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Egypt's Prisons Are Full to the Brim

The country's interim government are locking up hundreds of people every week.

by Louisa Loveluck
15 January 2014, 12:35pm

A pro-Morsi protester is arrested outside the courthouse during his trial last week.

Over the past three Fridays, Egyptian police have arrested over 700 protesters and killed another 27, according to official figures. There was a time when these numbers would have led the news bulletins; now, they're buried in half-hearted weekend round-ups. The news, it seems, is as tired with the situation in Egypt as the people who've retreated from politics in the years since the 2011 revolution.

According to Wiki Thawra, a website dedicated to documenting the Egyptian revolution, over 21,000 people have been arrested since the 3rd of July, the overwhelming majority of them during protests against the military ousting of Mohamed Morsi. The former president's Muslim Brotherhood, leaders of the nation just seven months ago, are now among its most despised criminals; on Christmas Day, the interim Egyptian government declared the organisation a terrorist group, despite scant evidence to suggest that this is the case.

Since Morsi's ousting, Egypt's streets have become governed by a new set of laws. In November, interim President Adly Mansour passed a new protest law criminalising the sort of mass demonstrations that marked Morsi’s final days in office. Unlicensed street gatherings of more than ten people are quickly shut down, particularly when they're held by the ragtag bunch of Morsi supporters still demonstrating week on week. Though, secular activists and journalists have also faced the state's ire. Critics argue that Egypt’s military-backed authorities are using new sweeping arrest powers to target the minority who disagrees with their approach.

"Every Friday, no less than 500 to 600 get arrested," declared Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in a press conference last week. "At the beginning, we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run. But whoever we can grab, we detain."

Students violently arrested at a protest outside Al Azhar University last month.

I spoke to one young man, Ahmad Nour el Din, who had been arrested after police spotted him filming clashes between demonstrators and police inside Cairo’s Al Azhar University. "My police cell was meant for five men, but I was surrounded by 20," he said. "[The police] target people who document what’s going on, then they put them in a cell with common criminals. Those men took money from us every day. They ran the cell, only letting us use the bathroom when they said so." 

With so many arrests, Egypt's prisons are growing increasingly crowded; with some cells filled to six times their capacity, prisoners report sleeping in shifts.

Four Al Jazeera journalists are being held in a cell in Cairo's notorious Tora prison, along with leading activists and aides of the former president, accused of posing a threat to national security for meeting with Muslim Brotherhood members. Last week the world was offered a rare glimpse of life inside the cell when a letter from one of the detainees being held there, April 6 co-founder Ahmed Maher, was smuggled out. One extract reads:

"Whoever is caught with pen or paper is tortured, along with all those with him. Those detained for crime have their freedom inside the prison regardless of their charges, whether murder or theft or drug dealing, but the political prisoners and those detained after 30 June are kept in solitary confinement."

His stories of collective punishment are echoed in the testimonies of many lawyers. Ayman, who usually acts on behalf of political detainees in Cairo’s Helwan district, told me of the horrors faced by several clients in incarceration. "One man was held with ten others inside a CSF [Central Security Forces, a paramilitary force responsible for assisting the Egyptian National Police] camp, where he watched prisoners from Kerdasa being tortured," he said. "They did it in full view, and it sent shockwaves through the camp. My client has not been badly beaten himself but he is not the same. He cannot meet my eyes, and he shakes."

Ayman ran mechanically through a list of the cases he has worked on since July. We reached a dozen, before he stopped abruptly and lit a cigarette. Speaking through the long drags, he told me he was tired. "There are just so many arrests, so many cases," he said. "Sometimes I wake in the night because a cat has jumped on the bins – I think it's the police coming to get me."

Families of the detained speak of months of worry, especially for relatives who grow ill in custody. Mustafa is the brother of a middle-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member who was arrested outside his pharmacy in early October. He told me that his brother became sick after being badly beaten then left in an overcrowded cell without medical treatment

"I wouldn’t even raise chickens in that space," he told me. "And yet they left Salah in there, bleeding and sick. Every time he ate, he would vomit. He had hiccups. His body started to swell… There was no doctor on site, so the prison authorities let [his cellmates treat him]. If you don't have any way of keeping the people alive or to preserve their dignity, why hold them there in the first place?"

Egyptian police attacking a protest at Al Azhar University.

Salah eventually died in hospital. By the time he'd been transferred, his brother says it was too late to save him. "The police knew what they’d done," he told me. "They knew they’d messed up. But they didn’t want to admit it, and so they didn’t transfer him. Now, it’s his family that lives with the pain."

The number of arrests is likely to keep on rising over the next couple of weeks. Egyptians have been voting on a new draft constitution – the first of the post-Morsi era – for the past two days. Interior Minister Ibrahim has warned that "any attempt to disrupt the referendum or prevent citizens from voting will be confronted by a level of force and severity that has not been seen before". Day one of the vote saw 140 arrests. 

The constitution is expected to pass by a large margin of "yes" votes. Polling suggests that the majority of Egyptians crave the stability that they believe a move towards political normalcy will bring. But those who might choose to vote "no" – likely objecting to provisions in the new constitution that entrench the military’s political role or sanction military trials for civilians – face prosecution for campaigning in favour of their beliefs.

In the run-up to the referendum, seven activists from Strong Egypt, a centrist Islamist party, were arrested for campaigning against the new document. Now bailed, the men report being beaten in custody, interrogated under anti-terrorism laws and accused of "opposing the constitution". Four of the men will be charged with involvement in terrorism, punishable with life in prison.

If there is further trouble around the polls – or on January the 25th, the third anniversary of Egypt’s abortive revolution – the country’s cells will continue to swell.

Follow Louisa on Twitter: @leloveluck

More from Egypt's political crisis:

As 2013 Dies the Face of Popular Protest in Egypt Is Changing Once More

Egyptian Police Are Accusing Students of Being Islamists and Killing Them

WATCH – Egypt After Morsi