60,000 Political Prisoners and 1,250 Missing: Welcome to the New Egypt

The elements that drove the popular Egyptian uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 are still there today, and are liable to trigger any future protest against Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali points to photos of jailed activists, June 2016. There are a reported 60,000 political prisoners being held in Egyptian prisons.
Egyptian lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali points to photos of jailed activists, June 2016. There are a reported 60,000 political prisoners being held in Egyptian prisons.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The six members of Egyptian band Street Children have no performance hall or stage. True to their name, they sing in the street, film themselves with a smartphone and upload video clips to YouTube. They have no instruments save one small drum, but the lyrics make their music — and it is not music to the ears of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

When they sing “Sissi Sissi Anta Raisi” (Sissi Sissi you are my president), they don’t mean to praise the president’s actions, but rather to call on him to go. In order to anger him further, they use the word “Irhel” (“Leave”), which the protesters used against former President Hosni Mubarak in the popular uprising of 2011.

A popular song like this is considered dangerous. Indeed, the six were arrested in May for incitement, harming state security, intent to overthrow the government and illegal gathering. These are serious charges that entail long prison sentences. After 150 days in detention, the band members were released this week under restrictive conditions, and now await a ruling in their trial.

If they’re handed a prison term, the band members won’t be alone. According to a new report issued this week by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, there are nearly 106,000 Egyptians incarcerated in 504 prisons. And, according to the report’s signatories, over 60,000 of them are political prisoners and detainees.

Supporters of Egypt's president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hold his poster and national flags as they celebrate the official announcement declaring him the next president in Cairo, Egypt, June 6, 2014.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

Since the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the regime has built 13 new prisons, the report notes. It spent $95 million alone on Gamasa General Prison, at a time when Egypt has agreed a $12-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Yet these prisoners are comparatively lucky — in that they’re actually counted and registered, and their families know where they’re being held.

The situation is very different for 1,250 people who have disappeared in recent years in the basements of Egypt’s jails, and about whom there is no information. It doesn’t actually mean they’re dead, but rather that the state is not providing details about their whereabouts.

This scary statistic pushed the Egyptian Council for Human Rights to develop a new phone application, iProtect, allowing anyone arrested to send text messages to three contacts with details of their whereabouts, and an email with similar information to the Human Rights Council. In order to prevent discovery of the app, it is disguised as a calculator, so that police officers checking the cell phone don’t notice the arrestee altering his friends.

Human rights activists hope that, in this way, they’ll be able to quickly locate arrestees and send lawyers to them, or to reach them while they’re being held in a local jail — before being transferred to a large central prison where their tracks will disappear.

Human rights aren’t well defined in Egypt, and the law book buries them under the pretext of state security. The struggle for human rights can’t rely on these flexible laws, so focuses instead on preventing physical harm to civilians or shutting up journalists and spiritual leaders.

Pro-government Egyptian woman holds a portrait of the Egyptian president on Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on January 25, 2016, as the country marks the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising.Credit: AFP

“Human rights are a matter of culture that is lacking here,” a human rights worker at one of the big nongovernmental organizations in Cairo told Haaretz. “The issue is so broad, and includes the status of the child, the status of women, intellectual property rights and freedom of expression — it seems that work awaits us every day of our lives. Wherever you turn, you will find a violation of rights,” he added.

Nine out of 10 women

The Egyptian parliament recently gave an original example of other aspects of human rights violations. In a debate over making more stringent punishments for circumcising women, MP Elhamy Agina attacked the bill’s initiators, claiming that women must undergo female genital mutilation to stop the “sexual weakness” of men.

Agina added: “In Egypt, men suffer from impotence and the state is one of the biggest importers in the world of sexual stimulants. We will be able to rein in circumcision of women only when the men will be strong enough to be able to control their urges.”

There is no point in arguing with this twisted logic, which, as expected, aroused a huge media storm and led to the calling of the honorable MP to the parliament’s ethics committee.

However, it is known he was expressing an accepted line of thinking. According to human rights organization estimates, nine out of 10 women in Egypt undergo female genital mutilation. According to other estimates, there has been a decline in the number of circumcisions in recent years, such that 70 percent of Egypt women undergo them.

A young boy watches from a rooftop as tens of thousands of Egyptians gather to pray and celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, 2011Credit: AP

These procedures often involve home devices and lack supervision by a doctor or any decent sanitary conditions, leading to many girls’ deaths. While female NGOs in Egypt are trying to educate the public to shun the practice, it seems easier to try to overthrow the government than fight such a firmly established tradition.

‘Historic crossroads’

Other groups in Egypt fighting for their basic rights include the Copts, who this week allegedly enjoyed the passage of a new law to make it easier to build churches.

President Sissi introduced the law after a host of violent confrontations between Muslims and Christians — mainly in southern villages — in which the homes of Copts were torched. The authorities were careful to define the new law in dramatic terms like “historic crossroads,” as it did end legislation that for years had prevented the construction of new churches.

Police officers look on as Egyptians gather to protest against the latest surge of assaults on Christians in Cairo, Egypt, August 13, 2016.Credit: Nariman El-Mofty, AP

However, the new law also gives the regime the means to prevent church building. For example, district governors will be empowered to give the final building permit, subject to the number of Christians living in the city, town or village where they seek to build a church.

The problem is that the governors in particular, and the government in general, don’t publish the numbers of Christians in the country or the districts. Without exact figures, any governor can simply decree that there aren’t enough Christians living in any given city or village, and there’s almost no way to refute it

The Christian communities have exact figures on how many Christians live in each city and village. But their leaders prefer not to lock horns with the authorities, in order to avoid additional fights. This policy has sparked a major controversy between the young Coptic generation — which demands the involvement of the police in every case of harassment — and the conservative leadership, which prefers to turn the other cheek, even if it leads to more harassment.

According to conventional wisdom, the stability and status of Egypt is measured in economic and military terms, while examining the government’s ability to make its debt payments, implement economic reforms, fight terror and influence political processes.

These are certainly important and necessary issues. But after the revolution of January 25, 2011, it’s no longer possible to suffice with them. Street songs, phone applications against arrests or protests over harassment of Christians — these are the signs that laid the way for that revolution, and they are liable to be symptoms of the next protest.

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