Egypt, a 1,000-year-old civilization that emerged from the desert sands along the Nile waters, is renowned throughout the world for its pyramids, once considered the tallest man-made structures built as impressive monuments for the pharaohs. On September 15, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seemed to have the same delusions of grandeur, as he presented the Egyptian people with a new pharaonic project: the construction of the largest prison in the country that, in his words, follows the “American model.”
The Egyptian President has been under fire for an appalling human rights record, widely reported by local and international institutions, and the newly proposed prison project only adds fuel to these accusations.
Ironically, three days before the announcement, Sisi launched the “National Human Rights Strategy,” a plan designed to “respond to some of the allegations raised against Egypt” regarding human rights violations. On the one hand, the timing seems questionable as the first step in implementing the strategy would be the construction of the new prison. On the other hand, the detention center will mostly house prisoners of conscience, as international organizations reported last March that the number of political prisoners now constitutes more than half of the country’s jailed population—all of which seemingly contradicts the “human rights” agenda.
Amer Magdy, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Inside Arabia that “the national strategy is merely a cosmetic modification of Sisi’s policies, marked by relentless nationwide repression, for [PR] purposes.” The Egyptian State has been under pressure since early 2021, due to an unprecedented condemnation at the Geneva Human Rights Council by 32 states in March as well as the arrival of the Biden administration.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump had given almost unlimited support to the leaders of several authoritarian regimes, including President Sisi, whom he had described as his “favorite dictator.” In contrast, President Joe Biden’s administration is facing pressure within the Democratic Party to stop this unconditional support for the Egyptian leader.
“The Egyptian government has so far shown no sign that it is ready to end its zero-tolerance policy toward dissent or to allow freedom of expression or organization,” said Magdy.
“The Egyptian government has so far shown no sign that it is ready to end its zero-tolerance policy toward dissent or to allow freedom of expression or organization.”
Moreover, Mohamed Kamal, a former prisoner of conscience and researcher at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), argues that Sisi’s new strategy in no way represents a breakthrough for Egyptian activists and political prisoners. “The Egyptian crisis is not about the Constitution or legal issues. It is about the government not having the intention to act against human rights violations,” he told Inside Arabia.
Since the beginning of President Sisi’s term in 2014, 27 prisons were built, which account for more than a third of the 79 prisons in Egypt. According to Mohamed Kamal, “Inmates in these prisons suffer from inhumane conditions of detention.” He added that “the autocratic Egyptian State seeks to silence all voices to assert its control over the country.”
The Egyptian President is trying to sell his project by branding it as an “American-style prison.” Mohamed Kamal explained that this discourse is borne out of the will to “satisfy the [Biden] administration” because of the considerable pressure it exerted on Sisi and noted that “American prisons are among the worst and [most] inhumane in the world.”
Official and private Egyptian media – which are controlled and fully supportive of the regime – have widely perpetuated Sisi’s narrative around the announcement, that his project was inspired by the American prison model.
An Egyptian writer and former prisoner of conscience, who still lives in Egypt and asked not to be named for fear for his safety, shared that the American example is linked in the minds of Arabs to “Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the image of prisons in American movies—full of violence, corruption, and abuse.” Therefore, in his opinion, Sisi used this phrase to impress his supporters while intimidating his opponents.
Horrific Egyptian Prisons
The Egyptian writer, who spent two years in prison, recounted the violations committed against him, revealing that he was prohibited from family visits, prevented from practicing sports, and suffered numerous health problems due to medical negligence.
Human rights organizations reject Sisi’s assertion that the new prison construction project is aimed at improving conditions for prisoners.
Human rights organizations also reject Sisi’s assertion that the new prison construction project is aimed at improving conditions for prisoners. In fact, Human Rights Watch researcher Amer Magdy completely dismissed this claim and said that “it is mainly about building new prisons to accommodate the massive influx of prisoners, not to improve their conditions.”
Amer Magdy told Inside Arabia that Egypt is in dire need of structural reform of its prison system, including the construction of facilities that respect human dignity and the closure of current detention centers that he calls “abominable.” According to him, prison conditions today are marred by lack of sunlight, unregulated temperature (too hot or too cold), and a shortage of basic necessities, from beds and mattresses to cutlery and plates.
“Egyptian prisons, old and new, are terrifying places that seem to come straight out of a horror novel, or the Medieval age,” Magdy said.
An Exorbitant Economic Cost
A 2019 World Bank report states that 60 percent of Egyptians are either poor or in a vulnerable condition, and socioeconomic inequalities are on the rise. The national poverty rate is estimated at 30 percent. In a country of over 100 million people, more than 30 million Egyptians live on less than US$1.9 a day. At the same time, the Egyptian government is spending millions of dollars to build new prisons.
Egyptian authorities have not provided any figures on the cost of building the new prison announced by Sisi and have often been very secretive. Still, some of the old figures available provide insight. Up until 2015, the price of constructing a new prison was estimated at about US$160 million. In 2016, a new prison complex in Upper Egypt reportedly cost US$170 million. Many of these prisons are financed with loans. The construction of the “largest prison in the country” will likely be even more expensive than those built in the past few years, which correspond to smaller structures.
Compared to last year, the Egyptian government has barely allocated an increase of US$100 million for the education and health sectors in its new budget.
Meanwhile, compared to last year, the Egyptian government has barely allocated an increase of US$100 million for the education and health sectors in its new budget. In fact, the budget for these two major departments does not reach half of what the Constitution specifies (3 percent of the national budget for each) and is also contrary to the government’s publicized commitments.
Furthermore, in the 2021/2022 budget, priority was given to funding the debt and senior officials, followed by the security and defense sectors, which includes the judiciary, the courts, and the Ministry of the Interior. The education and health sectors, on the other hand, ranked third and fifth respectively in the government’s spending. In this regard, Amnesty International researcher Hussein Bayoumi told Inside Arabia that the Egyptian government is “not fulfilling its duties” and is “neglecting many priorities.” He stressed that it “needs to invest more in health and education,” and asserted that “the prison crisis does not require spending more money, but rather a political will to stop the violations.”
Systemic Violations and Massive Criminalization
Bayoumi thinks that implementing the new human rights strategy by building a huge prison “reflects a problem in the management of violations” by the Egyptian state. In his view, the solution is not upgrading from the old prisons. It is rather about managing these prisons properly and stopping the abuse of detainees. For instance, he pointed out that the Egyptian government does not allow political prisoners to take medication, as a form of punishment, even when families offer to provide such treatment.
Bayoumi also highlighted the issue of overcrowding in Egyptian prisons, which is caused by lengthening sentences, in addition to the mass criminalization of minor offenses ranging from protesting or writing an unfavorable opinion piece, to girls posting videos on TikTok.
Indeed, a year ago, two young women students active on TikTok – Haneen Hosam and Mawada Al-Adham – were sentenced to two years in prison for “violating Egyptian family values” because they danced in clothing deemed “too sexy” by the authorities. This year, two new rulings were issued against Haneen and Mawada, and they have now been condemned to ten and six years in prison respectively. They were further accused of “trafficking human beings” by soliciting girls to film “immoral clips and photos,” charges which are “lies and fabrications.”
In 2019, 4,000 Egyptian citizens were arrested for participating in the unprecedented demonstrations that Egypt witnessed at the time.
In 2019, 4,000 Egyptian citizens were arrested for participating in the unprecedented demonstrations that Egypt witnessed at the time to protest government policies. Many of them remain in pre-trial detention.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights believes that Egyptian prisons suffer from overcrowding because any criticism, no matter how mild, made by a citizen or activist towards Sisi’s regime could result in prison punishment and mass incarceration. “The government has criminalized everything,” a representative of the Initiative told Inside Arabia, stressing that “the solution is not to increase the number of prisons, nor to build them in the American style.”
The organization called for “a change in punitive practices,” as well as better maintenance of existing facilities. It also advocates for subjecting all prisons to judicial authorities instead of State security officers. As for political prisoners, the group declared: “We will not demand that they have nicer prisons, but rather that they are not put in prison.”