The Egyptian-American citizen Mustafa Kassem died in a hospital in Cairo on January 13 from a hunger strike combined with medical negligence. Kassem, who was arrested in August 2013 and kept in pre-trial detention until September 2018, was sentenced to 15 years for unlawful protest. His sentence was handed down as part of a mass trial comprised of over 700 defendants, and notorious for lack of due process. The death of Kassem is symptomatic of a metamorphosis of the Egyptian penal system, triggered by the coup of 2013. The Egyptian penal system has undergone a progressive process of politicization as part of a deliberate state policy of repression. The goal of the regime is not to temporarily repress dissent, or to incarcerate them for a defined period, but to perpetually punish dissenters with indefinite prison sentences under brutal conditions that sometimes amount to death. Embedded in a complex web of laws and prosecutorial practices, these processes are designed to ensure that political dissidents, even when released or exonerated by the judiciary, remain imprisoned or subject to severe restrictions.

The most distinctive feature of the Egyptian prison system is its brutality. Indeed, prison conditions before the 2013 coup were far from exemplary, but there has since been a marked detrition. This is further reflected in a spike in the number of deaths during in the years following the coup. The widespread abuse of inmates involves deliberate medical negligence, unsanitary conditions, and the use of indefinite solitary confinements. These characteristics have directly led to the death of 600 inmates between 2013 and 2019. The most notable of which is the death of former President Morsi, who collapsed during his trial on June 17, 2019, from a heart attack. President Morsi’s death prompted independent UN experts to classify the event as “state-sanctioned arbitrary killing” due to the unsparing nature of his imprisonment. Throughout his six years behind bars, the ousted president was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, was forced to sleep on a concrete floor, and was denied access to reading materials. He was also denied lifesaving medical care for his diabetes and blood pressure, despite the fact that authorities were repeatedly warned of the lethal consequences. But President Morsi’s case is not unique.

Other significant examples include Abdel Moniem Aboul-Fotouh, the head of the Strong Egypt Party who is currently in pre-trial detention, and President Morsi’s Former Foreign Affairs Adviser Dr. Essam El-Haddad, and his son Mr. Gehad El-Haddad. Aboul-Fotoh is charged with leading a terrorist group, while both El-Haddad men are charged with joining a banned group, with Essam receiving a 10-year sentence for this charge.1 

Compounding these harsh prison conditions is the judicial authorities’ heavy reliance on pre-trial detentions. This has become a deliberate policy for prolonged arbitrary detentions, sometimes before prosecutors press formal charges. For example, the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights Head Ala Abed estimated the number of those in pre-trial detention between twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand detainees, out of sixty-five thousand. While pre-trial detention was a feature of the Mubarak era, it was not as excessive and did not exceed  a few months for political prisoners. However, reforms were introduced to limit the maximum period of pre-trial detention to two years in 2006 and 2007.  But despite the legal threshold, Egyptian authorities often violated the detention limit. For example, the Egyptian Initiative of Human Rights documented 1,464 cases across four governorates where the inmates were still withheld after exceeding the maximum limit of two years.  

The extensive use of pre-trial detention vests the authorities with the power to imprison political opponents at will, with little heed to due process, and with vague charges. This applies in cases where the courts eventually cleared the defendants. For example, out 2,700 people that were found innocent, 58 percent spent between six and 18 months in pre-trial detention, with four percent spending more than two years behind bars. Thus, the nature of pre-trial detention changes, from a preventative measure to a tool for state repression with no oversight and control. 

In addition to pre-trial detention abuses, with the prosecutorial practice of creating  “revolving door” cases. In such instances, even if a judge releases a defendant or a defendant serves their term, they are immediately re-arrested in similar cases with vague charges. Mohamed Al Qassas, the deputy head of the Strong Egypt Party, reflects such processes. He was released on December 9, 2019, after twenty-two month of pre-trial detention for spreading false news. Qassas was not allowed to leave his prison cell, as he was immediately added to a new case with very similar charges—this essentially resulted in a detention for another two years without trial.  Another prominent case is that of Ala Abdel Fattah, who spent five years in jail for violating Egypt’s protest law. After his release in March 2019, Fattah was re-arrested in September of the same year while serving his half-day, overnight probation in the Dooki Police station for a separate charge. He was later tortured and beaten while facing solitary confinement and isolation. 

Ultimately, prosecutors and judicial authorities engineer the conditions for continued confinement without the need for a final ruling or due process.  Even when an inmate is released after serving their time, part of their sentences usually involves a probation period that can last years. The terms of probation involve spending twelve hours a day--from six p.m. to six a.m.—in the police station. Deliberately planned, these rules severely restrict an inmate’s ability to lead normal lives, and most importantly, place them under the control of the penal system for a few years after their release. 

Such a policy has turned prisons into hotbeds of radicalism. The transformation of the Egyptian penal system into a tool for endless detention—and the heightened level of state repression—has provided fertile ground for radicalization and the rise of violent extremism. Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammad Mostafa, the suicide bomber responsible for the attack on the Cairo's historic St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on December 11, 2016, which killed 25 people, is a clear example. ISIS recruited Mostafa while in Tora prison serving a two-year sentence for illegal protests. He is the direct product of the Egyptian penal system and the policy of severe repression that spawned it.    

Today, the Egyptian penal and justice system is an integral part of the state’s repressive apparatus. Egyptians now face a complex set of practices that undermines the institutional integrity of the justice system in a manner that is difficult to reverse. There is a progressive hollowing out of the Egyptian justice system that supports the Egyptian security apparatus’ expanding power, which contradicts the state’s laws and the Egyptian constitution. Such a devolution of control has critical consequences for the country. First, it erodes public trust in a state institution and its ability to be impartial. This affects not only the regime's legitimacy but also the legitimacy of the state as an institution. Second, it creates a fuels the growth of violent extremism. Finally, it creates formidable obstacles to the prospect of democratic transition, due to the need to overhaul the penal and justice system. In essence, the regime’s obsession with punishing its opponents is not just compromising Egypt’s stability in the short term—it has long term consequences for the prospect of a future democratic process, and, most importantly, it is undermining public trust in the state. Without targeted policy reforms, the penal system’s destructive effects will far outlive President Sisi and his regime. 

1 Note/correction on 12/04/2020: Gehad El-Haddad was acquitted in September 2019 of espionage charges; however, he has remained in custody after new charges were brought against him. Essam El-Haddad was acquitted of the charges but was sentenced to 10 years for being a member of a banned group.

Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.