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Covid-19 Puts Egyptian Prisoners At Risk

A speech recorded as part of the online rally co-sponsored by Action for Hope and Requiem For Justice, an International Online Rally of Artists, Thinkers, and Activists Against Injustice From 18 Countries. Date: 30 August 2020.

In the midst of the Covid-10 pandemic, the health conditions of prisons all over the world have become a subject of deep concern. Being enclosed, crowded places, prisons are particularly suitable environments for the virus to spread.

This concern about the health conditions of prisons is most acute in the case of Egypt where prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and where complaints about their unhygienic conditions were common even before this pandemic.

To understand the gravity of the hygienic situation in Egyptian prisons we need to keep two things in mind.

The first is the big expansion of the prison population. And the second is a very dangerous transformation in the penal policy that the regime has been following over the past five or six years.

Now, the expansion in the Egyptian prison population is due to a surge in the number of political prisoners, and specifically to the increased recourse by the Egyptian authorities to pretrial detention as a means of illegal punishment.

Traditionally, Egyptian law set a two-year limit beyond which time detainees should be either charged or released.

But in 2014, the law was changed allowing detainees practically to be held indefinitely.

The background to this change in the law is the keen determination of the current regime to prevent any political activity. 

Specifically, the current regime seems haunted by the specter of Tahrir and is traumatized by the events of 2011- 2012 when millions of Egyptians took to the streets asking for freedom, dignity and social justice.

In fact, one can safely say that what lies behind the sudden surge in the number of political prisoners is a vendetta that the regime has against youth in particular, and political activism, in general, and is using forced disappearance, arbitrary arrests and pretrial detention to stifle any and all kinds of political opposition.

The result is a huge increase in the prison population and a dangerous over-crowdedness of prisons. 

While the state has built many new prisons to cater for this influx of inmates, prisons are still dangerously overcrowded.

According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch in 2016, Egyptian prisons were already operating at 150% of their capacity.

And according to the official Egyptian Council for Human Rights, the overcrowded conditions of prisons constituted a health hazard.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation has got much worse, and there have been repeated calls on the authorities to release detainees. But to no avail.

These conditions are doubly painful for me.

As an Egyptian, it is painful for me to see some of Egypt’s brightest and bravest unjustly locked up in these miserable conditions.

And as a student of modern Egyptian history, it is also painful for me to notice how, in comparison to the 19th century, which is the area of my specialty, my country has deteriorated.

In my research in the Egyptian National Archives on the history of public hygiene in the 19th century, I was particularly struck by the attention paid to the health of prisoners and to the hygienic conditions of prisons and other paces of detention. 

In the archives, I studied the foundational moment of the modern Egyptian health establishment. And I closely read the letters of the founder of the modern Egyptian health establishment, a Frenchman by the name of Clot Bey who came to Egypt in 1825 to found what became Qaṣr al-‘Ainī, Egypt’s first modern teaching hospital.  

But Clot Bey was not only concerned with medical education; he was also concerned with pubic hygiene of the country at large. As such, he paid particular attention to the condition of prisons. 

What was behind this attention to the health of prisoners? It surely wasn’t any humanitarian concern about prisoners as such. 

Rather, what we see here are two main concerns.

The first is a concern that prisons, as a said, do not end up becoming nodes for infection and epidemics.

Secondly, we see in this attention to prisoners’ health a reflection of a deep change in the penal system, a radically new philosophy of punishment. In this philosophy, prisons were no longer seen as places of exile or death. Rather, they are places of a temporary suspension of freedom; places of rehabilitation and reform.

Now, it is really painful for me to see, two hundred years later, a complete reversal of this logic. 

What we see in Egypt now is a penal policy that is not informed by constitutionalism or legality, let alone by principles of justice or human rights, but by a vendetta against activists, against youth, against any political mobilization, and a determination to prevent the moment of 2011 from being repeated again. And the tools that the government is using to achieve this end are illegal tools of forced disappearance, arbitrary arrests and pretrial detention whereby people are held up in prison indefinitely with no end in sight. 

But there is also a return to an older conception and philosophy of punishment. Prisons are now seen as places of exile, of banishment and of death. People are thrown into prisons without being sentenced; they are thrown into prison to be forgotten, to rot and to die. 

Egyptian prisons have therefore once again become sites of imminent danger.

It is true that Covid 19 is a global pandemic threatening the population of the entire planet. However, the vindictive, shortsighted policy of the current Egyptian regime is making the pandemic much more dangerous and lethal. 

By refusing to release political prisoners who are illegally detained and refusing to answer calls to ease the over-crowdedness of Egyptian prisons, the Egyptian authorities are not only endangering the lives of thousands of innocent detainees; they are also exacerbating the public hygiene crisis that Egypt is facing with Covid 19.

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