At a time when Egypt is seeking to obtain new loans in the midst of a suffocating economic crisis, Interior Minister Major General Mahmoud Tawfiq has decided to build six new prisons. According to Resolution 1042 of 2023 published in the Official Gazette, the prisons will be the May 15 Correction and Rehabilitation Centre (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and will be built to the south of Cairo.
The decision coincides with the continuation of the “national dialogue: the path towards the new republic”, which is taking place under the auspices of sovereign bodies. This aims to come up with a rescue map for the country before the 2024 presidential election.
Over the course of the past ten years, the regime of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has boosted prison construction to match the number of pre-trial opposition detainees held since the 3 July 2013 coup. The Prison Service Sector of the Interior Ministry oversees 49 prisons, while the security directorates affiliated with the ministry have 30; there are also detention centres at police stations across the country.
Moreover, there are unofficial detention centres affiliated with the National Security Sector (an internal intelligence agency) in 27 governorates, where the forcibly disappeared are held, in addition to some military prisons under the Ministry of Defence. According to estimates by activists, Egypt has 168 prisons and detention centres.
The Egyptian authorities do not provide accurate figures for detention facilities and continue to refuse requests for judicial and human rights oversight over detention centres. This is despite calls for the establishment of an independent authority to monitor prisons, and the transfer of the management of prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice.
The Interior Ministry occasionally organises tours for carefully selected participants with intense media coverage to highlight the extent of prison developments and the commitment to international standards in the treatment of prisoners and respect for human rights.
The decision to build six new prisons is not the first, and will not be the last. Sisi said in September 2021 that the new prison complex in Wadi Al-Natrun, in Buhaira Governorate, will be one of seven or eight prisons that will be designed according to the US model. The complex covers 1.7 million square metres, making it the largest prison ever built in Egypt; the real construction cost is a secret.
Before the end of 2021, the Egyptian authorities opened the Badr prison complex (which includes three distinct prisons), to the north-east of Cairo. There were incidents and suicide attempts there in March after rights violations.
Instead of the Badr complex being a modern alternative to the old prisons, it has become a “slaughterhouse” where the most severe violations occur. The authorities may have changed the facilities, but they did not change the mindset of those who work in these facilities, according to eight human rights organisations.
In March, the Interior Ministry opened three new prisons in the governorates of Cairo, Sharqia and Sohag, called May 15 reform and rehabilitation centres (south of Cairo), 10th of Ramadan (east of the capital), and Akhmim (south of the country).
The Egyptian government’s efforts to change its human rights image may be praiseworthy in intention if nothing else. However, it is worth noting that 52 prisoners died in 2022 and 60 died in 2021 as a result of medical negligence and deplorable detention conditions, local and international human rights organisations have reported.
The new prisons may provide security and economic benefits for the Egyptian regime, including the removal of the main detention centres to desert areas far from Cairo, away from the media spotlight and possible assaults in the event of popular protests in the country. The move can also be marketed as a ploy to improve the image of the Egyptian government, and to delude the public into believing that the Sisi regime has improved its human rights record.
Building new prisons means that those in the heart of the capital, such as the Tora prison complex, can be emptied and closed, and the land they occupy can be used for investment projects.
We do not know the exact cost of building the new prisons, or the costs of running them, largely because construction tenders for such projects are generally awarded by direct order to companies affiliated with the army. Nevertheless, the budget allocations for the prison sector in the current fiscal year 2022/2023 amounted to 2.948 billion Egyptian pounds (about $96 million), an increase of 412m pounds (about $13.5m) over the fiscal year 2021/2022. The fiscal year in Egypt runs from early July to the end of June.
The prison budget represents one thousandth of the total state budget of 2.071 trillion pounds (about $112bn).
In the current fiscal year, around 1.760bn pounds ($57m) was allocated for the purchase of goods and services related to food, clothing, maintenance and commodities to operate the prison administrations. Around 1.168 bn pounds ($38m) was spent on the wages of prison officers and staff.
According to an Egyptian economist who spoke to Middle East Monitor and asked to remain anonymous, the allocations for the prison sector are expected to be higher than the numbers mentioned in the budget data of the Ministry of Finance due to the establishment of new prisons.
Human Rights Watch has said that, “The Egyptian government withholds information on the detainee population as if it’s a state secret, but Egyptians have a right to know how many people their government is detaining and how they are treating them.”
It can be said that the number of prisons, the cost of their construction, and the amount spent on them are also state secrets, which are not subject to parliamentary or financial control, and no one can access the prison sector’s “business”. This “business” includes production projects, or “commissary” revenues, from which prisoners buy their needs with coupons they are given after their families put a sum of money in prison safes during visits.
A research paper by Paris-based think tank the Arab Reform Initiative says that many Egyptian prisons were built under obscure construction contracts, and that in one case the cost was one billion Egyptian pounds ($140m), in 2013 and 2014.
According to estimates by human rights activists, Sisi has built at least 28 new prisons since he became president in 2014, which means that Egypt has spent billions of dollars to pay the hefty bill at a time of massive economic difficulties.
A report from the Arab Network for Human Rights estimates the number of prisoners held in Egypt at 120,000, including 65,000 political prisoners and detainees. This means that the prison bill has effectively drained Egypt’s wallet, which was burdened with foreign debts of $163bn at the end of 2022, according to government data.
These concerns were expressed by the Shehab Centre for Human Rights NGO: “The current circumstances in Egypt and the economic situation require most of the state budget to be directed towards remedying the obvious economic imbalance in the country, or to build hospitals and schools to secure the right to education and health [for Egyptian citizens].”
In addition to Egypt’s urgent need to prioritise its spending instead of building prisons in a country in economic distress, one Egyptian journalist and writer told Middle East Monitor that there is a need to reduce spending on the prison sector by taking advantage of private funds and accounts, including the Prisons Production and Manufacturing Fund, which generate revenues from the employment of prisoners in a number of industries, such as the manufacture of furniture, shoes, clothes, etc. At the moment, though, Egypt’s burgeoning prison sector is a massive economic burden in a debt-ridden country.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.