Sisi’s New Prisons

Omar Robert Hamilton

I hadn’t seen Alaa for two years. Two years since we stood at his father’s funeral on the marble stairs of Omar Makram mosque. Two years since he was muscled by plainclothes police into an unmarked car back to prison. My cousin has been in prison for almost as long as Sisi has ruled Egypt. He was sentenced to five years for organising a protest. This month I was allowed to visit him.

Torah prison complex is built like a medieval fortress city. An outer wall rings a vast area that includes several prisons of varying horror, administrative buildings, farmland, a police academy and, now, a courthouse. We carried bags heavy with food and clean clothes up to the prison walls. We waited with the other visitors in the dusty runnels beside the cement blast walls for the man in black uniform to to drop his leg and let us pass. We sat on the metal seats of a brightly painted road train dragged by a tractor into the penal complex. ‘This is new,’ my aunt Laila said, gesturing at a grey concrete wall. ‘I think it’s maximum security.’ The train lurched forward.

No one knows how many political prisoners there are in Egypt. The human rights advocate Gamal Eid estimates there are 60,000. In 2013, before Sisi came to power, Egypt’s total prison population, according to a US State Department human rights report, was 62,000. So new prisons are being built, but the arrests are not stopping and the overcrowding is lethal. Last year 137 people died in prison.

The train weaved through barriers of barbed wire and cement. Outside Alaa’s prison there were some benches scattered in the harsh sunlight, their bright colours, like the train’s, suggesting they once served a happier purpose. Three soldiers on horseback watched as we hauled our luggage off and arranged the bags of food to keep them shaded.

The Egyptian state can afford its policy of mass incarceration in part because it doesn’t feed its inmates. Every person in prison needs a supply line on the outside. Every week, food, water, cigarettes and clean clothes go in; laundry and tupperware come out. Prisoners are cheap for the state, expensive and time-consuming for the families of its enemies.

As we waited for clearance I tried to entertain Khaled, Alaa’s son. I carried him on my shoulders across the asphalt wasteland to look at a dying tree. I’d never been inside the prison before and I wondered if my name would be flagged, though I doubted it. The state has more pressing concerns than articles written in English. Egypt faces a collapsing currency, mass unemployment, crippling energy deficits, spiralling hunger, sinking farmland, disintegrating infrastructure, malfunctioning aeroplanes, chronic undereducation, rampant corruption, evaporating water supplies, a domestic insurrection, an exodus of tourists and a relentlessly booming population.

Sisi looks for solutions from the authoritarian handbook. He has boosted defence spending: Egypt is now the world’s fourth biggest weapons importer as it pitches itself as the frontline of the fight against terrorism. This positioning has earned Sisi a parade of heavyweight state visits from Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, Xi Jinping, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad of Bahrain, John Kerry and General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command.

On the domestic stage Sisi makes emotive, personal appeals to the nation to stand with him as he protects the borders from vague international enemies. ‘Don’t listen to anyone but me!’ he growled into a microphone recently.

I don’t lie. I don’t play games. I have no interest in anything other than my country. And only my country! [raucous applause] I’m telling you all, as all of Egypt can hear me … What do you think is going on? … You want, you, you? Who are you? Who are you? [nervous silence] Huh? No. They’re ninety million. And I’m responsible in front of God that on judgment day I’ll say I looked after them.

The dying tree didn’t hold Khaled’s interest for long. He wanted to ride the motorcycle that belonged to one of the five plainclothed and well-paunched policemen watching us. After an hour and a half, a guard called us over and we gathered our things. Bags for Alaa are doubly searched. He isn’t allowed independent newspapers, political books or anything in English. For the first year he wasn’t allowed a pen. I’d written him a letter about the EU referendum and its aftermath. They didn’t let it through.

As usual, Alaa knows everything I know and more. He is only allowed state-owned newspapers and a radio, which receives an hour of the BBC World Service a day. But he is up to speed with world events. He recently wrote a long article about Uber and disruptive technologies (he’s a software developer as well as a political activist) full of detailed citations and examples, all from memory.

His fiery Twitter persona attracts the angry young, repels comfortable conservatives and has agitated the ego of our emotionally fragile dictator. A senior officer was asked privately if there was any chance of Alaa being released. He replied: ‘Will he stop insulting the president?’ During the 2011 uprising, when Sisi was the head of military intelligence, he had a confrontation with Alaa’s father, recently arrested. ‘This time,’ the then lieutenant general said, ‘you’re not getting out.’ But he did get out. Alaa’s father died a free man. So Sisi must make do with his son.

We buried Alaa’s father two years ago. Two weeks ago we buried our grandfather. We stood again on the steps of Omar Makram mosque, once the main field hospital for the revolution. Now we use it for funerals.

Our grandfather, Mostapha Soueif, founded the psychology department at Cairo University. Both Alaa and his younger sister Sanaa, who is also a political prisoner, were missing from his funeral. The office of the president sent a representative in dress uniform to pay his respects. My mother scrambled to find a pen and paper, and when the emissary stood to leave she slipped a note into his hand:

Dear Lieutenant General Sisi,
Did you know that two grandchildren of the man you are paying condolences to are in jail unjustly along with thousands of other young people?

The field marshal president will no doubt have taken offence at her getting his rank wrong, in the unlikely event the note made it past the first rubbish bin.

Sisi knows very well what’s happening, but he has chosen a path he cannot diverge from. He oversaw the bloodiest political massacre in modern Egyptian history. So far in 2016, 754 people have been killed extrajudicially by the state. Journalists are detained and deported, lawyers are imprisoned, activists are disappeared, land is auctioned off in secret, mega-projects routinely fail to save the economy, natural resources are drained by foreign corporations while anything short of blind fealty to the regime is treasonous. Things are bad. And as people grow hungrier and poorer they will only get worse. So new prisons must be built.