Egypt’s Sisi to open ‘American-style’ prisons amid criticism

Egypt’s Sisi to open ‘American-style’ prisons amid criticism 
4 min read
16 September, 2021
Earlier this week, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced the opening of a new “American-style” prison complex, prompting criticism and mockery from critics.
Sisi's regime has been accused of rights abuses [Getty]

Cairo - At the time when local and international rights groups have frequently reported cases of maltreatment and abuse in Egyptian jails, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced the opening of what he described as an “American-style” prison complex.

During a phone call on Wednesday evening with national TV, Sisi told talk show host Youssef El-Housseni that the coming few days or weeks would witness the opening of a complex comprising seven or eight new prisons. 

“We will [follow] the American model. Even if there is a person who committed a crime, we don’t get to punish him twice,” Sisi said. 

The prison complex, according to Sisi, will include activities as well as courts for the prisoners to stand trial without being moved outside the area.

“An inmate is different from a detainee. If Sisi wants to improve the conditions of prisoners, that will be fine. If Egyptian prisons will be like what we see in Hollywood movies, that will be great too,” lawyer and human rights advocate, Negad El-Borai told The New Arab.

Nevertheless, rights lawyer Fahd El-Banna begs to differ. 

“In order to apply the American model, the authorities should be clear about the legislation based on which these prisons will be established. For example, in Egypt, the Latin/French model is applied. And if they wish to follow the different US styles…. they should know there are flaws in the American system,” Banna told The New Arab. 

“The question now is whether the state finally realised that the Egyptian prisons are flawed. And how detainees and inmates suffer at detention centres and prisons. At the same time, who or what entity will supervise these prisons?” he wondered. 

Sisi’s move has turned into a subject of ridicule by social media users and online activists.

One Twitter user wrote, sarcastically: “Sisi inaugurates in days the biggest prison complex following the US model. His Excellency stated that the new complex will put into consideration all aspects related to culture, health-care, sports, mental health...Experts predict the rates of crimes to increase for citizens who wish to join the new…complex.”  

Another tweeted in response to him: “There are already people on the waiting list.”

Egypt currently has a total of 78 major prisons. In April, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), a local rights group, released a report, indicating that the new prisons established after the January 25 revolution of 2011 amounted to 35; 26 of them were built during Sisi’s reign. 

A paradox?

Sisi’s statements may have contradicted the reality thousands of inmates and detainees have been surviving. 

The Egyptian regime has been accused by rights groups of overseeing the country's worst crackdown on human rights in decades, with thousands of his critics behind bars. Some have suffered medical negligence and were left to die slowly, while dozens others were executed.

Most recently, prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah’s family members said they were worried about his safety after he had suggested to the judge presiding his latest hearing this week that he could commit suicide unless his conditions in the notorious Tora Prison were to be improved and that he was to be transferred to another jail.

He has been locked up in solitary confinement and banned from leaving his cell or communicating with the outside world for almost two years now. Since then, judges have been renewing his detention every 45 days without trial. 

Abdel-Fattah has been allegedly charged with disseminating false news, being affiliated to a terrorist group and misusing social media tools, the same set of accusations frequently used by the regime against dissidents and activists. 

Prior to that, former politician and presidential candidate, Abdel-Moniem Aboul-Fotouh suffered from medical negligence while being held also in solitary confinement at Tora prison. 

Lost aid

Last week, Sisi declared during an official event a National Strategy for Human Rights in what is believed as an attempt to improve the regime’s image before the US and the United Nations.

“Egypt has enough legislation on human rights [that is not applied]. If any change could happen, you would add only 1% of additional laws on subjects like pre-trial detention,” a prominent political sociologist told The New Arab on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety. 

“The rest has to do with the practices of the security agencies over a long time due to emergency laws,” he added.

“There is no way the policy of human rights can be changed overnight. Change happens on the ground. The strategy has not been applied. It’s just a declaration,” he explained. “And, meanwhile, same old practices continue."

Sisi’s move is believed to precede the receipt of the annual aid from the US used for counterterrorism, border security and non-proliferation measures. 

Two days after Sisi’s declaration of a human rights strategy, an American official was quoted by the US-based Washington Post as saying that part of the aid this year would be withheld over human rights concerns. 

Washington offers Cairo $1.3 billion of military aid annually, of which $300 million is linked to certain human rights conditions decided by the US Congress.