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Extortionate bail and official bribery: How Egypt formalised its rashwah culture

August 5, 2021 at 9:00 am

An Egyptian counts his money at the Ashmun market in Egypt on 15 August 2018 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images]

On 1 June Abeer Hassan’s brother left the house to deliver some cash to a colleague, a short trip around the block that should have taken a maximum of 15 minutes.

Abeer’s brother takes a wide range of medication for a defect in his gland and is weak as a result. “To the point that if you push him, he may faint and fall into a coma easily,” Abeer explains.

A little after 11am Abeer’s mother started to worry, so she called Anwar’s mobile phone, but he didn’t answer. She tried again at 12.10 but the phone was off.

“We thought that someone had killed him and stolen his money,” Abeer recalls, “or that he did not take his medicine that day and lost consciousness in the street. We kept thinking and waiting until the evening, but we did not hear anything about him.”

As dusk fell, the family began searching hospitals, the streets around their apartment, the shops and cafes, then moved on to the police headquarters, police stations and finally the National Security building. There was still no sign of Anwar.

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By then it was 11pm and Abeer’s mother tried his phone again and realised their earlier messages had been delivered.

“At this moment, we began to suspect that he had been arrested, but for what reason no one knew,” recounts Abeer, who says Anwar is not politically active.

“His only crime is being an Egyptian living in this country and unfortunately my mother had a nervous breakdown and a panic attack and lost consciousness because of her fear that her sick son would be abused and die in prison, as has happened with hundreds of thousands of others.”

Anwar had indeed been arrested, however he hadn’t been charged with anything. But this hadn’t stopped the judge setting bail at 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,180).

Extortionate bail demands

Over the next couple of days Abeer’s family learnt that they had become part of a growing phenomenon in Egypt in which authorities extort money from civilians as part of an ongoing and expanding corruption scandal that has dogged Egyptian politics for years.

First a person is arrested and detained for several months, then an extortionate bail is set in exchange for their release. The price can be anywhere between 5,000 and 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($318-$6,360), whether or not they have been charged with a crime or are awaiting trial. Roughly 95 per cent of people arrested and detained in Egypt are now released on bail.

Arbitrary detention in Egypt has been continuous since the eighties, Egyptian human rights lawyer and director of the Committee for Justice Ahmed Mefreh told MEMO, however the phenomenon of releasing detainees on bail has become a pattern in the Sisi regime’s way of dealing with opposition groups.

“Since 2014, the Egyptian authorities have used bail as a form of levy. It has no limits, is carried out frequently and without accountability, and its purpose is to exhaust the detainee and his family and punish them indirectly. This is exhausting for families who take out loans to get their loved ones out of prison,” Mefreh adds.

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In some cases, the family pay up only to see their loved ones recycled onto a new case and remain behind bars. “This is a clear indication that bail has become a levy,” says Mefreh, explaining that this has happened to hundreds of people, many of whom are rearrested on the same charges and pay again to try and secure their release.

“Parents find themselves obliged to pay to protect their children from abuse by the authorities and confinement in inhuman detention places,” agrees Anwar’s lawyer. “The National Security officers also want to show that they are working hard, so they open cases and arrest people to demonstrate their loyalty to the Egyptian regime.”

Theft of personal possessions

Anwar told his lawyer that the day of his arrest he was pushed into a tuk-tuk and told by two people to hand over all his money, which Abeer thinks was thousands of pounds, and his mobile phone.

Anwar thought they were thieves and gave them everything so that he wouldn’t be killed. But after they took his possessions, they drove Anwar to the police station and threw him in a cell.

During his interrogation Anwar was pressured to inform on others in exchange for his freedom, but he refused and so was transferred to the prosecution. His lawyer called on officials to account for the money they stole from his client.

“What money?” they said.

In the past, rashwah, or bribes, would be requested informally from civilians, for example as a way of guaranteeing paperwork for a visa would be finished quickly, but now people are being arrested and transferred to the public prosecution to formalise the amount in the form of bail. Authorities get to keep anything they stole from house raids or the person themselves in the process.

In Anwar’s case the family could not afford to pay the 50,000 Egyptian pound bail. In Egypt, roughly a third of the population live below the poverty line, which is 23 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) a day, meaning most would never in a lifetime be able to pay what is demanded of them.

Abeer says that even if her family could afford to pay, it would not protect Anwar from being rearrested. “On the contrary, if the family pays, the person will be arrested again until the family pays again, but when you give a bribe to the shawish [cell guard] inside the place of detention, it may protect the detainee from abuse.”

When news got back to the authorities that Anwar’s family couldn’t pay, they offered to make a special deal on “humanitarian grounds” because he is so sick and lowered the amount to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($382). “This is proof that they just want your money,” Anwar’s lawyer told him. He estimates that the state is making roughly 40 million Egyptian pounds ($2.5 million) a year from bail bribery.

Families as hostages

One journalist we spoke to, Said Ismail, lives outside of Egypt and explained that his younger brother was arrested whilst studying for his degree, severely tortured and then released after his family paid an eye watering sum to secure bail.

Said has a large social media presence where he once posted updates about human rights violations in his country, firm in his belief that the cause of the oppressed in Egypt and supporting detainees is paramount. He received tip-offs and news from fellow Egyptians who authorities had extorted bribes from, either during their arrest or in the form of bail payouts, and shared it with his followers.

He received threats from the authorities asking him to reign in the criticism, but even his brother’s incarceration and subsequent release didn’t stop him. Eventually Said’s 70-year-old father, who is not affiliated to any political party, was taken into custody, and forcibly disappeared for six months.

“As the authorities arrested my father, they stole money from our house and my mother’s gold, and until now, we don’t know where they are,” recalls Said. “The authorities are professional thieves who hide everything, and we, as the weaker party, cannot say a single word, otherwise our fate is known – arrest and enforced disappearance.”

Authorities requested 10,000 Egyptian pounds as bail. “Why do we have to pay and yet none of the charges against my father were proven?” Said asks, frustrated with the injustice he experienced. “But if you don’t pay, the detainee will never see the sun again, so we had to pay to get my father out.”

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“In the past, the request for bribery was direct and very ordinary, but now the matter is different due to corruption scandals, and the state has turned it into an official request for bribery,” he adds.

Said went from a distinguished reporter with a buzzing online presence which he used to help others find their disappeared loved ones, to living in the shadows, away from the spotlight, too afraid to help anyone for fear more harm could be inflicted on his family.

Whilst Said is aware that paying does not protect his family from rearrest, he saw no other solution: “We were forced to pay, otherwise he would not have got out. The state knows our weaknesses.”

“No one ever gets out of prison except on bail. Imagine there is no charge and there is no evidence, but you pay bail to obtain your freedom in a country in which there are no freedoms. We say the person inside the prison is missing and the outside is born again. This is the ugliness and inhumanity of the places of detention.”

All the names and dates in this article have been changed to protect their identities