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.
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 Scorpion Prison|
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.
|Abu Zaabal prison|
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.
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.
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.