When I was released from prison, I was congratulated over and over again by friends and family for making it out in good health. Perhaps their relief was due to an assumption that prison necessarily destroys your health. Or maybe they were just attempting to grasp at any upside to the situation. Either way, I don’t mind treating coming out of prison with minimal physical damage as an accomplishment worthy of congratulation. It wasn’t easy and required an obsessive degree of attention, cost, effort, and anxiety. Of course, our digital world does not lack for haters who took umbrage at my good health, for they most certainly believe that the purpose of prison is to destroy a person. This did bother me — not because they wished me harm or resented my health, but because they took my personal condition as evidence that all talk of other prisoners’ declining health is a lie. I was especially shocked by posts equating me with Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. Is there any context other than prison in which a body in its fourth decade is compared to one in its seventh? Your aunt gets allergies in the spring, or your grandfather’s rheumatism acts up in the winter; one kid gets sick all the time, while his sister rarely does. Our daily lives are full of this, and it’s a given that our bodies differ, each with its own features, quirks, and history. My family said nothing about my health for 60 months, while Abouel Fotouh’s family and lawyers were raising alarm about the severity of his condition from the outset. Add age and the impact of solitary confinement to the equation and there is simply no comparison. But as soon as a person is locked up behind bars, he becomes a docile body without history, peculiarities, or individualized needs, just like all the other prisoners. His voice, and what that voice says about the body, has no weight.
On the momentous day, the temperature drops at night and with it, the scurrying of the insects in the kiosk attached to the Doqqi police station, where I spend every night on probation. I fall into a deep sleep, after two weeks of tossing and turning. I wake up early, feeling good. I start my morning exercises, then I leave my kiosk of isolation and head to the bathroom, optimistic about the new day. I’m trying to accustom myself to ignoring the details of life in a police station. I don’t want to know what’s happening around me. I’ve completely lost my curiosity about the workings of the Egyptian state, especially the organs that rule our bodies.
While my mind tries diligently to ignore my surroundings, my shoulder registers some anomaly and the muscles begin to cramp. My release is less than an hour away.
Hoisting my bedding on my cramped shoulders, I go to my car on autopilot (where the bedding will be stored for the day). My eye perceives the heightened state of security: automatic rifles at the ready, armored personnel carriers. My mind ignores the details, but my heart tightens, and the spasm radiates up to my neck. With difficulty, I drive to my destination nearby. A guest, I join a breakfast in a home teeming with children and joy, but the pain in my body keeps me from active participation. Two hours later, I finally notice dozens of messages from concerned friends, some of them warning me not to talk or comment, write or divulge. Something has happened during my enforced seclusion. Something about me? About us? Who does the ‘us’ refer to? Family, friends, revolutionary comrades? I cast a quick glance at Twitter. Mohammed Morsi is dead. My mind finally grasps what my body has understood since dawn.
The official language of news sites repulses me, but on social media I’m beset by debates and discussions about the 2012 elections, the 2013 demonstrations, and our position in all of it. I want to yell at them, my friends and comrades: this isn’t about us, idiots! My body shouts back: maybe, but there is a story about you that is imprinted on your body. Something dreadful is coming.
The first lesson you learn in prison is not to get sick. The obsession with it takes hold of you, whatever the state of your health or conditions of imprisonment. It’s not because Egyptian prisons are packed with hardhearted, merciless souls. On the contrary, you find spaces of compassion that exceed your fears and expectations. The most dangerous things in prisons in Egypt are the byzantine bureaucracy and outsized paranoia. Medical treatment or surgery requires a series of arduous steps, starting with persuading your jailers that you aren’t lying or bluffing or feigning illness. Your physician is typically a police officer or the son of an officer, and he will not write a medical report without consulting the head detective and the prison warden, who is also on the police force. Orders for transfer to a hospital, or for treatment or surgery, or even lab tests are subordinate to security, logistical, and bureaucratic considerations far more important than your health.
The ultimate catastrophe is a nighttime emergency after the prison is locked down. A prisoner has no way of alerting his jailers other than shouting. Banging on the iron doors is the easiest way to make enough noise to draw the attention of a sleeping guard, but it’s also a severe infraction due to its association with prisoner riots. It doesn’t matter if your cellmate is dying. You can yell, and perhaps your voice will be heard, or you can try to revive him yourself. If he dies, no one will be held accountable; if you bang on the doors, you and everyone on the ward will be punished.
If you can get the attention of the guard, it will take several long minutes for him to get the keys, then many more hours will pass as policemen, guards, and prisoners examine you in order to diagnose the severity of your case and whether it is worth waking up the commanding officer on duty. You then wait as the officer decides whether the situation merits further action: a call to the warden or the head detective. They in turn must decide whether it is worth alerting the high command, at which point finally a decision can be made to summon a doctor from the nearest Prison Authority hospital. Perhaps the doctor’s specialty and expertise will align with your emergency. Perhaps the prison clinic and pharmacy will be equipped to handle your case. Theoretically, in the absence of such happy coincidences, the situation may be brought to some higher command with the purpose of transferring the emergency case to a prison with a well-equipped hospital or an outside hospital. But transfer orders are so complicated that during the 60 months I spent in prison, I heard of not one case in which a prisoner was moved to an intensive care unit at night. I did hear of and witness several deaths.
Aboul Fotouh and Ahmed Douma are not placed in solitary for harsher punishment or with the purpose of destroying their health and minds. On the contrary, from the perspective of the Prison Authority leadership, these are privileged inmates who enjoy better conditions than the average prisoner. The purpose of solitary is fundamentally to insulate the prison administration, Prison Authority leadership, and the National Security officers responsible for “seditious elements” against claims that a political prisoner was able to make contact with the outside.
Prison officials are single-mindedly obsessed with preventing any contact with the outside world, although prison regulations clearly provide for visitation rights, outside contact and communication, and the right to knowledge. The idea that political movements can be steered from inside prison has no basis in fact — in fact, it defies logic — but it is a fiction oft repeated by regime mouthpieces and their media outlets. As such, fiction or not, the powers that be could hold their own men responsible for it. So these men take care to prevent outside contact. Whether the risk is genuine or not is not important, nor is the effect of these precautionary measures on prisoners’ health. The important things are to appease the political leadership and protect one’s position and influence.
Mohamed Morsi’s fate was governed by this logic. The state of his health, according to official reports, was not determined by the findings of medical tests and his vital signs, and certainly not by his own narration of his pain. His health condition was officially decided the day the press reported that he was eating duck and oxtail in his cell. As soon as that story spread, preemptive denial of any health problems became official policy, and no medical team subject to state orders could say otherwise. After all, the prison doctor consults the warden and the head detective before writing his report. If the presidency wanted to know the real state of the former president’s health, it might have required flying in a medical team from abroad.
This day was not exceptional. Although the police station goes on high alert for reasons that seem senseless to a civilian like myself — say, when the national team is ejected from the African Cup — this incident did not draw the attention of the sovereign organs. The deceased was not an ex-president. I don’t remember exactly when I first read the news, probably the early morning. I ignored it, in an attempt to ignore all dispiriting news, and didn’t focus on the victim’s identity. But at the end of the day, as I was returning to again submit myself to the police station, the pain began throbbing in my thigh. I had slept fitfully the night before, searching for a comfortable position, followed by a tiring day of errands that made it difficult to drive. I stopped resisting and gave in to painkillers. The next day, I finally let my mind wander, reading the news of the burial and realizing the tangled ties connecting me to Omar Adel, the young man with no prior history of illness whose heart stopped because of breathing difficulties in the isolation cells of the remand division of Tora Prison. I remembered the night I spent in the same disciplinary cells when I was 25, around the same age as Omar. It was an attempt to break a collective hunger strike, if I recall. I remembered the Friday sermon given by a fellow inmate. He opened it by saying that being in that prison was the next-toughest thing to the grave. The disciplinary cells are, in actuality, like tombs. It was like Omar was buried alive.
They all escaped the worst of the carnage. They passed four nights of terror, herded into the Cairo International Stadium and then regularly moved from one temporary holding place to another, their families dizzy with exhaustion looking for them among the corpses at the morgue and hospitals of both the official and impromptu variety. The moment it was discovered that they were arrested and were to be transferred to prison was a relief for everyone. Prison life is tough, but theoretically at least, it is a stable, safe place to be when chaos is sweeping the country. Prison is better than fear of an uncertain fate. More importantly, they had survived the bloodbath. There was only one stop left on their journey of horrors. One short trip from the Heliopolis police station to the Abu Zaabal military prison, and then they could rest. Those who had been present for the dispersal at Rabea al-Adaweya couldn’t imagine that something worse was in store.
The Abu Zaabal police truck slaughter stands apart in its unequivocal, stark clarity. A decision to throw a gas canister designed to disperse large, open-air assemblies into a group of confined, defenseless prisoners packed into a closed truck seems to demonstrate an explicit intent to kill. But the fact is, what happened was initiated by no decision at all. Just pointless behavior familiar to anyone who has ever been transported in a police truck.
Every transport of prisoners is marked by long periods of aimless — and of course, unexplained — waiting. Say you are summoned to a court hearing. If you don’t already know it in advance, you typically will not be informed of your destination. An order is given to move you to a cage designated specifically for prisoners awaiting transport. It is usually a long wait, even if the truck is there, perhaps because the security detail is not yet complete. You finally get in the truck and the doors close. But it does not move, perhaps because a civil servant was late filing a report somewhere. The truck moves, but then it stops suddenly, perhaps in front of another prison. An hour later, a fellow prisoner may get in, and if you ask him, he will swear that he has been ready and waiting for the truck for hours.
This is how it goes until you reach your destination, where you will also wait, perhaps for the officers to drink tea. Who knows? But all this is ordinary. Often the prisoners arrive after the judges have left. It doesn’t matter: you’re a prisoner and your time is not your own, and anyway it’s worthless. It is the same bureaucratic logic that impedes any government interaction and turns it into an extended slog without rhyme or reason. The difference is you are confined to a stifling metal box without relief.
The transport truck that day was left under the August sun for at least four hours. More than 40 bodies were stuffed into a space not big enough for half of them, without ventilation, without water. No cause, no reason. They were already inside the high-security prison complex. But the arrival of a body to a particular place is meaningless unless that body is attached to a set of stamps and signatures necessary to turn its physical presence into an official fact. It was no doubt possible for the officers accompanying the transport or the prison officers to end the prisoners’ suffering by removing them from the truck, or even opening the doors and giving them a drink of water. Or refusing to move a truck packed far beyond its capacity. Or refusing to move before the heat broke. Or by swiftly completing the necessary procedures. Or any number of other options that would begin with getting rid of this bizarre fleet of Swiss transport vehicles and replacing them with an ordinary, humane means of transport.
But the police are not tasked with respecting the needs of human bodies, even the need for air, water, and comfort. This is demonstrated in their stubborn refusal to allow prisoners fans or refrigerators in the summer and by regularly cutting off their water at midday. The only job of the police is to prevent escape and contact with the outside world. The officer is judged solely by his degree of control over prisoners’ bodies.
The decision to toss a gas canister into a closed vehicle to control prisoners screaming about their inability to breathe is, despite its monstrosity, unexceptional. In any case, the gas canister was thrown into the truck hours after the carnage within had begun. The massacre was not the consequence of a decision. It resulted from the application of common practice and longstanding policy that hears the prisoner’s voice as gibberish and sees his body as an inanimate object. A prisoner claiming that he needs to breathe like any other living being is doubtlessly lying.
Most of us consider the five-year sentence given to the deputy warden of the Heliopolis police station and the one-year (suspended) sentence given to three officers for a misdemeanor offense to be a travesty. Interior Ministry personnel agree — it is a grave miscarriage of justice against men who did their jobs to the letter.
This time, I didn’t notice the incident when it happened. I only learned of it from a Mada Masr bulletin the next day. It was a news story about prisoners attempting to escape from al-Saff General Prison by setting their blankets on fire in one of the cell blocks. A white-hot rage swept over me and I couldn’t control myself. I snapped at a friend, protesting that she had unquestioningly accepted the frame of the Public Prosecution and security sources. Burning blankets is useless for escape. It is typically a sign of a prison riot motivated by outrage at conditions and the foreclosure of all other avenues for redress. What does a prisoner own besides his body and his bedding? If no grievance is listened to and no voice heard, the only space for mutiny is to burn your bedding or harm yourself.
Accusations of escape attempts are common, despite the rarity of real escapes. Charges of escape are brought as a deterrent, used as a means to inflict harsher punishment, since an escape is the most serious crime a prisoner can commit. The allegation lets the prison administration justify the use of excessive violence and makes it easier to get rid of a troublesome prisoner, either by exiling him to some far-flung facility or transferring him to a maximum-security prison.
Journalists have colleagues and loved ones in prison, and they have long shown sympathy and solidarity with prisoners. The issue is not that those sympathies have changed; it is prison itself. When you are secluded behind its walls and your will is denied, your voice is denied as well. Since you are officially unfit for society, popular trust in your fitness recedes as well, until it becomes natural for the press to report an irrational escape attempt that stood no chance of success without asking what consequences there are on prisoners’ bodies.
Mohamed Morsi died while on trial for a charge related to the prison breaks in the early days of the revolution. The state clings to an absurd narrative about a conspiracy by a handful of Hamas and Hezbollah operatives who worked in concert with the Muslim Brotherhood to break their own comrades out and free other prisoners to spread chaos and terror around the country. A broad swath of regime opponents and the pro-revolution public clings to an alternate narrative, no less absurd, about a conspiracy by the Interior Ministry to allow dangerous criminals to escape and spread chaos and terror around the country in order to deter the revolution.
Both narratives are based on the assumption that the moment a prisoner is set free, he turns into a savage beast who will soon embark on a rampage of rape, pillage, and murder. This image contradicts the reality of Egyptian prisons, their demographics, and the nature of charges brought against most of them; it is also inconsistent with the most basic logic. Every prisoner will be released sooner or later. In fact, most of them will qualify for parole and will be freed before they serve their full sentences. Obviously, only a fraction of crimes committed are actually prosecuted in court, and the Egyptian justice system is known for its frequent in absentia convictions and the inability or unwillingness of the security services to carry out sentences. Logically, we should all realize that the prison community represents a small sample of existing criminals at any given moment, with “dangerous” criminals at large outnumbering those in prison. On the level of popular culture, everyone knows there are innocent people in prison — there’s even a proverb to that effect. But still, the competing parties demonized prisoners who escaped at the height of a revolution in which popular rage against security bodies had reached its peak.
I did not understand the impact of this demonization until I returned to the remand division of Tora Prison in the fall of 2011 and saw traces of automatic gunfire on the exterior and interior walls. As in most Egyptian prisons, and following a pattern repeated throughout history here and around the world, the prisoners responded to news of mutiny, rebellion, and revolution outside prison walls with their own mutiny and rebellion inside. The revolt reached its peak after the radio news reported that Abu Zaabal Prison had been opened: the doors of the cell blocks were smashed and prisoners partially liberated themselves. In the Tora Prison complex area, security forces regained control by firing live ammunition — indiscriminately and intensively — from surveillance towers. Dozens of prisoners were killed to contain the revolt. For days, the prison was controlled only from the surveillance towers and live fire was used as the sole instrument of deterrence. Prisoners were cut off from the world without food, medicine, or water for days.
Prisoners who were broken out did not fare much better. Escapees from Wadi al-Natroun faced armed patrols and helicopters that mowed them down. Those who escaped — for example, by hiding under the bodies of their friends — were dealt with by neighborhood vigilantes, on alert to protect their homes from the hordes of marauding criminals thought to be spreading anarchy like a virus. The lucky ones were those who were roughed up and then turned over to the army for prosecution in a military trial.
I met one prisoner who was set free by his guards (likely because, after they lost contact with their commands and supplies were interrupted, the officers were unwilling to impose their own control within the collapsing security and political situation). Prisoners were advised to turn themselves in to the nearest military detail. Those who followed the advice met different terrors during their collection, holding, and transport to military prisons and temporary detention facilities, typically moved in commandeered civilian trucks not fit for human transport. Unknown numbers perished during that terrible journey.
Mohamed Morsi’s dramatic entrance to the revolutionary stage therefore coincided not with a call to Al Jazeera on a Thuraya satellite phone — a trivial detail that for some unknown reason constitutes the crux of the alleged conspiracy — but with the wide-scale slaughter of prisoners. The only people who cared were their families.
Every winter since my incarceration, I’ve been stricken by pain in the muscles and joints on the right side of my body. The symptoms might manifest in an isolated spot — usually my shoulder — or extend from my leg to my neck, then recede as my body accustoms itself to the winter cold. I know the root of these pains lies in the night of my arrest. After my house was stormed by special forces brandishing weapons and wearing bulletproof vests, after my mobile phone and laptop were stolen, after my wife was hit, after I was hit and mauled, I ended up on cold tiles in an unknown location, barefoot and wearing only light pajamas. My hands were cuffed behind me and I was blindfolded with a filthy rag. I spent the night tossing around to find a comfortable position. Sleep resisted me, but exhausted, I gave in and lay down on my right side, and the autumn cold and humidity seeped into my bones.
Some 12 hours later, I found myself before the prosecutor and finally discovered that I was in the Cairo Security Directorate. I insisted on being questioned as a victim, and in fact, the interrogator did record the traces of blood, my swollen eye, and my general exterior appearance, as well as my complaint about armed robbery (they illegally confiscated “evidence” without a search warrant). Then he sent me to a forensic medical examiner. And yet, he did not summon any members of the arresting force for questioning and brought no charges, except against my friends and me.
After questioning, I was moved to Tora Liman Prison. When a new prisoner is admitted, he is denied visits for 11 days as part of the intake procedure. Winter came early that year, ushered in by hail. Photos of the rare snow on the outskirts of Cairo were everywhere. Even after I was allowed visits, the administration refused to permit the entry of warm clothes, saying they did not fit regulations. As a result, the chill I contracted from sleeping on the cold tile in the security directorate lasted most of the winter. The tremors only disappeared when I learned the directorate was bombed. That morning, I thought I heard an explosion and started awake at dawn. Then I finally got warm. Now the pain which used to haunt me every winter comes back at the peak of the summer heat with news of bodies that remain in prison. Maybe I didn’t come out of the experience with my health intact, as friends and enemies presume.
The period in which you’re denied visits is known as intake. You typically spend it in a special intake cell: crowded and filthy, it lacks consistent inmates, cleaning implements, or any healthcare capacities. From time to time, inmates gather up leftover food and old newspapers to send to the intake cell as alms. Officially, under prison regulations and laws, this is a quarantine period. Theoretically, the isolation is to assess your health status and identify any contagious diseases. But the regulations specify no actual procedure to assess health. In practice, what concerns the prison administration is not your health but your social and class status and the extent of your connections and resources. These are the considerations that will determine how you are treated and where you are housed. Everyone is subjected to violence in prison, but overt violence is usually rare; the walls, gates, locks, and loss of hope alone are sufficient to ensure the prisoner’s compliance. The real purpose of intake is to break the prisoner’s spirit, so that he accepts a new life stripped of any will. It is also a chance for the traces of any physical coercion experienced by the prisoner during interrogation, arrest, or even transport to fade.
The moment of entry is critical to the spirit-breaking process. If you are classified as a person without protection, you will be vulnerable to extreme degradation and violence from the moment you enter prison. The intensity of the degradation will decline with time, but the terror of those first days will never fade. The cruelest form of humiliatiation for new prisoners is known as the parade. New inmates crawl on the ground between two rows of policemen, who unleash a torrent of kicks, blows, and insults on the crawling people. I saw two parades that went awry.
In the first, an elderly man, likely with a bad heart, died in the middle of the parade. No one had inquired about his health. The prisoners were grim for two nights and a gloom settled over us, but the prison routine remained unchanged in any respect, and we saw no brass making inquiries. A prisoner’s death generally requires only the simplest procedures. (Perhaps those in charge of such things imagine that simplifying procedures for the release of a corpse is an act of mercy.)
In the second incident, a young man of high social status accidentally ended up in the parade, likely because he was unaccustomed to the protocol of asserting his privileges due to his mild manners, his naiveté, or his assumption that the justice system in our country is actually concerned about questions of guilt and innocence. It was his fate to be paraded thanks to a misdiagnosis of his class, and he was subjected to humiliation unacceptable under entrenched norms. The error entailed frantic action by the high brass, apologies, and a rectification of the situation.
In neither case, of course, did a prosecutor come to the prison to investigate, nor was anyone held accountable for this form of systematic torture. The parades did not stop. But the truth is blindingly obvious: the death of a prisoner merits no accountability and is no cause for concern among the officers in charge. Another logic is at work — the same logic that governs ruling and sovereign institutions, be it the logic of security, class, politics, or pure bureaucracy. These are the foremost considerations in the minds of everyone working in prisons, including doctors.
Many prisoners exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after their release. The trauma is related less to violent experiences in prison than to the difficulty of adjusting to normal life outside. Prison is like one ongoing instance of violence that strips the prisoner of his social and functional capacities.
In what can only be interpreted as a vicious enmity, the Egyptian state has chosen to complicate the process of integration and recuperation for growing numbers of its detainees by contriving a novel, extralegal punishment deceptively called police probation or parole. The hardest thing about probation is that the ex-prisoner is required to be complicit in his own oppression. No special forces are dispatched to arrest you each night; you’re not moved in a transport truck. You yourself cooperate with the authorities to ensure that your body is delivered for 12 hours of seclusion.
I try to avoid entering the bathroom during probation lockup. The only accessible facility is a public bathroom used by everyone at the police station and civil registry, except officers. It’s filthy, rarely cleaned (and when it is it usually cleaned by a parolee, in violation of the law). The door doesn’t lock, and it has no lights or faucets. On probation, as in prison, going from outside the walls to the inside is always an anxious moment because of the search. The penal system only pays attention to your body during searches. For the jailer, the body is a potential hiding place for contraband. If a prisoner tries to protect his body by refusing a humiliating search, it’s evidence that he’s hiding something. If he does not object but seems nervous about the roughness of the search or its intrusion into sensitive places, it’s evidence of the same. If a policeman fails to find contraband, it’s merely evidence of the prisoner’s cunning. Since the list of prohibited items includes rights stipulated by law as well as basic needs not provided by the jailer, every prisoner is necessarily a smuggler.
Enduring the weight of submitting myself — the tense daily search, the scrambling to be on time for lockup, and the attempts to control my digestion and regulate my bowel movements — consumes a large part of the day’s energy. The result is a persistent anxiety that settles in my gut. Recently my body has begun disassociating from my consciousness. I don’t feel hungry or thirsty and I forget to eat and drink. Going to the bathroom during the hours of freedom requires extensive rituals at specific times, and my mind and body become agitated if I don’t follow them.
I remember at the beginning of my 2011 prison stint, before I was moved to the Tora Prison complex, I was in a small cell on a floor designated for “security concerns” in the Estenaf Prison. There was no bathroom in the cell. The doors would open once in the morning for 15 minutes, as hundreds of prisoners thronged to filthy stalls without doors or curtains. After the first experience, I didn’t eat for five days. It wasn’t a hunger strike — I just didn’t want to need the bathroom.
From the perspective of the Prison Authority, I am a privileged prisoner. Ordinarily, the entire body is vulnerable during the search. As a rule, the prisoner has no right or ability to control his body, including his bowels.
As in intake, during the search, everyone is vulnerable to humiliation, but class governs the boundaries of the permissible. When prisoners return from a court hearing or are suspected of possessing contraband or snitching, most of them are forced to publicly vomit and shit with the use of a bizarre concoction made of oil, water, detergent (Rabso), cigarette ash, and some number of indeterminate ingredients.
My return to prison after the revolution coincided with the death of Essam Atta in the Tora Prison complex during a forcible search, after he refused to subject himself to the degrading process. The Prison Authority maintained it had information that he had a mobile phone SIM card in his possession. When they failed to find it, it became necessary to search his cavities. His refusal was a sign of his guilt. The search turned into a beating and then he was restrained and the magic potion was pumped into his body. Even today, the Interior Ministry claims that such measures are part of an ordinary search, not torture and systemic humiliation. Essam Atta’s body was at fault because it did not produce the alleged phone chip, despite the instructions of the head detective. Even worse, it refused to live despite the routine nature of the procedure.
For years a group of prisoners, specifically detainees at the high-security section of Tora known as Aqrab Prison, were denied visits. Suddenly, two months before my release, the Prison Authority decided — or had a decision made on its behalf — to extend the ban to all political prisoners. Since the official position is that all prisoners are ordinary criminals and there are no political prisoners, the press did not report on the decision. And since we officially non-existent political prisoners are allowed to read only the state-owned papers, we were not apprised of the decision. Visits just stopped. I didn’t even know that the decision pertained to prisoners other than myself because I was the only political prisoner on my cellblock. For a week, I was plagued by fears that some calamity must have befallen my family to keep them away. Then one day I was summoned to the administration at night. Without warning, I found myself in a transport truck accompanied by an armed security detail. A few dozen meters later, the vehicle stopped and I found myself in the notorious Aqrab Prison. It was only two hours later that realized I was there for a visit. For five years, my regular visits had constituted no threat to public security, but suddenly I had become a problem that required forces, equipment, and commanders on the alert.
My mother finally entered the visitation booth on crutches. She hadn’t been in a car accident as I’d imagined. She had spent a week camped out in front of the prison gate, holding a visitation permit issued by the Public Prosecution. Five nights in the open in the dead of winter caused a stiffness in her knee that required five months of treatment. Even so, not one of the officers, generals, policemen, and personnel detailed to secure this momentous event bothered to bring her a chair during the visit or while she waited. None of them were shamed by the elderly mother asking for the legal right to check up on her son. Disregard for the laments of the body extends to the bodies of prisoners’ families, just as legislation, regulations, and courts ignore the fact that prison is a punishment for children, spouses, siblings, and parents, not only the ostensible criminal.
It wasn’t surprising. They treated us as liars before when my sister and I had requested release from pretrial detention on the grounds of my father’s illness. They refused to believe that his health had deteriorated, even after he fainted inside the Tora prison complex while standing in line for a visit. The denial continued even after he was admitted to a state-run university hospital, after the news of his illness and coma had become public knowledge, recorded in official documents.
Anger at the news that my father had died while my sister and I were detained sparked a wave of solidarity that resulted in a decision to permit us to attend the burial and funeral. The general supervising my transport did not understand the funeral-goers’ outrage at the deployed Interior Ministry personnel, their chants when we were returned to prison, or their banging on the cars carrying us. For him, my status as a prisoner precluded any strong emotions on my part or sympathy from friends and colleagues. As a rule, doesn’t the prisoner simply disappear from people’s consciousness? Don’t he and his family fade into a sea of identical bodies? Wasn’t the concession by higher-ups to let me receive condolences a generous gesture meriting praise and gratitude?
The only lesson the Egyptian justice system learned was to never again permit prisoners to attend funerals. Prisoners, their families, and their sympathizers lack legal capacity and are socially and mentally unfit, unworthy.
In the revolution’s squares, we celebrated the death sentences handed down in the Port Said stadium killings case, unaware of the significance: that the only tough sentences to vindicate the revolution’s martyrs were given to civilians. But in Port Said, locals had a different reading. The families of the condemned men assembled in front of the prison, with them hundreds of the city’s residents. The massacre was set in motion by disregarding the fact that the condemned had families and friends and, more importantly, a narrative different from that of the prosecution — a narrative popular in the city after decades of inequities and marginalization. The authorities ignored the existence of any context which those imprisoned bodies used to inhabit, so the plan for transport and security — and even the decrees of judicial bodies — were drawn up as if to be applied to inanimate objects, not people. From the perspective of sovereign institutions, their imprisonment erased their existence; the executions were a fait accompli. So no one bothered to address city residents or plan for a restless day, or ready security plans to contain the anticipated anger, or even, at least, move the defendants outside the city before sentencing.
The scene changed from an angry assembly seeking to block the defendants’ transport, to fights breaking out, to what seemed to be an attempt to storm the prison.
Security forces responded not with crowd-dispersal methods, but with indiscriminate gunfire. Dozens of people were killed and injured, including many far from the prison’s gates and walls. It was doubtlessly a murky scene that could be blamed on poor planning. But the next day’s events left no room for doubt. The funeral processions for the dead turned into massive demonstrations. The display of popular solidarity alone was enough to demonstrate that city residents did not accept what had happened or the explanation that the dead were all thugs. They were martyrs for the whole city. Instead of respecting people’s injury, or at least being on guard against their rage, the police opened fire on a funeral procession, multiplying the casualties, and this time without the excuse of protecting the prison. Chaos spread throughout the city and the army was deployed to secure vital facilities.
That day, President Mohamed Morsi was not preoccupied with the victims, but with covering up the fact that the police and army had acted without explicit orders from the political leadership. He gave his “I said I would act and now I have acted” speech, claiming responsibility for a crisis created by others. The Brotherhood Guidance Bureau hindered attempts to mediate the crisis, made on the initiative of a local Brotherhood leader.
The first calls for the army to remove Morsi grew out of that slaughter. Even so, Morsi wasn’t prosecuted for that, and of course, no security personnel or agency faced any charges. A person can be prosecuted for walking out of prison or using a Thuraya satellite phone, but no one is tried for the death of prisoners and their families.
When I entered Tora Liman Prison for the first time, I noticed a sign indicating it was inaugurated in 1886, four years after the defeat of the Orabi revolution. It was the first modern prison built in Egypt, and its first inmates were the remnants of the Orabist detainees. Although the state denies we are political prisoners, I was moved to the solitary cellblock, where a sign at the entrance reads: Political Cellblock 1A. It’s an old building made of brick, not concrete. We were told it was the oldest of the prison wards. Political opponents of the state have passed through these cells from the defeat of the Orabi revolution through the defeat of the January revolution.
Since the state was established, prisons have been used to hide away dissidents and rebels and incorporate their bodies into a single ignored and precarious body. Everyone who has ruled Egypt—including liberal Wafd governments and the Morsi government — has used the same prisons, the same courts, the same arsenal of laws. (I was sentenced under a hodge-podge of laws dating to 1914, 1937, 1945, 1998, 2011, and 2014.) Since the revolution erupted and the prisons were thrown open, the docile, invisible bodies of prisoners have been fair game, their killing a routine matter of concern only to themselves and their families. Since the defeat of the revolution, the state has stuffed the prisons fuller and built new prisons to absorb greater numbers while continuing to deny them any legal protection.
Sooner or later, most prisoners will come out of prison. But every prisoner is locked behind the gates with the possibility that they will stay there until they die. The indifferent reactions of the state and its mouthpieces to Mohamed Morsi’s death demonstrate that the purpose of his imprisonment was not to find the truth or deliver justice and redress. If the purpose of his incarceration was in any way related to the ostensibly high-minded goals of the criminal justice system, he would have received care to ensure the completion of his trial. Those in charge of the system likely did not want such a dramatic ending, although the plan most certainly was that Morsi would never leave prison alive. What bothered the authorities was that the world did not forget him before his death.
Sooner or later, most prisoners will come out of prison. But for all prisoners before whom the gates open, there is a chance they will have lost an irreplaceable part of their spirit and health. The indifferent reactions of the state and its mouthpieces to successive prisoner deaths demonstrate that the purpose of their imprisonment is unrelated to reform, reeducation, rehabilitation, or even deterrence. If prisons existed to protect society, attention to prisoners’ health would be paramount. Their bodies, after all, will come into contact with those of their families and loved ones, and the consequences of their injuries will not be contained inside the prison walls.
After the dramatic, on-air death of the former president, and with our comrades disappearing everyday into the maw of prisons — some of them to be released only to the grave, others to come out to a world where their loved ones have already gone to the grave and left them alone — can we consider the story of prisoners’ bodies an individual story solely about me and others who have shared the experience of imprisonment, probation, and the constant threat of re-incarceration?
The story is not about prisoners’ health, but the health of the nation. It is a story of oppressive tools passed down for generations and a vicious enmity that will be inherited by future generations. The total negation of the voice and body is the impetus of the enmity. We think of an enmity as a willful decision to pursue a feud and inflict pain, but if you see and hear me, there’s a chance for retreat and a truce; even if we don’t take advantage of it, we at least remain on equal footing. When the feud rages, you don’t see or try to understand me. I become an object, something to be eliminated, destroyed, disappeared, negated, excluded; I become a symbol or a bogeyman, without a material, physical presence. An enmity’s legacy is the price paid by all bodies, and they continue to pay it even after the feud fades.
The prisoners who escaped in January didn’t come back, though their bodies may have. Although most of us ignored their slaughter and participated in their demonization, something in the prisons broke. They can no longer successfully seclude and discipline bodies; we hear the lament of prisoners, albeit faintly. The outlawing of the bodies of prisoners and their loved ones and the expanded construction and filling of prisons are merely an attempt to subdue rebellious bodies, even if their rebellion involved no more than declaring their pain.
Recently letters have escaped the prisons calling for a settlement of the detainee issue at any cost. From the perspective of the political conflict, the letters demonstrate a defeat that threatens the Muslim Brotherhood’s future, which is why its leadership’s disavowal of the messages was expected and rational. But the smuggling of these letters, their circulation, and the debate over them created the opportunity for the narration and examination of pain. None of this works in the regime’s favor. Now we must ask ourselves in all seriousness: How do we protect our children’s bodies from this legacy of prisons? The solution does not stop with the release of detainees. It starts with release, but must end with an imaginative vision for the erasure of prisons, not prisoners.