit-in. As police and security forces brutally dispersed the crowd, killing hundreds and marking the event as the bloodiest encounter in Egypt’s modern history, Shawkan was one of thousands arrested. His crime? Allegedly taking pictures of the protest and its subsequent disruption by the police. Shawkan has since been detained without trial for nearly 1000 days at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison, “a sprawling complex in the south of [Cairo] where the authorities routinely violate legally enshrined prisoners’ rights.

In his first letter to the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Shawkan recounts the psychological torment he experienced upon first being detained at Rabaa Square. Held first for three days in a tiny cell with 39 other prisoners, Shawkan recalls being routinely beaten and denied food or water before being packed into a small van, crammed with other prisoners, and being transferred to Abu Zabal Prison. In the prison’s forecourt, they were kept in the van for hours in the heat, making it difficult to breathe and causing the deaths of 37 prisoners, some held in other vans. Eventually Shawkan was transferred to Tora Prison where he has been held ever since, sometimes in solitary confinement.

Reflecting on his torment in his second letter to Amnesty International, penned from his prison and published on March 9, 2016, Shawkan desperately questions how and why this level of extreme brutality and oppression has descended over Egypt, pondering whether “the state has decided to leave its Brotherhood and ISIS enemies to teach a journalist a harsh lesson – a journalist who has no affiliation but to his profession; a journalist who answered the call of the government itself to cover the dispersal of the [Rabaa al-Adaweya] sit-in.”

These are the horrifying recollections of only man. Sadly, the detention of Shawkan and those other activists who were arrested for participating in the Rabaa Square protests have come to represent the new era of state-sanctioned violence and authoritarianism that categorize President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime. Relatively new anti-terrorism laws, approved by President Sisi in August 2015 and prompted by the killing of Egypt’s Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in June 2015, have allowed the state to act with impunity in the year since, detaining without charge any citizen it deems a threat.

The laws establish[ed] special courts and offer additional protection from legal consequences for military and police officers who have used force,” effectively ensuring these security forces will never face punishment. Conversely, anyone deemed an affiliate or leader of a “terrorist organization” (the meaning of which is left to be interpreted at the discretion of the state), could face the death penalty, at the most extreme, or 10 years or more in prison.

With these protection in place for state officials, thousands of Egyptians have been forcefully disappeared over the past year (and really since Sisi took power in 2013) in a manner startlingly reminiscent to the “Dirty War” carried out by the Argentine Military Government from the mid-1970s to the early ‘80s. Officially deemed the Process of National Reorganization, the Dirty War was a state-sanctioned campaign of terror and intimidation leveraged against dissidents.

In a disturbingly similar vein, those Egyptians fortunate enough to be returned to their families have reported being taken from their schools, workplaces, or homes (sometimes after being forcefully awoken) by security forces without a warrant and then illegally detained without charges. Once in detention, these people are often tortured and held indefinitely, much like Shawkan. According to conservative estimates, over 22,000 Egyptians have been the victims of this state-sanctioned abduction and detention, held in pre-trial incarceration without charge.


Families of disappeared in Egypt. Maha Mekaway, left, and Nour Khalil, right. Photo originally appeared in the Independent, taken by Hosam Eisyad

Oftentimes the victims’ families are never even made aware of their whereabouts. Those who are lucky enough are eventually released, able to return home (although lucky is a relative term here). Others, however are killed, their bodies abandoned haplessly, their family and friends none the wiser. Take for example the case of Ashraf Shehata, whose wife hasn’t seen him since January 2014. When she went to the police looking for help, she was told, “Maybe he is travelling; doesn’t he have a passport? It was that moment she realized he must have been abducted by security forces who would have known that he was carrying his passport, which his wife knew he was. Mr. Shehata may still be alive and incarcerated, or he may be dead, but it’s unlikely his wife will ever find out the truth.


Image of Guilio Regeni taken from The New York Times

And perhaps you haven’t heard of any of these stories, as the Egyptian government has been desperately trying to keep them buried. However, one story garnered international attention thanks to the victim’s European citizenship. Giulio Regeni was a 28-year-old doctoral candidate conducting field research into Egypt’s labor movement, particularly among street vendors” since September 2015. He was found dead on a roadside only a little ways outside of Cairo on Feb. 3, 2016, his body bearing signs of torture. At the behest and outrage of the Italian government, the Egyptian government has claimed to be carrying out an investigation into his death, which seems to be largely for show as they deny any involvement by police or security forces. Regeni was critical of Sisi and had even written a scathing article criticizing the Egyptian president in a left-wing Italian newspaper weeks before his death, albeit under a pseudonym.

Beyond the tragedy of Regeni’s death, it seems shocking, at least to me, that the Egyptian government has become so cavalier in dealing with the aftermath of this incident. A regime like Sisi’s desperately needs the support of “western powers” to maintain its legitimacy and influence, and murdering a European national in such a blatant manner would only strain these relationships so vital to the regime, I imagine.

While the frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt at governance was clear and reasonable in 2013, the widespread outpouring of support for the Brotherhood’s ousting at the hands of the military paved the way for this deeply entrenched authoritarianism to take root, as it has under Sisi. Worse still, this authoritarianism has steadily given way to a deadly tyranny, led by a tyrant worse than any in Egypt’s modern history.

Many hoped for a secular and competent government to take shape after the ouster, devoid of any Islamist strains or influences. However, the near-hostile exclusion of religiously backed political parties has also barred the participation of those same religious organizations that provide a majority of the most-needed social services to the most vulnerable communities; organizations and communities that have built networks of outreach and support over decades from a grassroots level. The Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the clearest example of this, having been the most well-connected and organized social organization during the 2011 Revolution, which made them so popular immediately after. However, since they were vilified and outlawed in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism more broadly have only become polarizing topics in Egyptian society to the point where the rift between secular and religious segments of society can no longer be bridged.

Nevertheless, Islamism may have simply become a lightning rod for debate in Egypt an perhaps as a distraction tactic as much more fundamental issues issues continued to plague Egypt, the same issues that sparked the 2011 Revolution. Unemployment is still a major problem for many Egyptians, compounded by the exorbitant costs of living, and sexual harassment and abuse is still rampant in society. In addition, Egyptians are now also living in fear of becoming one of the disappeared, a horrific fate even for those who aren’t killed as they will most likely be tortured, sometimes sexually abused, as 15-year-old Mazen Muhammad can attest to.


Esraa el Taweel, 23, was detained for two weeks. Photo originally appeared in the New York Times, taken by Sima DIab

As much as I can continue to rail against this regime, which has been torturing and killing its own citizens, regardless of age or physical and mental capabilities, I would like to end by wishing some semblance of peace for the victims and their families, if that’s even possible. Because underlying my anger is extreme horror and heartbreak that a place I still consider home seems to devolve more and more into madness every day. No one death is any more important than the others, I only hope that the stories of these victims will continue to trickle through media outlets so that at least the world will know the horrors they faced, and perhaps we can actually put foreign pressure on the Egyptian government to end this fascist dictatorship.



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