Egypt’s republic of fear has detained tens of thousands. It’s cruel — and counterproductive

A woman holds a placard as she protests against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Paris on Dec. 8, 2020. (Michel Euler/AP)
A woman holds a placard as she protests against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Paris on Dec. 8, 2020. (Michel Euler/AP)

Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz published a little-known novella in 1974 called “Karnak Café”, in which a group of students discuss politics and fall in and out of love in 1960s Egypt. Though their involvement in politics is not ideological, but rather motivated by a general desire to better the country, they are targeted by state security. They’re detained, accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, tortured, then released with a halfhearted apology. Despite avoiding politics — and the cafe — they’re arrested twice more, accused of subversion, and raped and tortured. One of them dies under torture, and those who survive are broken.

In the novella, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s security chief justifies the brutality by pointing to threats, internal and external, that could derail Egypt’s march toward progress. But repression did not protect Egypt or the regime: When Israel dealt a crushing defeat to the Egyptian military in 1967, the prisons were full of political detainees. And despite the jailing of Muslim Brothers, a new generation of Islamists was surging on university campuses — the ones who would form Islamic Jihad and, later, al-Qaeda.

The post-Nasser generation — mine — grew up wondering how Nasser and his progressive supporters could inflict all this cruelty on Egyptians, teaching citizens to bend their heads low and never raise their voice while living in a republic of fear. How could they think a society could move forward when parts of it — usually the brightest, most creative and independent — are locked away or broken?

It took 40 years for a new generation to emerge and assert their rights in Tahrir Square in 2011. But Egypt’s military caught up with them. Today, an estimated 60,000 political prisoners are detained in the military’s republic of fear.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi denies that his regime is holding any political prisoners. But human rights organizations formed this estimate based on government statements on arrests and prison sentences over the past eight years. The total number of prisoners in Egypt is 114,000, according to a mouthpiece for the ministry of interior. This means that political prisoners constitute more than half of Egypt’s incarcerated population — a staggering percentage.

More shocking is the number of those in “pretrial” detention: 30,000, according to the same source. Egyptian authorities have expanded, and abused, the use of pretrial detention to keep those it cannot convict in jail for years. And in the rare cases when the courts order the release of prisoners, the police immediately detain them again under new charges, in what has become known as a “revolving door” policy.

Esraa Abdel Fattah was one of the young leaders whose activism led to the Tahrir uprising. She had been detained several times since 2008, but as the military brought democratic transition to an end — and banned Esraa from traveling — she decided to step back and focus on her work as a journalist. Like the “Karnak Café” heroine, this didn’t protect her. She was detained on Oct. 13, 2019, beaten, abused and left to languish in jail ever since.

Hossam Moanis is a young, pragmatic leader who got involved in politics out of a commitment to the poor. When the political space was closing down after the military takeover in 2013, he ran Hamdeen Sabahi’s presidential campaign against Sissi — not to win but to keep pluralism alive. In 2019, he joined former legislator Zyad el-Elaimy and others to run for parliament. They were all arrested on June 25, 2019, and have been in jail since.

Solafa Magdy and her husband, Hossam al-Sayyad, are journalists who built their career on independent reporting, winning international recognition. They were both arrested on Nov. 26, 2019, and subjected to repeated abuse and mistreatment. Their 7-year-old son lives with his grandparents, recording videos for his imprisoned parents.

The list goes on — 60,000 names representing all shades of society, from Islamists to secular communists. Beyond the half languishing in pretrial detention, thousands more have been convicted of trumped-up charges such as “spreading false news” or “misuse of social media”, while political opponents are accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been declared a terrorist organization. These people are not threats to the state. Keeping them in jail is a gratuitous cruelty.

Think of their constant feelings of injustice and helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Think of the long days and nights they spend in Egypt’s squalid jails, either in overcrowded cells or solitary confinement. Think of the strength they muster to stay sane and collected, and their despair as they don’t.

Imprisonment destroys people. Wrongful imprisonment is much worse. Egypt can never move forward with tens of thousands of broken citizens and the rest living in fear.

Mahfouz had to wait for Nasser to die in order to publish his novella. Egypt had to wait for Nasser to die to comprehend the devastating impact of his repression. We need not wait; we know what is happening in Egyptian jails, and we know the devastating impact this will have on Egypt’s future. So why are we allowing this to continue?

Egypt’s military leaders might be blinded by fear and power, but their enablers should see more clearly. Is it unreasonable to expect the United States, France, Germany and the United Arab Emirates — who provide Egypt’s military leaders with money, weapons and political support — to also provide them with sound advice?

Ezzedine C. Fishere was The Post's second Jamal Khashoggi fellow. He is the author of “The Egyptian Assassin” and a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College.

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