by Joe Stork
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Cairo on January 10, he commended President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi for his “leadership” in combating “the ongoing threat of terrorism as well as the radical Islamism that fuels it.” In fact, a report out this week documents how Egypt’s prisons, since Sisi took power in July 2013, have been helping to fuel that very threat.
The report, written by Brian Dooley, senior advisor with the U.S.-based Human Rights First, draws on recent interviews with dozens of former prisoners and examines the ways imprisoned cadres of the Islamic State group in Egypt have turned the prisons themselves into recruiting centers for the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Considering that Egyptian authorities are holding an estimated 60,000 political prisoners, and well over 100,000 prisoners altogether, this should be a matter of grave concern for Egypt’s international backers who provide security assistance and political support for Sisi’s regime.
One former prisoner, Mohamed Nabil, who had been jailed for his opposition activism with the leftist April 6 movement, said prison authorities would put new detainees “often straight after being tortured” into cells containing IS prisoners. A contributing factor in some cases is a sense of injustice after being arrested for comments on social media critical of the government. “Then in prison they get electrocuted, in the mouth, on their genitals,” said Ayman Abdelmeguid, who’d been jailed in 2015 and 2016. “After that they’re ready to listen to ISIS.”
“Radicalization isn’t a light switch,” said Mohamed Soltan, the Egyptian-American arrested in August 2013 and held in six different jails and police stations over a 22-month period. “It happens gradually usually.” Abuse is one factor, he said, but so is the sense of abandonment as outside powers embraced Sisi. “All this news coming in of [IS] attacks in Egypt and Syria and everywhere, and the rest of us were just feeling defeated.”
Mohamed Hassanein, who spent three years in jail for his leading role in an NGO that worked with street children, observed that prisoners affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood—the prime target of Sisi’s repression—may be better able to resist the appeal of IS. “The Muslim Brotherhood has a social network,” he told Dooley. “But those who are outside of that structure were targeted [for recruitment] by ISIS.”
Mohamed Soltan told Dooley that prison authorities kept him “in complete isolation” for six months except for “the same two or three ISIS guys from Sinai [who] had access when no-one else did.” And, Soltan added, “it was always very hard for us to get smuggled phones in prison, but not for the ISIS guys.”
Terrible prison conditions, in part reflecting the mass incarceration that has characterized Sisi’s repressive tenure, is another major grievance. Egypt’s quasi-official National Council for Human Rights reported in 2016 that the country’s prisons were operating at 150 percent of capacity and other detention centers such as police stations at 200 percent. Human Rights Watch in 2015 documented that, in the maximum-security prison known as “Scorpion,” prison authorities routinely deprived inmates of beds and basic hygiene items like toothbrushes. Between May and October 2015 at least six Scorpion inmates died in custody, in some cases from medical neglect. A former Scorpion warden, in a 2012 television interview, said that the prison “was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again unless dead. It was designed for political prisoners.” The Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in a September 2018 report, documented how at Scorpion “prisoners’ most basic needs—those that the prison authorities are required to provide by law—are instead sold at exorbitant prices” in the prison canteen, a “prison-for-profit mode” also found in other Egyptian prisons.
IS cadre augmented their appeal with a policy of tough non-cooperation with prison authorities and attracted other inmates by providing favors, like better food and access to smuggled cell phones, a lawyer “with clients across Egypt’s prison system” told Dooley. “And they provide much better protection against the guards and against the other prisoners.” One former prisoner, whom Dooley refers to as Farhad, described how at Al Natrun prison hundreds of IS cadre were numerous and powerful enough to “control parts of how the prison is run and can identify vulnerable prisoners they want transferred to their cell to radicalize.” When “Mahmoud” tried with others to counter the radicalization, IS “threatened us physically so we stopped.”
Asked what measures they would recommend to confront IS radicalization, the former prisoners mentioned three: stop torture, improve prison conditions, and facilitate family visits and closer family contacts.
It’s not like US officials and others are unaware of the problem. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, during an August 2015 visit to Cairo, told journalists that he had raised with Egyptian officials his concerns about “radicalization that can take place through imprisonment, through incarceration.” Ahmed Maher, an imprisoned April 6 Movement leader, in an interview published a few weeks earlier, described being “in intense isolation under maximum security and deprived of the most basic rights.” He continued: “Prison has really become a breeding ground for extremists. It has become a school for crime and terrorism, since there are hundreds of young men piled on top of each other in narrow confines, jihadists next to Muslim Brotherhood members next to revolutionaries next to sympathizers.” Months later, in April 2016, a leading Egyptian daily, Al Shorouk, carried a headline referring to Tora prison as “A Government Center for ISIS Recruitment.”
As Dooley notes, Congress since FY 2012 has routinely required the secretary state to certify that Egypt is taking certain steps in support of democracy and human rights as a condition for U.S. military aid, although a “national security waiver” has allowed successive administrations to ignore the required certification. None of the congressional conditions, however, aside from reference to releasing political prisoners, addresses prison conditions and treatment of prisoners, or the crying need for serious penal reform.
Joe Stork was until recently the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.