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July 10, 2014

Egypt’s Incarceration Crisis

By Eric Eikenberry

Acknowledging the damage that the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists has done to his regime’s already tarnished reputation, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently said that he “wished they [the journalists] were deported…instead of getting put on trial.”

One wonders if the man who once confidently stated that Egypt was twenty-five years  from democracy is realizing the limits of his own power. Sisi, while more than a figurehead, lacks the authority which Mubarak wielded when the former autocrat was able to sideline military interests and bend state institutions to his will. Sisi sits atop a small mountain of intrinsically authoritarian institutions attempting (and so far, succeeding) to consolidate and perpetuate their economic and political power. In order to accomplish this in the short term, these institutions have sacrificed long term interests by precipitating a human rights crisis of startling proportions, a mass detention campaign which should cast all talk of “stability” in a skeptical light.

Mass incarceration may seem the least sound public policy that a nation with Egypt’s stark social divisions and dire economic circumstances could pursue, but repression has its own logic. The independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, reporting numbers from the Arabic Wikithawra, states that as many as 41,000 Egyptians have been arrested since the July 2013 coup, and that 53 have died in detention.

This campaign was given the thinnest of legal pretexts last November, with the passage of a protest law that effectively curtails any demonstrations critical of the government. The law has been used to imprison prominent non-violent activists, including Alaa Abdel-Fattah and human rights defender, Yara Sallam. Security forces aren’t just targeting longtime critics, either. Last week, high school students protesting inequalities in Egypt’s education system were arrested under this same law.

Disappearances, another blunt instrument in the tool kit of state repression, have also been widespread. In mid-June, Al Jazeera Arabic reported that the Ministry of Interior had begun a kidnapping campaign (link in Arabic) targeting students sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood at al-Azhar and other universities, with one student movement spokesperson claiming that over a thousand had been arrested, and that hundreds of others were leaving school out of fear. Some of the disappeared are shuttled to military prisons, where they are tortured. One such prison, Azouli, is gaining a particular notoriety, as this Guardian report from June demonstrates. The detained are held entirely outside of the Egyptian legal system (“‘Officially, you aren’t there’” said one former detainee), beaten, electrocuted and put into stress positions in an effort to produce forced confessions.

Even at “regular” detention facilities, the conditions are harsh. In May, when inmates of the overcrowded Wadi al-Natrun prison, north of Cairo, protested against both torture and the poor living conditions to which they had been subjected, security forces entered the prison and violently subdued detainees. Attorneys have been prevented from visiting prisoners there.

The courts eagerly pick up where security forces leave off, holding mass trials resulting in mass death sentences. More routinely, however, they do what they can to keep the prison population growing, denying prisoners the right to a speedy trial by repeatedly extending pre-trial detentions.

A major argument for supporting the return to the status quo in Egypt (empty talk of an ongoing “democratic transition” aside) is based upon “stability”, a word which can freeze debate in Washington policy circles. For the sake of stability, the United States must support SCAF and Sisi, (and President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.) For the sake of stability, the United States  must tolerate the resurgence of Egypt’s police state, sham trials ending in mass death sentences, and the return of widespread censorship. Moving forward, the Obama Administration must answer the question: are repression and disregard for the rule of law a basis for stability?