Sisi’s Way

Tom Stevenson on Egypt’s prisons

It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.

The US is not alone in this. When Shinzo Abe visited Cairo last month he spoke of the ‘high esteem’ in which the Japanese government holds its relationship with Sisi, and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in development loans. Diplomatic support from Europe, which suffered minor interruptions when the repression peaked late in the summer of 2013, has largely been restored. In addition to visiting the UN General Assembly, Sisi has been received on official visits to the Vatican, Davos, Rome and Paris: little or nothing has been said about routine human rights abuses, let alone the Rabaa massacre or the mass imprisonment and torture of dissidents.

When David Cameron held a meeting with Sisi in New York in September he spoke of ‘Egypt’s pivotal role in the region’ and its importance to British policy. ‘Both economically and in the fight against Islamist extremism’, he said, Egypt was a crucial ally and the UK was ‘keen to expand practical partnerships’. Cameron urged the president ‘to ensure human rights are respected’; he was much more specific on the point that Egyptian state debts to Britain’s international oil companies should be promptly repaid. The British embassy now issues reports with titles like ‘Egypt: Open for Business?’ and last month’s UK investment delegation to Cairo was the biggest in a decade. Western leaders – as Sisi well knows – have very little interest in upsetting Egypt, strategically located as it is between the world’s major energy-producing region and the developed world. The West appears to see no contradiction in supporting the ‘stability’ of the Sisi regime at a time when the Egyptian population is suffering from the extreme instability that comes with mass arrests and torture.


Mohammed B., a 28-year-old postgraduate student, was arrested on 6 October 2013. He was taking part in one of the many anti-coup marches held across Cairo that day. The intended destination was Tahrir Square, but as the march reached the neighbourhood of Dokki, it was attacked by various branches of the security services: dozens of demonstrators were killed and scores arrested. Along with hundreds of others Mohammed tried to flee by taking a series of side streets, but was surrounded and arrested. He was taken to a police station and held, along with two doctors, an engineer and two academics from Cairo University, for seven or eight hours without water. At midnight they were moved, but not – as they had expected – to one of Cairo’s many prisons.

The prison system in Egypt is the legacy of a long period of British control, followed by the successive autocracies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. It was in a British prison during the Second World War that some of the torture techniques now employed by Egyptian intelligence were refined. The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre was annexed to a British army camp in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. The camp had a cinema, boxing ring and ice-cream parlour for the soldiers, but a few hundred metres away British interrogators were experimenting on as many as sixty prisoners at a time, attempting to induce hallucinations with thyroxine, or trying to break them psychologically by forcing them to dig their own graves.

The Interior Ministry operates 42 official prisons authorised to house civilian detainees. Information about them is relatively easy to come by and they are sometimes even inspected. Yet abuse and torture are rife, encouraged by a legal system which in many cases relies on confessions. Some of the worst prisons are well known: Wadi Natrun, Abu Zaabal and Tora Liman, believed to have been one of the earliest CIA black sites under Mubarak. There is also the Borg al-Arab, where Mohamed Morsi is still being held, and the Sign al-Aqrab, or ‘Scorpion Prison’, the most famous maximum security prison in Egypt.

The law requires that the police refer a case to a prosecutor and begin an investigation within 24 hours of an arrest. Detainees must then be transferred to one of the 42 registered institutions while awaiting trial. But that isn’t what is happening today. There is overwhelming evidence that military and paramilitary police forces are operating a parallel system of detention outside official channels, and outside the law, partly in order to deal with the sheer number of people arrested since the coup. Egypt has experienced a spike in the number of citizens in detention unlike any in its history. At the beginning of 2013 Egypt’s official prison population stood at somewhere between 60,000 and 66,000. According to the Interior Ministry’s own figures 16,000 Egyptians were arrested in the nine months following Morsi’s removal in July 2013. A more plausible independent estimate by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights put the number for the same period at more than 41,000. Sisi has waved away such figures: the official prisons do not, he claims, have the space to accommodate tens of thousands of people. He may be right. Yet imprisoned they have been. So where are they?

Having interviewed lawyers, psychologists and former detainees, I have learned the names of sites where torture and ill-treatment are far worse than anything in the official prisons. Inside facilities like Maskar Zaqaziq, a base in Sharqiyah run by Amn al-Markezi, the central security forces, there are unacknowledged prisons which make the official jails look humane. In Interior Ministry buildings in Lazoughli Square and Gabar ibn Hayan, suspected political dissidents are tortured and interrogated at length by the national intelligence service. And in the Al-Azouly and Agroot military prisons in Ismailia and Suez, prisoners are held incommunicado, sometimes blindfolded, for months on end.

Mohammed B. and his cellmates were transferred from their police station to Maskar Ashra-Nus, also known as Camp 10.5, a barracks outside Cairo belongingto Amn al-Markezi. His account of their reception at the camp is like many others I’ve heard from former detainees in Egypt. They were beaten relentlessly by groups of officers, verbally humiliated, stamped on with boots with metal heels and lashed with leather straps. They were then stripped, hung from the ceiling, beaten with sticks, subjected to stress positions, and beaten on the soles of their feet; some were given electric shocks. Mohammed was stripped and forced to crawl on the floor on his forearms and stomach for more than an hour in a method of torture that appears to have been inspired by military training exercises. Eventually, and without any attempt to extract information from them, the men were bundled into makeshift cells inside the barracks. Mohammed’s measured three metres by six and contained 59 other men: so crowded that he had to stand on one leg for periods of up to two hours. There was no toilet, and no one left the room save for short rounds of recreational torture at the hands of the guards.

Crammed into a concrete box, the inmates tried to devise a system that would allow them to sleep. They divided themselves into groups of four on rotating shifts – standing and sleeping – with each group assigned a certain number of floor tiles. This soon failed. Then they tried lying on their sides, head to tail. That didn’t work either. A third system, which involved pairing the men up in lines, one standing with his legs apart as the other crouched between them, proved the least onerous. Mohammed said that the guards would mock their thirst and the stench of the cell from the other side of an iron door. He was held in Camp 10.5 for four days before being removed to a registered prison. Others, he learned, remained locked in the cell for weeks.

The cells in Wadi Natrun prison, where he spent the next six months, were bigger – five by ten metres for thirty prisoners – and in comparison with Camp 10.5 the conditions were bearable. Crucially, the cell had what could be loosely described as a toilet. But detainees were still regularly taken out of their cells, stripped naked and tortured. Mohammed was twice put in solitary confinement. ‘The room had no windows and inside there was nothing,’ he told me, ‘except thousands of cockroaches – they crawled all over me for hours.’ The people he met there had come into the official detention system by a variety of routes. Some had been held in police stations for weeks; others had been in the custody of Amn al-Markezi, as he had been; one claimed to have been taken first to a secret prison in the Sinai peninsula, where he said he’d been held in an underground dungeon for seventy days. Mohammed was eventually tried before a court and cleared on every fantastic charge the state had laid against him. Most were not so lucky. Of the 125 men tried on the same day just seven were released.

There is nothing out of the way about Mohammed’s case. Letters smuggled out of prison by the Egyptian journalist Ahmed Ziada, who was arrested while covering protests at Al-Azhar university in December 2013, describe his time in Nasr City Two police station, where he was beaten and given electric shocks before being taken to Abu Zaabal prison. In another letter, dated 19 February 2014, a detainee named Kareem al-Beheiry details the unbearable conditions of an Amn al-Markezi base where officers assault, mock and humiliate detainees as a way of alleviating boredom. Descriptions of improvised cells packed with inmates are frequent. The Egyptian climate adds to the horrors of overcrowding. In a letter smuggled out of Helwan police station in July 2014 the authors, who refer to themselves as ‘the prisoners in cell number three’, describe temperatures of 50°C in a room four metres by six containing sixty people. According to standards set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, prison authorities should plan for seven square metres of cell space per detainee and observe an absolute minimum of four square metres. In cell number three, sixty detainees were held in a space suitable for between three and six people; in Mohammed B.’s case, a space suitable for between two and four people.

Islam A., a digital marketing professional, was pulled from an anti-government demonstration in late 2013 by baltagiya (civilians hired, and armed, by the state and most often deployed against protesters), who dragged him into a nearby block of flats. ‘I tried to reason with them,’ he said. ‘I told them you support the government and I don’t, but we have brains in our heads and tongues in our mouths and we can discuss this like human beings. They didn’t even reply, they just beat me.’ Islam was beaten and cut about with a long knife until he fainted – he has extensive scarring on his shoulders and chest. He was semi-conscious when a plainclothes officer arrived to make a formal arrest. ‘A sea’ of Amn al-Markezi officers was waiting for him outside the flats. He, too, ended up in Camp 10.5 – ‘living hell’, he called it – and held for five weeks in a cell of four metres by six with 61 other prisoners. He was repeatedly interrogated by intelligence staff from Amn al-Watany, the national security agency, who appeared to believe he was one of the leaders of the protest he had attended. On one occasion he was questioned by a senior officer while eight other Amn al-Markezi men formed a circle around him and beat him. On another he was stripped and laid face down on the floor with a dozen other inmates while officers threw freezing water over them. Sometimes detainees were taken out of the cells and subjected to a stress position known as the falaka, in which the victim’s feet are tied to a wooden pole and the soles beaten. Again, Islam’s experiences are far from unusual. Dozens of detainees have described police and Amn al-Markezi officers bursting into cells and beating them with clubs, or burning their blankets and clothes in front of them. Others describe having a rope put around their necks and being dragged from their cells to be given electric shocks.


Torture ‘in all its forms’ is prohibited under Egyptian law, and ministerial decree 668 formally abolished flogging as a punishment in 2002. Article 27 of the prison regulations mandates that a physician examine prisoners when they arrive, or on the morning of the next day, and document their state of health. Yet the law is seldom applied, conditions are appalling and the consequences are plain: by collating statistics from the Justice Ministry’s own Forensic Medical Authority with those of NGOs and including the 37 prisoners who died in a police van inside Abu Zaabal prison in August 2013, we can safely say that at least 150 people have died in official custody in Egypt since the coup – it is impossible to say how many may have died in non-registered jails. Amnesty International has documented countless cases of torture; prisoners are regularly interrogated while blindfolded, or given electric shocks to the testicles to elicit confessions; in one case a woman was made to give birth while handcuffed.

Amn al-Markezi is almost entirely free from public scrutiny. But the Egyptian army is even less accountable, and it is from military facilities such as Azouly prison in Ismailia, Agroot prison in Suez and the headquarters of Battalion 101 in Arish that the worst testimonies come. One man detained at Azouly claimed in a letter dated 24 March 2014 that access to the toilet was permitted once a day, before dawn, that inmates were tortured with boiling water and even boiling oil, and that he frequently heard women screaming somewhere inside the facility. Letters and survivors’ accounts describe three distinct layers inside these army camps. The first floor is for military prisoners who are lawfully detained. The second is known as the ‘prosecutions floor’ and holds civilians who have been given a military trial. The third floor – the ‘investigations floor’ – houses people who have been ‘disappeared’.

Third-floor detainees are known to have been held for up to six months, and are sometimes blindfolded throughout their incarceration. They are later sent to an official prison – often with serious injuries – wearing the same clothes they had on when they were arrested, and bearing papers with forged arrest dates. Holding civilian detainees inside a military prison is illegal, but proceedings would in any case be difficult given that the very existence of Azouly and Agroot is not officially acknowledged. Unknown numbers of prisoners are being held. They are subject to punitive sexual assault; suspension from ceilings, doors and windows; waterboarding; and being burned with cigarettes. Research by Human Rights Watch shows that between the beginning of November and the end of December last year, 820 new civilian cases were referred to military prosecutors.


It is arguably no surprise that repression has reached these levels. In the last four years a revolution was attempted, failed and gave way to a reconstituted regime, headed by the most energetic and efficient figures among the old guard; a military council arrested the president, suspended the constitution, rounded up writers, chased out human rights groups and massacred demonstrators. Any regime with a profile of this kind is likely to abuse its prisoners. But what has happened at the higher levels of the Egyptian state indicates that a particular agenda has been systematically pursued.

One of the first things Sisi did after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reclaimed the presidency in July 2013 was to appoint a serving general as head of the Mukhabarat intelligence service. Mohamed Farid al-Tohamy was well known for his hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, his sympathy for and contacts with Israeli military intelligence, and as a Sisi and SCAF loyalist. Although Tohamy has since been retired, his appointment presaged a series of promotions for other loyalists and military intelligence veterans that enabled Sisi – himself a former head of military intelligence – to consolidate his control over first the military and then the other organs of the security state. Sisi has concentrated the power of the regime in the presidency and a small entourage of senior generals. It has become popular outside Egypt to describe his regime as a return to the days of Mubarak, but Sisi isn’t content to revert to the status quo ante: he has sought the greater prize of restoring the army’s place as the central institution of state power, with himself as its undisputed head.

Recently leaked recordings of telephone exchanges last February between General Mamdouh Shahin, a senior SCAF figure with a broad mandate, and General Abbas Kamel, the director of Sisi’s office, suggest the extent of military influence even over the corrupt fiefdom of the Interior Ministry. The recordings reveal that Shahin had contacted Mohammed Ibrahim, the interior minister, to discuss reclassifying the military building in which Morsi was being held (probably Abu Qir naval base): he wanted it to be designated an official prison in order to avoid potential problems at Morsi’s trial. The minister complied, with Shahin supplying an official declaration for Ibrahim to sign. Which isn’t to say that the ministry has been thoroughly suborned: there is still a rivalry between the ministry and the army, but the latter is in the ascendant.

Sisi has extended his own form of military organisation, management and logic to almost every aspect of the Egyptian state. A range of senior posts are now occupied or controlled by serving or retired generals: a supervisor building roads or compiling government statistics is scarcely less likely than a soldier to answer to a ranking general. Even the universities, which harbour the last vestiges of dissent, have been turned into guarded compounds in which professors accused of ‘participating in political activity’ are removed, and students are monitored by intelligence officers and security forces. At the same time the Zuwar al-Leil (literally, ‘night visitors’) have re-emerged: intelligence officers who harass dissidents and others with midnight raids. Highly centralised and unresponsive to public opinion, the administration is more repressive than Mubarak’s was at the height of its excesses.

Men, women and even children who find themselves under arrest – whether they’re Muslim Brothers, students, labour activists, socialists, or just unemployed people protesting about their situation – are regarded as an army would regard captured combatants in a world without Geneva protocols. This is the essence of military dictatorship: a vision of the state and the population it rules as two opposing armies, the first better equipped but smaller than the second, which makes brutality an indispensable tactic. That this is how Sisi and his circle see matters does much to explain the surge in the use of torture. As Aida Seif al-Dawla, a professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University and the head of a rehabilitation centre, puts it:

Detainees are tortured when they are arrested, then tortured at the police station, sometimes tortured by the intelligence service, and when they arrive at a prison, official or otherwise, they are tortured. While they’re inside the prisons they’re tortured, and if there is a hunger strike planned, or officers believe prisoners are plotting something for the next round of prison visits, they torture them.

‘At this point,’ one veteran activist has remarked, ‘all Egypt’s a prison with soldiers as guards.’

Diana Eltahawy, a former member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, observes that Egypt’s prisons ‘are very much a microcosm of the wider society’. Poorer detainees suffer some of the worst abuse and often work for richer prisoners in order to buy access to slight improvements, just as they might if they were at liberty. Women, who face endemic sexual harassment and assault in the big cities, find these conditions replicated – and intensified – in police or Amn al-Markezi custody. Wealthy, well-connected or high-profile prisoners generally receive better treatment from the guards, as well as better food and access to healthcare. Much attention has been paid to the plight of the three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced last June, one of whom, Peter Greste, has just been released. A recent Daily Telegraph leader argued that ‘of all the events that have shamed Egypt’s rulers, the farcical trial and conviction’ of these journalists ‘was among the most egregious’. But worse happens every day to people whose names we will never know. The Egyptian state demands compliance: ‘security’ is all that counts. Anyone thought to be a threat to civil order is extracted from the population, locked up and imaginatively punished, terrifying those who remain outside the cage. And of those who four years ago dreamed of a new society and are not themselves behind bars, most are now succumbing to the lethargy of defeat.