Excellent reporting by Tom Stevenson in the LRB on Egypt's disgusting, semi-clandestine prison system, and the tens of thousands of people being abused in it.
It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.
Amn al-Markezi is almost entirely free from public scrutiny. But the Egyptian army is even less accountable, and it is from military facilities such as Azouly prison in Ismailia, Agroot prison in Suez and the headquarters of Battalion 101 in Arish that the worst testimonies come. One man detained at Azouly claimed in a letter dated 24 March 2014 that access to the toilet was permitted once a day, before dawn, that inmates were tortured with boiling water and even boiling oil, and that he frequently heard women screaming somewhere inside the facility. Letters and survivors’ accounts describe three distinct layers inside these army camps. The first floor is for military prisoners who are lawfully detained. The second is known as the ‘prosecutions floor’ and holds civilians who have been given a military trial. The third floor – the ‘investigations floor’ – houses people who have been ‘disappeared’.
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.
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.