Egypt’s political prisoners: who they are and why they should be released
In October 2017, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed in an interview with France 24 that ‘there are no political prisoners in Egypt’.[i] Domestic and international rights organisations paint a very different picture of the situation for incarcerated government opponents and critics amidst an increasingly authoritarian environment. The roots of the vast political crackdown stem from the uprisings that began following the removal of the first democratically elected (albeit controversial) president and senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Since the overthrow of Morsi, the situation has deteriorated rapidly, along with any hopes of a new democratic era.
Sisi’s regime has consistently targeted a broad spectrum of political opponents including secular activists, leftists, students, and Islamists in an attempt to stem all forms of dissent; thousands of whom have been jailed. That the situation has worsened in recent years for political activists in Egypt is undeniable, given the exponential increase in arrests of those deemed to be a threat to the regime. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), out of nearly 106,000 prisoners, some 60,000 political prisoners are currently languish in crowded Egyptian prisons.[ii] This number doesn’t include those who have been forcibly disappeared or murdered. The Egyptian Solidarity Initiative reported that between the first week of April 2015 and June 7 alone, 163 prisoners had been forcibly disappeared.[iii]
Charges for political prisoners range from attending illegal protests and demonstrations, to spreading false news and criticising the president. However, many prisoners also face trumped-up charges of violence and terrorism. One such example is that of photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who has been imprisoned in Tora prison in Cairo since August 2013 for covering a pro-Morsi sit-in. He has now been incarcerated for over 4 years without charge, despite the law setting a two-year maximum period for pre-trial detention. He still faces a number of charges, including attempted murder, weapons possession and illegal assembly. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
Security services have taken to building dozens of new facilities to cope with overcrowding. Mass trials were common immediately following the coup with Brotherhood members and supporters constituting a majority of those targeted. Many of them have received death sentences or long prison terms. In March 2014, an Egyptian judge sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death. The Brotherhood estimates that 29,000 members or suspected supporters of its movement have been arrested.[iv] Most senior Muslim Brotherhood members are being held in the notorious maximum-security al-Aqrab prison. The prison has resurfaced under Sisi’s incumbency as a central holding facility for political dissidents.
Conditions in the facility are deplorable with reports of use of solitary confinement, medical negligence and the denial of legal and family visits.[v] According to Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, conditions at the prison have been found to be ‘more systematic and severe’ than other prisons ‘because it is the site where political opponents of the government are [particularly] concentrated’.[vi]
The abuses documented at al-Aqrab prison are representative of human rights violations across the Arab prison system. A 2017 report by Human Rights Watch[vii] detailed the shocking scale of violations committed by the state security apparatus, including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions and rape. According to the report, torture is often used to extract unreliable confessions, or simply as a form of punishment.
Former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch ‘described what amounted to an assembly line of abuse aimed at preparing fabricated cases against suspected dissidents’.[viii] The report includes the testimony of Omar al-Shuweikh, a university student and protest leader. He was arrested after being accused of stealing a policeman’s gun and of belonging to the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood. After being driven to a police station, he described being stripped and blindfolded and then subjected to torture and rape. The authorities’ refusal to even acknowledge the existence of political prisoners has enabled a culture of impunity for security forces within detention facilities.
[i] France 24, “Egypt’s Sisi: ‘There are countries who are supporting terrorism,’” October 24, 2017,
[ii] Arab Network for Human Rights Information, “There is Room for Everyone: Egypt’s Prisons before and after the January 25 Revolution,” September 5, 2016, http://anhri.net/there-is-room-for-everybody-a-report-by-anhri-covering-the-expansion-in-prison-construction-after-january-25-revolution/?lang=en
[iii] Egypt Solidarity, “163 disappearances in Egypt since April: prisoners’ rights campaign,” June 8, 2015,
[iv] Joe Stork, “Egypt’s Political Prisoners,” openDemocracy, March 6, 2015, https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/joe-stork/egypt%E2%80%99s-political-prisoners
[v] Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, “Aqrab Prison: a prison for collective punishment Violation of visitation rights threatens prisoners’ safety,” June 2, 2016, https://eipr.org/en/press/2016/06/aqrab-prison-prison-collective-punishment-violation-visitation-rights-threatens
[vi] Zena Tahhan, “In Egypt’s Guantanamo ‘abuse is systematic’,” Al Jazeera News, September 26, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/egypt-guantanamo-abuse-systematic-160928072738053.html
[vii] Human Rights Watch, “We Do Unreasonable Things Here”- Torture and National Security in al-Sisi’s Egypt, September 5, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/09/05/we-do-unreasonable-things-here/torture-and-national-security-al-sisis-egypt