As It Happens

Egyptian women jailed for protesting prison conditions during pandemic

Ahdaf Soueif was protesting the conditions of Egyptian prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic when she became one herself.

Novelist Ahdaf Soueif is worried about her nephew, political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah

An Egyptian police officer stands guard at the Tora prison in the Egyptian capital Cairo in February. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)


Ahdaf Soueif was protesting the conditions of Egyptian prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic when she became one herself.

Soueif, a novelist short-listed for the Booker Prize, was one of four women arrested on March 18 in Cairo for holding protest signs outside the cabinet office calling for a prison pandemic strategy. They were detained overnight and released the following day.

"It was quite strange because I'm so used to being on the other side," Soueif told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And it was totally, totally different being on the inside."

Soueif was there to advocate for her nephew, Alaa Abdel Fattah, a high-profile Egyptian activist and political prisoner who was detained in September after anti-government protests.

Fattah's mother Laila Soueif was also arrested, along with her daughter Mona Seif, and Rabab El Mahdi, a professor at the American University in Cairo.

Ahdaf Soueif — pictured here at the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in London in 2016 — was detained overnight in Cairo for protesting prison conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Miles Willis/Getty Images/Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction)

The women face a laundry list of charges, Soueif said, including protest without a permit, congregating with an intent to disturb the peace, spreading false rumours, and blocking essential roads. Egypt bans demonstrations without prior security approval.

"It's kind of like a menu of charges that they use," she said. 

An Interior Ministry spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment and there was no statement from prosecutors.

Amnesty International condemned the arrests and called on Egypt to release all prisoners of conscience.

"Egypt's authorities should be prompted by the risk of COVID-19 spreading in prisons to fulfil their international obligations and release the thousands of activists, human rights defenders, journalists and peaceful critics held simply for expressing their opinions or peacefully protesting," Philip Luther, Amnesty research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a press release.

"These individuals should not even be in prison in the first place."

Inmates 'left in there to decay'

As the global coronavirus pandemic spreads rapidly around the globe, advocates have been drawing attention to the plight of prisoners, who are often in overcrowded conditions with limited access to sanitation products and no ability to practice social distancing.

That's especially true in Egypt, where tens of thousands have been detained in a broad crackdown on political opposition since then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013.

Egypt on Thursday reported 39 new coronavirus cases and three deaths, the health ministry said in a statement, bringing the total number of infections to 495, including 24 fatalities.

With the spread of the outbreak, rights groups and activists have campaigned for the release of political, sick and elderly prisoners.

Egyptian security sources and officials have said no coronavirus cases have been detected in prisons and that the Interior Ministry is taking measures to protect prisoners.

In this Oct. 26, 2014 photo, Egypt's most prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, left, walks with his mother Laila Soueif, a university professor who is an also an activist, outside a court, in Cairo. (Hussein Tallal/The Associated Press)

But Soueif says she knows from experience how terrible conditions are inside. 

"We actually don't think that the government cares for the prisoners," she said. "They put these people away, these political dissidents, in order to get rid of them. And what happens to them inside? You know, the worse it is, the better. So they're sort of left in there to decay."

Authorities have suspended prison visits since March 10, citing the risk from the virus. That means families can't get information, or give their loved ones the supplies they need to protect themselves from the virus, Souief said.

"Prisoners have been for the last several years completely reliant on supplies given by the families. We are very worried to think what they are doing now without the supplies of food and, you know, hygiene, necessities and clean clothes and so on," she said. 

"Families who've gone to provide their relatives — sons, husbands — with food or clean clothing or disinfectant have been turned away. Sometimes the authorities will take the disinfectant, sometimes they refuse. Sometimes they take the food. So there's clearly no clear strategy."

If an epidemic breaks out in prison, it is not going to remain in prison.- Ahdaf Soueif, novelist and activist 

Soueif says that if the government isn't concerned about the well-being of inmates, they should still be taking measures to contain the virus.

Even with visits suspended, she says every day there are correctional officers, law enforcement personnel and cleaning staff going in and out of the prisons.

"If an epidemic breaks out in prison, it is not going to remain in prison," she said. "There will be an outbreak and then everybody going in and out will carry it out to the rest of the country. And that is why the government should be concerned."

In the meantime, even if those in power don't care about prisoners, Souief believes the people of Egypt do. 

"We're talking of also releasing petty criminals — large numbers of people who are in prison for debt, for example," she said.

"So we're not just talking about demanding the release of political prisoners. And so the population at large does care."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Ahdaf Soueif produced by Kevin Robertson.

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