In Their Own Words: Egypt’s Young Revolutionaries Behind Bars*
By Laura Dean
Four years on, many of the authors of Egypt’s January 2011 revolution — the young, idealistic faces that were splashed across Western television screens following the fall of strongman Hosni Mubarak — are behind bars.
The true number of those locked up since the army toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013 is impossible to tell, but many believe it to be in the tens of thousands.
People from all walks of life now find themselves behind bars: Islamists, students, university professors, journalists, doctors, engineers, company owners, workers, children.
Locked up with them are many of the young voices trying to shape Egypt’s democracy.
One such voice is Ahmed Douma, a prominent activist and blogger who has been jailed under every government Egypt has seen in his lifetime. On Feb. 4, he was sentenced to life in prison along with 229 others and fined over $2 million on charges of rioting, attacking security forces and inciting violence in late 2011.
Prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to five years in jail on Monday, after being held for about seven months in pre-trial detention. Eighteen other activists were sentenced to three years and still others 15 years in absentia.
Yara Sallam, a researcher on transitional justice and recipient of the North African Human Rights Defender Shield, was detained in June 2014 for violating the draconian protest law. She and Sana Seif, daughter of prominent human rights activist Ahmed Seif al-Islam, along with 22 others, are serving two-year sentences despite international calls for their release.
Mahienour el-Massry, a prominent human rights lawyer, was just sentenced to another two years in prison, after being released in November. The list goes on.
Stories of torture in police stations, in prisons, in military detention centers, have much in common with one another. Detainees describe beatings with hands and sticks and belts, electric shocks, deprivation of food, sexual assault.
Detainees at el-Azouli military prison in Ismailia report being held in complete darkness, suspended from doors, having boiling water and oil poured on them during interrogations, electric shocks in the mouth when they beg for water. One wrote that he had even seen wives brought in and suspended from doors to make their husbands confess.
In an essay written March 4, entitled “Autism,” Alaa Abdel Fattah describes how it feels to encounter other inmates who have been tortured when he has not.
“We’ve expected them since the news of their torture was leaked into the papers. We tried to prepare to receive them, but how do you welcome a friend who went through the battle with you but went through his experience alone? Will he be comforted if you tell him that your old jail/his new jail is safe and that his ordeal is over? Will he be angry? Should I feel guilty or grateful?”
He explains that certain detainees are subject to torture while others are not.
“The groups whose torture is prohibited are generally defined by social class, race, possession of a second nationality, party alliance, level of education, age, and other details that can be used to categorize people.”
Some manage to find dark humor in the situation. Mohamed Fawzi, a student in the Faculty of Pharmaceuticals in Mansoura, wrote the following on April 18:
“Shut up you people, we want to sleep. It seems those electric shocks have scorched your brains,” said one of the cellmates to others who were laughing at the time for sleep. “And they wonder where the electricity problems are coming from! It’s only natural. If all electricity is channeled to state security to use on detainees.” The whole cell breaks into laughter.
Sherif Farag, a lecturer at Alexandria University, describes the moment he was allowed to have a pillow in al-Hadra prison:
“Time must stop, the earth must stop turning, and you must focus your eyes and hearts to this important date in my life here in Hadra prison. At about 2 p.m. today I have become owner of a pillow, where I can lay my head heavy with thought and dreams … “
“We were lucky to have woolen covers before our transfer to the directorate. Here we began to learn that the officer is the source of life: he can give or can take away, tempt or withhold, carrying life or death, depending on his whims. From my pillow and my bed I moved to an ice-cold stone floor, which makes the cold seem more biting and cruel.”
“With time and through the visits we began to have covers, underwear, soap and a sponge. I mentioned only underwear because you don’t need other clothes. In prison you learn to focus on the essentials. With those simple accessories you can make a nice, softer pillow. A trouser leg or a T-shirt stuffed with the other clothes is nice and sufficient. The most important thing is that they be clean or else you will not tolerate the smell of your own sweat. Don’t be disgusted. This is simple and nice if compared to the smell of the toilets.”
“To own a pillow in prison is something akin to a dream.”
Oxford students join hunger strike in solidarity with Egyptian prisoners
Many describe the friendships and camaraderie they have found behind bars.
“I don’t think he [the president] realizes that a generation is growing and a whole community is bonding and integrating inside detention places, a community whose memory has been engraved with memories that remind us every morning with the real reason why we are on this earth: to fight every injustice,” writes Fawzi.
Novelist Omar Hazek writes of a barrel of garbage a meter from where he sleeps, the stench of which is unbearable. The prisoners devise a way to pay for the barrel to be washed and lined with plastic bags, which are closed at night to mitigate the odor.
Karim el-Beheiry describes an instance in which officers handcuff a detainee to be beaten by soldiers. The prisoners shout “horeya” — “freedom” — and bang on the walls of the cell until the officers release the prisoner. The next day the officers threatened to shoot tear gas into the cell if such an incident happened again.
Small acts of kindness take on special significance. Hazek’s friend devises, after several attempts, an oil lamp for him so that he can stay up and work on his novel in the quiet of the night. The wick is made from orange peel and matches, and stands in oil collected from the prison food, placed inside a cup made from the bottom of a water bottle. Another detainee makes chess pieces out of soap.
Some even manage to be grateful for the experience.
“I thank God for putting me in this place, maybe it is a chance that God will forgive me for my bad deeds and maybe it was a chance to know the most brave, pure and honest revolutionists and maybe to know the value of my friends,” writes Ahmed Ayman, 20, detained on June 30, 2013.
Others continue to fight for democratic ideas from inside prison.
“I know that despair is treason
but the revolutionary in my country
— even if he’s a sinless prophet —
when he sees the tyrant empowered
by the oppressed’s command
amid the rejoicing of the poor
will lose his faith.”
These are the opening words of a piece entitled “Graffiti for Two” and written jointly from prison by Ahmed Douma, who was just given a life sentence, and Abdel Fattah who will be sentenced on Feb. 23. They collaborated by shouting to one another between cells.
They go on to suggest it is more bearable in some ways to be undergoing the ordeal than to be a loved one outside:
“I was given an inheritance better than that of my two sisters, for they inherited morgues and victims of torture and the embrace of grieving mothers. I’m too scared to even ask about their nightmares.”
Abdel Fattah writes of a renewed commitment to a long-term democratic struggle, drawing on the experiences of older Egyptian rights activists:
“I write of a generation that fought without despair and without hope, that won only small victories and wasn’t shaken by major defeats because they were the natural order of things. A generation whose ambitions were lower than the ambitions of those who came before, but whose dream was larger.”
He explains the goals of the original revolutionary moment:
“Our aim was to emphasize will in a country that aimed to destroy you. Our instinct was to move towards the unknown in a country whose instinct was stasis. We fought for a day, one day that would end without the suffocating certainty that tomorrow would replicate it as all days had been replicated before.”
But ultimately, he accuses the government of targeting the revolutionary generation:
“Everyone knows that the current regime offers nothing to most of the young people of the country, and everyone knows that most of those in jail are young, and that oppression is targeting an entire generation to subjugate it to a regime that understands how separate it is from them and that does not want, and cannot in any case, accommodate or include them.”
For many, despair is never far off and the uncertainty and the indignity at times becomes too much to bear.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who goes by “Shawkan,” has been detained for more than 550 days without charge. On Feb. 16, a Cairo court sentenced him to indefinite pretrial detention.
“It is an endless nightmare inside this black hole that I am stuck in. The sunset has become a tiny strip through the iron mesh. …
“Iron is taking over the place here. Heavy iron doors and a dark room like a dungeon. …
“I will share with you the degrading story of the bathroom. It is just a very small part of the same room. Everyone can hear what happens inside so very clearly. We cook, eat, pray and use the bathroom in this same room. We are robbed not just of our freedom, but also our dignity even in the most basic of functions. …
“I simply ask that now that you know of me, please do not turn away. I am a photojournalist, not a criminal. I’m Mahmoud Abou Zeid, Shawkan …. Write to me at your neighborhood Cemetery in Tora prison.”
Egypt: Barbaric Descent of World’s First Nation-State*
Egypt Accused of Systematic Torture of Detainees*
Jailed Egyptian Children Moved to ‘torture camp’*
Egypt: Torturing University Students*
Egypt: Over 20,000 Detainees to Start ‘Uprising’*
US Apache Attack Helicopters for Egyptian Junta*
Even Egyptian state-owned TV Admits to a Fraudulent Presidential Election
Egypt: Opposition Builds*
Members of Egypt’s Elite Admit to Planning and Financing the Coup as they Conspired to Bring Down Sisi*
Egyptian TV Presenter: Israelis Control Egyptian Media*
Egypt Blocking Egyptian Humanitarian Aid to Gaza*
US Still Funding Repression in Egypt*
Egyptian Military Dissent Comes to the Surface after Assassination Attempt on Sisi*
Egypt Seizes Newspaper that States it has Never Executed any Israeli Spy*
Oxford students join hunger strike in solidarity with Egyptian prisoners
Freeing Mubarak: Another Moment in Egypt’s Counterrevolution*
Egypt: Israel to Support Sisi’s Regime*
Only $3 billion Declared of the $39.5 billion in Gulf Aid to Sisi*