Egypt’s Growing Political Prisoner Problem

Over 21,000 have been detained under the guise of quelling political unrest.

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Apr 4 2014, 1:37pm

Sherif Farag

On a Thursday in mid March, an Egyptian architecture graduate student named Sherif Farag found himself defending his master’s thesis in prison. Wearing a white prison jumpsuit and his chunky black-framed glasses, he and several other students were led into a drab library in Alexandria’s Hadara Prison.

The show trial’s presiding officer, Colonel Hassan, sat puffing and sighing during the presentation, a sure tell he was unable to follow the abstractions of Farag's thesis—a theoretical tract on the application of topology, the branch of mathematics that deals with the properties of space.

Farag is among the growing number of students who have been detained as part of the Egyptian government's vast, ongoing crackdown on political dissent. In an attempt to rouse patriotic fervor and establish political dominance, the government led by Abdel Fattah al Sisi (who recently resigned from the military in order to run for president), has targeted any and all enemies of the state under the guise of quelling political unrest.

Wiki Thawra, an initiative of the watchdog Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, estimates that 21,317 were arrested between June and December of last year.

The real numbers in Egypt, however, are impossible to determine. Since the military coup in July 2013 that removed the elected but unpopular Brotherhood-backed government, security forces have arrested so many people that the actual number of detainees is not publicly known.

Human rights groups have been simply unable to document every arrest, and the state-backed National Council for Human Rights is reportedly not keeping record of detentions. As a result, any figure will be both an estimate and a matter of dispute. Human Rights Watch reports in its annual world survey that 3,500 “Brotherhood supporters” were arrested in “the months following” the July coup, although it's not clear from the report what exact period this covers. Individual news reports suggest that the cumulative number of detentions could be staggering. On a single day last August, Reuters reported that more than 1,000 people were arrested.

Farag was arrested and taken from his home in November of last year and has since been charged with a litany of other ludicrous crimes including murder and bank robbery. However, the state has presented no evidence supporting this claim to Farag or to the public.

Many of those arrested are Brotherhood members and sympathizers, other Islamists, and protesters who joined demonstrations against the coup. Others are non-Islamist activists, including the January 25 revolutionaries—mostly young people who toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak and denounced the 2012–2013 Brotherhood government. Other detainees are bystanders, ordinary people scooped up by the gaping maw of the Egyptian security state.

Farag is likely of the second kind—a protester targeted for his politics. After protesting alongside the youth movement responsible for ousting Egypt’s authoritarian regime, Farag turned his attention to what might be called humanist causes. He co-founded Save Alexandria, a group of urbanists campaigning to rescue the city’s architectural gems from fast-paced development.

As a graduate student and member of the university's teaching staff, Farag was also an activist for higher pay for teaching assistants—the position that led him to meeting his fiancée, Noha Mansour. The two were in the process of purchasing furniture and preparing to buy a home together when he was abruptly arrested.

“He was focused on his master’s thesis and our life, our home,” she said.

In fact, the specific crimes Farag is accused of (murder and bank robbery), according to Egypt’s Homeland Security Agency, took place on the days immediately preceding and following his engagement party on August 15. August 14 and 16 were days of violent clashes throughout Egypt following the dispersal of pro-Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo. “We were together the whole day, especially those days,” Mansour remembers.

Why Farag was selected for arrest remains something of a mystery, but his close confidantes suspect it was related not to his urban and academic activism but to his opposing the policies of the government that formed after the coup.

In November, when the government announced a draft law that would criminalize all street protests other than those taking place with a government permit, Farag organized a small protest at the Faculty of Fine Arts. It was this protest in particular that probably attracted the attention of the security services.

No hearing or other trial has taken place in the case. Since November, Farag's detention has been renewed repeatedly by the public prosecutor. Farag's lawyer, Ramy Eid Saad, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said there is “no evidence” for any of the charges, other than the word of Homeland Security. “They can label any activist a terrorist,” he said. “The issue, at its foundation, is political.”

Meanwhile, as many as 21,000 other political prisoners are sitting in jail cells, and Egypt’s criminal justice system is struggling to deal with the influx. Some of the detainees are well known, such as the four journalists with Al Jazeera whose arrest was denounced even by the White House, or Alaa Abdel Fattah, the famous blogger and revolutionary activist who was released on bail in March after 115 days in jail. Most of them are anonymous, unknown to the public, facing an ordeal that is unimaginable (to the rest of us) in terms of its sheer tedium and trauma.

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