On the other side of the bars: the broken families of el-Sisi's Egypt
In Egypt, 60,000 people are imprisoned for political reasons. They live in inhuman conditions and often have no access to decent healthcare. MO* spoke to their relatives, here and in Egypt. ‘My brain is rusting, I want to be able to occupy myself with something.’
November 2021. It is the first cold night in Cairo. İn the coffee house where İ spend most of my evenings, the first sweaters have appeared. A suited customer warms his hands on the coals of a waterpipe. The screen in front of us shows the umpteenth replay of a Premier League football match.
I pay no attention to the game. Instead, I am watching, with increasing bewilderment, a promotional video on an Egyptian friend’s phone. The images are reminiscent of the commercials for the many luxury compounds on former desert land outside the city, which have become emblematic of Abdul-Fatah el-Sisi’s presidency.
Yet this time, the video presents a whole different project: the building of a new prison complex in Wadi el-Natrun, northwest of the capital. Under the slogan ‘A chance to life’, the Egyptian regime promises a facility where the rehabilitation of prisoners is central. Convicts receive painting workshops and learn new crafts that should prepare them for life after prison.
In the video, the prisoners receive family visits. They run into each other’s arms without a hint of control by the prison guards. There is a stunning mosque in the center of the complex and I would be able to see the careless smiles on the prisoners’ faces, were it not that the inmates are all neatly wearing their mouth masks to curb the spread of the corona virus inside prison.
The promises made in the video are in stark contrast with the stories I have been reading and hearing about how Egypt treats its inmates. Ex-detainees and their families have testified about torture and political retaliation inside the prisons. Thousands of men and women have suddenly disappeared, only to reappear days, weeks or even months later in a police cell. The prisoners’ rights to family visits and communication with the outside world have come increasingly under pressure. Medical negligence in the cells has cost the lives of many. These dire prison conditions have only been further exacerbated by the numerous outbreaks of corona inside the prison complexes due to overcrowding and the lack of hygiene and ventilation.
‘The new strategy for human rights of Egypt doesn’t change anything in Egypt. Stop using it as a positive example of change.’
Since the beginning of el-Sisi’s presidency in 2014, the number of prisoners in Egypt has surged. The authorities refuse to disclose the exact number, but the UN puts it at 114,000, which is double the capacity of 55,000. Human Rights defenders say that at least 60,000 of these are imprisoned for political reasons, helping Egypt to earn the 161st place on the Human Freedom Index, just below Iran.
Simultaneously with the video’s release, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi presented his new strategy for Human Rights in Egypt to the outside world. Activist Mona Seif vocalized the general feeling of skepticism among Egyptian Human Rights Defenders regarding the promises of the Egyptian Authorities in front of a European Parliament panel on Human Rights in October 2021: ‘The new strategy for human rights of Egypt doesn’t change anything in Egypt … It’s only made for you. Stop using it as a positive example of change.’
The mass arrests are affecting thousands of families. I decided to talk to some of the friends and families of prisoners, hoping to better grasp the extent of the humanitarian crisis in the Egyptian cells and the consequences for those standing at the other side of the bars.
The day that Ahmed disappeared
My journey begins a month earlier, in a cozy bookstore in Brussels, where I meet with Souheila Yıldız, a teacher and an alumna of Ghent University. At the moment of our meeting, her partner, Ahmed Samir Santawy, an Egyptian anthropology student enrolled at an Austrian University, has been imprisoned for almost a year.
‘We bonded through our common love for Arabic literature and the fact that we both in a way liberated ourselves from our more conservative families,’ Yıldız recalls. When I inquire about her favorite Arabic writer, she swiftly responds: ‘Ahmed, of course!’
February the 1st, 2021 marks the date of Santawy’s forced disappearance. This term is used to describe the period in which a person is held at a police station without being officially arrested yet, leaving the family ignorant of their location. During this time, Santawy was subjected to torture, Amnesty later reported. Officers beat him and kept him blindfolded.
Officers interrogated him about his academic research on women’s reproductive rights in Egypt. He reappeared five days later before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, the legal institution charged with investigating crimes related to national security.
‘Ahmed hardly was an activist. He was just really unlucky to be picked out by the regime.’
Five months later, Santawy received a four-year-sentence, for ‘publishing false news to undermine the state, its national interests and public order and spread panic among the people’.
Santawy immediately challenged this verdict by starting a hunger strike and consequently was placed in an isolation cell. His relatives and fellow students launched the #FreeAhmedSamir campaign, protesting the verdict that can only be revoked by a presidential pardon.
‘Ahmed hardly was an activist,’ Amnesty researcher Hussein Baoumi tells me in his office in Brussels. ‘He was just really unlucky to be picked out by the regime.’
Santawy’s imprisonment fits with the climate of government suspicion of Egyptians studying abroad, Baoumi explains. In a recent statement, the Egyptian Ministry of Immigration referred to young Egyptians studying abroad as the most dangerous in the spectrum, because they would be at danger of being corrupted by foreign ideas.
In the same vein, Patrick Zaki, a Coptic human rights researcher studying in Bologna, was arrested a year earlier and tried on similar security-related charges, having published articles on his Facebook page criticizing the poor COVID-precautions in Egyptian prisons. He was eventually liberated in December 2021. However, Zaki’s trial is still ongoing so there remains a possibility that he will be sentenced.
Hours of banging on the cell door
The consequences of mass imprisonment can be felt everywhere in Egyptian society. Especially in activist circles, everyone knows at least one person who is or has been in jail. Yet, it is difficult to find information about what really is happening inside Egypt’s prison cells.
‘Censorship and control of information about detention conditions, blanket restrictions on access to prisons for independent bodies, and intimidation of prisoners’ families and activists all make it difficult to assess the true extent of the human rights crisis in Egypt’s prison,’ Baoumi explains.
Furthermore, it is ‘dangerous for ex-prisoners and their relatives to speak out about it. Most people are afraid. We don’t interview people in Egypt in person but use secured calling applications over the internet.’
‘Each one of us expects at every moment a phone call saying that we may pick up the lifeless body of our relative so we can bury it in the darkness.’
Prison food is very problematic and medical care is almost non-existent, Baoumi describes the situation. ‘So Prisoners, or rather: their families, are expected to provide for their basic needs. The prisoners thus form a financial burden which many families can’t afford, especially not if their most important breadwinner is behind the bars.’
Taher Mokhtar, ex-prisoner and former president of the doctors’ syndicate of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, talks as a firsthand witness about the lack of medical support. ‘It would take hours of banging the cell door for someone to get a doctor’s appointment. And if you then eventually got antibiotics or another kind of medication, it often isn’t sufficient for the full cure.’
Medical negligence has led to severe health complications and in some instances even death. The fate of deposed president Mohamed Morsi speaks volumes. After six years of imprisonment, he finally succumbed at the age of 67 from a heart attack in court.
A declaration on Facebook of Family of Prisoners of the Aqrab Jail, an informal organization, reflects the fear of family members that their loved ones may not survive imprisonment. ‘Each one of us expects at every moment a phone call saying that we may pick up the lifeless body of our relative so we can bury it in the darkness.’
Letters as lifeline
Between Yıldız’s home city of Ghent and the Tora Maximum Security Prison (also known as Aqrab prison) where Ahmed is being held lie more than 3000 kilometers. Yıldız has repeatedly urged the Belgian government to help her obtain permission to visit her partner in jail, but to no avail.
‘My brain is rusting, I’m sitting here doing nothing. I want my books, I want to keep myself busy with something.’
Yıldız lives towards every 4th of the month, which is the day on which Ahmed normally is allowed to receive a 20-minute visit by one family member. Usually, that’s the moment when messages are passed.
Prison letters are Yıldız’s only way of communicating with her boyfriend and of knowing what he is going through. That also means that Ahmed’s communication is read twice before reaching her, once by the prison authorities and then again by Ahmed’s family.
The NSA (Egypt’s National Security Agency) recently curtailed Santawy’s right to prison communication and books. ‘Ahmed is not well,’ Yıldız writes in December 2021 a Facebook post. ‘No books and no letters were given to him since the last visit that took place on November 4th, until today. For an entire month he sits facing the wall in a solitary cell. … Winter is harsh, and complete disconnection from the outside world makes him feel absolutely lonely. He tells me that the letters are his umbilical cord to the world and the thing that eases him up a bit.’
Remember me. I was there, I was there, my friend.’
In another letter, Santawy writes: ‘My brain is rusting, I’m sitting here doing nothing. I want my books, I want to keep myself busy with something.’
Many other prisoners have stressed the importance of those prison letters. ‘I needed the letters just to keep surviving,’ former political prisoner and writer Abdel Rahman el-Gendy tells me during an online interview.
‘I kept rereading letters until I memorized them. Some of them are tattered because of how much I read them. The ink got faded because I read them 15 times and more. You just like to remember that there’s people out there remembering you, ‘cause you start forgetting your memories, that you ever were out there. These memories fade and you start to doubt. Was I ever outside? Was I born in prison? Those letters kind of ground you and anchor you. Remember me. I was there, I was there, my friend.’
Unlike Yıldız, the French Céline Lebrun-Shaath, wife of the recently liberated Egyptian-Palestinian activist Ramy Shaath, did obtain permission to visit her husband in jail after pressure from her government.
‘Communication requires creativity,’ Lebrun-Shaath tells me during a Skype interview. ‘Rami really likes information. Every morning, the first thing he would do is heat the water, smoke a cigarette and read or watch the news for an hour. The same in the evening.’
While her husband was in jail, she got SD-cards with long voice recordings smuggled into prison. Ramy could listen to them with a reader he had hidden in his cell. ‘I would tell him general things about my life, what’s happening with our friends, but also what was going on in the world.’
Relatives of prisoners have shown me bracelets, flowers made from crêpe paper, T-shirts signed by all prisoners of a cell and misbaha’s (prayer beads) made from dried breadcrumbs. ‘Producing those objects in prison is a form of resistance,’ says Aida Seif el-Dawla, head of El-Nadeem Center for the rehabilitation of victims of state violence in Egypt. ‘You want to isolate me? Well, I’m not isolated. I will resist this isolation. And of course, it’s a consolation to the family members outside. Three times I have received a present from someone in prison, and it was an amazing feeling.’
The cases that are flagged by human rights organizations are only the tip of the iceberg. Most families decide to stay silent about their imprisoned relative, fearing that the regime will take revenge on the prisoners or on other family members for speaking out.
‘It is something we have to consider,’ Yıldız admits, ‘but at the same time: it didn’t bring any good, staying silent.’
She refers to the tragic case of Shady Habash, a young filmmaker who died in his cell from complications after ingesting methyl alcohol. The prison authorities failed to give him the necessary medical treatment. His case was not treated as an emergency. Instead, they gave him antiemetic (anti-vomit medicine) and sent him back to his cell, where he died from untreated complications.
‘His family didn’t want to make a fuss about his incarceration and waited in silence for his release. But if the international community would have known what was happening, the prison authorities might have felt more pressure to provide the necessary treatment.’
Yıldız believes the media attention has managed to improve Ahmed’s situation. ‘There are many thousands of prisoners, but because they are not known, they are being forgotten. So silence doesn’t solve anything. It might become worse for the prisoner temporarily, but in the long run I believe it improves the situation of the prisoner.’ ‘We hear from people who are locked up with 20 to 40 in one cell. Ahmed at least has a decent cell, which he shares with two other political prisoners.’
A revolution washed away
In order to better understand how imprisonment is affecting the lives of prisoners’ relatives, I decide to travel to Cairo. I land in a society where politics seem to be banned from the public sphere. Nearly every sign of the 2011 revolution is washed away by public renovation works. Only some graffiti on part of the enclosure of the American University of Cairo reminds me of what once was a long mural honoring the revolution’s martyrs.
‘Those insults, that’s the first thing they do to you in jail. They force you to insult yourself. They try to break your self-worth.’
When I drive past an empty branch of the El-Tawhid & El-Nour Department Stores, a friend remarks that the chain — as many others — had to close down: its owner, Sayed el-Sewerky, was arrested for allegedly financing a terrorist group (read: the Muslim Brotherhood).
According to Human Rights Watch, the detention of businessmen like him ‘exposes how the government is using Egypt’s flawed terrorism law to punish successful businessmen who refuse to surrender their property to the state’, thereby further tightening the Army’s grip on the Egyptian economy.
At another point I sit on a terrace drinking sugarcane juice with a friend, when a man approaches us, violently pulling his long beard. ‘I’m an idiot,’ he screams, ‘I’m worth nothing!’ The police arrive at the scene and with a discrete decisiveness gesture the man to leave the square.
‘It’s clear what happened to the guy,’ my friend tells me afterwards. ‘Those insults, that’s the first thing they do to you in jail. They force you to insult yourself. They try to break your self-worth. Do you now understand why I don’t want to discuss politics anymore, why I rather talk about cryptocurrency than about politics?’
The unwritten rules of incarceration
In anticipation of our meeting, my next interviewee Mohamed Lotfi, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), sends a registry with 100 names of Egyptian political prisoners, aiming to give the reader a cross section of the profiles locked up by the regime.
I scroll through the file in silence while the shivers run down my spine. There are the political figures and affiliates, such Anas Mohamed el-Beltagi, son of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed el-Beltagi, or Israa Abdel Fattah, journalist and founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement, beaten and tortured after her arrest in order to reveal the password to unlock her mobile phone. There are the members of Human Rights organizations, the trade unionists, the artists and the scholars.
At the end, there is the newest target group of the NSA: victims of moral guardianship, such as the 23-year-old Hadeer Hamd and Noura Hesham, known as the ‘Tiktok girls’, imprisoned for ‘violating family principles and values of Egyptian society’.
There seems to be a red line connecting most of the cases. The same three accusation keep popping up: ‘joining a terrorist group’, ‘spreading false news that harms the security of the State’ and ‘misusing social media’. Furthermore, many imprisonments are preceded by a forced disappearance which lasts weeks to months.
The duration of the pre-detention is often lengthened by tadweer, the rotating of the detainee through existing legal cases. Once a case is handled, the detainee is kept in custody by trying him or her for a new case. Most detainees are subject to torture or other forms of inhumane or degrading treatment and there is a consistent policy of medical negligence. At last, many prisoners are punished by denying them the right to family visits or other ways of communicating with the outside world.
I meet Mohamed Lotfi in a quiet neighborhood in Cairo. His office breathes sobriety. The walls are blank and there is a brown wooden desk and two couches for receiving guests, hardly filling half of the space. ‘We had to move offices after we were raided twice by the police, once in 2016 and again in 2017,’ Lotfi explains his lack of interest in decorations.
Lotfi’s association has witnessed several detentions. At the moment of the interview, there are still employees behind bars. Their researcher on housing rights, Ibrahim Izeddeen, disappeared for 167 days. He was tortured in an unknown location and finally reappeared in the hands of the State and was accused by the State Security Prosecution of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news. It’s the old refrain, over and over again.
‘The authorities are giving a signal to society in general that if they open their mouth, they could end up in the same situation.’
Over the years, the circumstances have gradually deteriorated for associations like the ECRF. In 2019, the parliament passed a new NGO law, requiring all organizations to register with the government by January 2023 and have their activities monitored by the State, a concession many organizations are not willing to make.
‘The first massive wave of arrests came in 2013,’ Mohamed Lotfi tells me, ‘when Sisi cracked down upon supporters of the ousted president and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.’ Over time, the scope was broadened to liberals, socialists, pan-Arabists and other non-Islamist political members.
‘The international community only noticed this big elephant in the room with the death of Giulio Regeni in January 2016,’ Lotfi states. Regeni was an Italian PhD-student conducting research on Egyptian independent trade unions, a sensitive subject in the country. He was abducted, tortured and eventually killed. In October 2021, a court in Rome opened the trial against four Egyptian police officers in their absence, accused of being responsible for the murder.
‘One cannot underestimate the effects of this mass imprisonment on Egyptian society,’ Lotfi says. ‘There are thousands and thousands of prisoners. That means thousands and thousands of families, friends, colleagues and acquaintances of prisoners who know about the plight and who think this is unfair. So the authorities are giving a signal to society in general that if they open their mouth, they could end up in the same situation.’
The curse of Laila Soueif
If Mohamed’s office was located in an exceptionally quiet neighborhood of Cairo, I meet Mona Seif in a vibrant quartier in Dokki. Mona is a scion of the Seifs, a family of liberal activists who have been opposing the Egyptian regime since the time of Sadat (Egyptian president who was killed in 1981).
Seif awaits me with a contagious smile and her sister’s dog Toka. She is taking care of the pet while her sister Sanaa is waiting for her release in the Qanatir women’s prison. She was kidnapped with a minibus in front of the police station where she was holding a sit-in protesting the dire prison conditions of her brother Alaa Abdel Fatah.
Their brother Alaa is considered one of the most high-profile liberal activists in Egypt. In 2021 his book You have not yet been defeated was published, a compilation of his political speeches, articles and tweets. Since 2011 he has spent more time in- than outside of jail. Also their father, the late Ahmed Seif, was once imprisoned for his political ideas, be it under a different president.
I ask Mona Seif whether she is afraid that one day it will be her turn to be imprisoned. ‘I was and I still am, but prison is no longer my biggest fear. My worst nightmare is part of what is happening right now.’ ‘We have this joke in the family,’ she explains, ‘that I am suffering from “the curse of Laila Soueif.’ ‘Back in the 70s, when everyone was getting arrested, Mona’s mother Laila was one of the very few who didn’t. So she was left outside with the burden of taking care of her friends and family behind the bars.
According to Mona, the imprisonment of her siblings has changed the family dynamics. ‘There are times when Alaa feels we don’t understand what he’s going through and there are times when I feel the same. Alaa has never tried being the family on the other side of the bars. He was briefly released after papa’s death. We went visiting Sanaa in prison and Alaa said he couldn’t do that.’
‘This regime is male.’
Mona Seif, Souheila Yıldız, Céline Lebrun-Shaath: it seems that the heavy toil of taking care of imprisoned relatives most often befalls the women of the family. ‘This regime is male,’ Mona Seif explains. ‘So when it comes to political prisoners, there is the assumption that women are not to be taken seriously. Sometimes this can be an advantage.’
But this dynamic is changing, according to Mona. She recalls when she, her mother and her sister were beaten up by a female squad in front of the Tora prison while they were demanding that a letter Alaa wrote would be delivered to them. ‘This was the regime crossing another red line. Before, there was the belief that women were slightly more protected during visits or tabliyya (the delivery of necessities to prisoners). But of course, they hired women to do the job.’
At the time of the interview, Alaa Abdel Fattah is locked up in the Tora Prison, a blessing in disguise as it is situated within the Cairo governorate. Some prisoners spend their prison time far away from their relatives, such as the inmates of the New Valley prison in Wadi Kharga deep in the Western Desert. The 6000 kilometers that separate it from the capital make visits and tabliyya even more complicated and expensive.
Mona Seif mentally runs me through a typical prison visit, even though the word ‘typical’ hardly seems to apply to the Egyptian prison context. At the time of the interview, Mona has not been allowed to visit her siblings for several months.
‘I’m sure they record our visits.’
‘At the prison gate, we first hand over our IDs and prison letters and a paper with the list of things that we have brought for Alaa. Every time we bring him something, it must be approved by someone high up in State Security.’
‘We usually stay in front of the prison from around 10am until we are allowed in, which is around 3 or 4pm. Our day in prison is just a lost day.’ Families that live far away from the place where their relative is being held, lose even more days. Ex-prisoner Taher Mokhtar, a former member of the Alexandrian Doctors’ Syndicate, had told me earlier how his family spent three days on a visit, as they had to travel from the Mediterranean city of Marsa Matruh to Cairo every time.
‘Visits to Alaa take place in a building with small cabins that look like bathroom blocks. You enter from a door with double glass, sometimes there’s a chair and a fan. Alaa is brought in on the other side of the glass and an officer comes in to hand over the phone. I’m sure they record our visits.’
Baba and Dodo hide from a lion
‘Harassment, also sexual, is a problem for visitors. There’s a classist element to it. If they feel that you are from a slightly higher class, they would be slightly more cautious.’ ‘In many prisons, if you bribe people at the gates, they won’t harass or search you.’ Except: those bribes make the financial burden of a visit even greater.
Seif: ‘A visit costs in general in the thousands (Egyptian pounds). That’s why often prisoners get fewer visits, because it’s too expensive.’ ‘We get huge financial support from friends and family. Honestly, I don’t know how other families without this vast network are managing.’
‘When there’s no drawing for Dodo (Khaled’s nickname), we know that Alaa is not well.’
Then Mona suddenly brightens up. ‘I got something I can show you!’ She briskly walks away from the table. Toka, who sluggishly had been standing on the table between my hostess and me, jumps to the floor and follows her owner’s sister into one of the bedrooms of the family house. I hear the dog bark, and a second later Mona reappears beamingly in the living room. In her arms a large pile of paper.
‘These are only the ones my mother kept here. There are many more in the other house.’ Mona drops letters on the table and randomly draws one out of the pile, then chuckles. ‘This one says: Baba and Dodo hiding behind a baobab from a lion.’
She shows me a drawing illustrating the sentence and explains that her brother usually makes a drawing for his son Khaled on the back of his letters. It’s his way of communicating with his son, who was diagnosed with nonverbal autism. ‘When there’s no drawing for Dodo (Khaled’s nickname), we know that Alaa is not well.’
On the other side of the paper, Alaa Abdel-Fattah has written a letter for the grown-ups. ‘Hey mommy,’ Mona translates for me. ‘As usual I am writing you a response without actually getting your letter. I’m responding to your February and January letter, but probably will cut it short ‘cause it’s windy and it’s cold and I want to go back under the covers.’
The woman in black niqaab who embarrassed the president
After the army had deposed Mohamed Morsi in 2013, they cracked down on his supporters. In August that year, at least 900 Morsi-sympathizers were killed when security forces opened fire on a sit-in on the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares.
Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi was affiliated, were imprisoned. In the following years, the organization was annihilated. Even though this group has endured the worst repression under the military rule, their imprisoned members have been underreported in Western media, who seem to prefer reporting about so-called liberal prisoners.
It is near to impossible to speak to Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt. Only mentioning the organization’s name in public, may cause suspicion. Instead, I have a video call with Omar Sweikh, who has fled to Turkey after his release from jail.
The Sweikh family is closely associated with the pro-Morsi camp and has payed a heavy price for this. In his characteristic laconic style, Omar Sweikh relates to me how the regime took revenge by targeting the members of his family one by one. First Omar and his brother disappeared. They endured severe torture and were both individually raped by prison guards.
When Omar’s brother described the events in a letter to his mother, she decided that she would not remain silent. She contacted several media outlets and read out loud parts of her son’s letter on Al Jazeera.
The campaign that ensued became world news. ‘They were talking about this in the Congress in the US and in the European Parliament. When someone from the US visited Egypt at that time, they would talk about my mom and my brother. It made a big fuss.’
With her television appearances, in which she consistently wore a black niqaab, Omar Sweikh’s mother succeeded in what few others managed to do before her: she embarrassed the Egyptian president in front of his Western allies.
The retaliation followed soon after. Omar Sweikh had already fled to Turkey by that time. ‘They broke into our house in Cairo while I was talking to my mom over the phone. Suddenly she hung up. I thought there was a connection problem. Two minutes later my sister called me and said that they were in the house. They took my mom, my 18-year-old sister and my dad. They left my little brother alone in the house.’
‘My mother has diabetes and underwent a stomach operation before they took her,’ Sweikh tells me with tears in his eyes. ‘She must take a lot of medicine to stay alive, but since her arrest she has not been allowed any visit.’
‘We don’t know whether the medicines we send are reaching her, or if she gets our money and our food. We don’t know anything about her, except that she’s alive, ‘cause ten days ago she appeared in court.’
‘The suffering does not stop at the prison gate’
As a child, Aida Seif el-Dawla spent months together with a fugitive uncle who had escaped jail under Nasser. ‘My parents were afraid I would tell on him if someone suddenly came in, so they locked us up in the same room.’
In that room, the seeds for Aida’s activism were sawn. Her uncle did not utter a word, but somehow the two built a connection.
Through her work as a psychiater and as head of El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of State Violence, Aida Seif now comes into contact daily with families traumatized by a prison experience. She paints a grim picture of family life after their release.
‘The suffering does not stop at the prison gates,’ she tells me in her living room in Cairo. ‘At first, of course there is the happiness of reuniting, but then there are so many gaps to fill. So many new rules to learn, so many expectations. And also coming to terms with the fact that their families have survived without them. It’s a punishment, for both the prisoners and their families’
Many ex-prisoners deal with mental health issues caused by trauma. ‘Across the board, you have all the spectrum of anxiety disorders, affective disorder like depression and a few cases of sleep disturbances, appetite, sexual disturbances, disturbed confidence in people, including those closest to them.’
‘Many of my clients feel guilty that they have come out while their friends are left inside.’
The prison is targeting the breaking of the prisoners’ will, according to Aida Seif el-Dawla. ‘There is a lack of logic in prison. Everything depends on this or that officer or judge, whether you stay in prison or are released, whether you receive visits or not. Same goes for medical treatment.’ ‘The Islamists in Tora Maximum Security prison have not received any visits for years. People like Alaa are denied books, even from the prison library. They experience total isolation. Even when Alaa goes to court, he is transported alone, in a tank.’
‘And then there’s something called survivor’s guilt. Many of my clients feel guilty that they have come out while their friends are left inside.’
‘There is a strange intimacy in jail. You share stories, memories, you might break down and cry in front of your prison mates. You might argue, but in front of a police officer you unite. It’s almost a copied sentence by so many that they have left some part of themselves inside.’ ‘They might get the belief that they can’t be understood by someone who has not had their experience. And it’s true. They can’t imagine this.’
Dredging versus Human Rights
In January 2013 the Biden administration announced the withholding of $130 million of military aid to Egypt, out of Human Rights concerns. It proves that the international community has the tools to hit the increasingly authoritarian Egyptian regime where it hurts them. However, so far the use of this leverage has been limited, mainly because the West sees the el-Sisi regime as an ally in the fight against illegal migration and international terrorism.
François Cornet d’Elzius, the Belgian ambassador to Egypt, puts it quite bluntly: ‘We are a bit hypocritical. […] We have a lot to lose, especially economic interests.’ His statement is followed by a list of the biggest contracts by Belgian companies in Egypt, including the dredging of the Suez Canal by DEME, the construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum by BESIX and contracts involving the Port of Antwerp.
‘There is a grudging consensus among diplomats to let el-Sisi run its course as long as there’s progression in infrastructure and public amenities.’
On the question of whether there are contracts of military nature, the ambassador is more careful. ‘There is activity’, he states. He cuts his sentence short, saying that the information is of a sensitive nature and that he wishes not to continue on the topic.
‘Belgium wants stability for trade and migration control. El-Sisi safeguards these interests.’. Furthermore, ‘there is a grudging consensus among diplomats to let el-Sisi run its course as long as there’s progression in infrastructure and public amenities,’ the ambassador concludes, adding that ‘the [Egyptian] government is making a sincere effort for the peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Copts in the country and as well regarding women rights.’
Part of the Belgian diplomatic mission is to push for respect for Human Rights in the country and to represent Belgian citizens in Egypt. I was therefore quite shocked to realise that the ambassador did not remember Souheila’s name, a Belgian citizen he is supposed to represent and who had received the promise by the ministry of Foreign Affairs that an effort would be made to push for Ahmed’s release.
The ambassador did add that the embassy ‘takes every opportunity to say that these elements (Ahmed Samir Santawy’s case) are causing enormous damage to the Belgian-Egyptian relationship.’
Sporadic good news
On my way back from the embassy, I walk past the police station of Abdeen in downtown Cairo. It is a Sunday evening and the night has fallen over the city. I silently watch the scattered group of people waiting at the entrance, in their hands plastic bags with what appears to be food. Could it be that those are family members trying to deliver some basic amenities to a relative? Asking them would be imprudent. Instead, I walk past them, sensing tiredness in their eyes.
‘It’s sad that lately, the only good news coming from Egypt is about people being released from prison.’
The more I learn about the Egyptian prison situation, the clearer it becomes to me that families are imprisoned along with their detained relatives. Their lives are dictated by economic difficulties, social ostracism and the constant fight for the respecting of constitutional prisoner rights, such as visits or basic medical care.
‘It’s sad that lately, the only good news coming from Egypt is about people being released from prison,’ Amnesty researcher Hussein Baoumi tells me in a café upon my return to Brussels.
On 8 December 2021 the Egyptian researcher Patrick Zaki was freed after spending more than 20 months in custody. Later that month, Sanaa Seif followed. On Twitter I see the pictures of her reunion with her dog Toka. At the beginning of this year, also Céline Lebrun-Shaath’s husband Rami was liberated, after more than 900 days in detention, on the condition that he gave up his Egyptian nationality. On July 30th, there also came an end to the nightmare of Ahmed Samir Santawy and his family, after el-Sisi granted him and two of his cellmates a presidential pardon. He is, however, still subject to a travel ban.
The joy these families share on social media is infectious. However, one cannot help but think of the thousands of other detainees and their families, still waiting for the day their healing can finally commence.
This article deals with a very sensitive subject. It shows courage that the featured individuals were willing to speak out on this issue. Many of them no longer live in Egypt and have no intention of returning as long as President el-Sisi is in power. Those who do still live in the country and have testified, such as members of the Seif family, Aida Seif al-Dawla and Mohamed Lotfi, seem to have accepted their fate as members of the persecuted opposition. Incarceration hangs over their heads like a sword of Damocles. All they can hope for is that their network deters the regime, for fear of an international scandal.
My Belgian passport offers me a privileged protection. Yet, publishing my name would probably lead to my banning from Egypt, a country and society I have come to love. Therefore, I have decided to remain anonymous.
This article was realized with the support of the Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistiek.
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