Thousands of Egyptian families have watched the mediation by their government and Qatar to get Israelis held by Hamas released in exchange for Palestinians held by the occupation state. They hope that their government will agree to a similar deal to release all political prisoners in Egypt.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been languishing in prisons since the military coup against the late President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. There is no sign of them being released after ten years behind bars.
If the Egyptian regime can mediate to get other prisoners released, why can’t it agree an internal deal to clean up its own prisons? How long will thousands of innocent people be held without committing any crime? What return does Al-Sisi expect, and who is the mediator who can resolve this complex issue that has been going on for years?
There are no official figures for the number of prisoners in Egypt. The most recent annual report on this by the Prison Service Sector of the Interior Ministry was issued in the 1990s. According to the independent Arab Network for Human Rights Information, the number of prisoners and pretrial detainees in Egypt as of the beginning of March 2021 was estimated at 120,000, including 65,000 political prisoners and detainees, and 54,000 criminals, as well as around a thousand detainees for whom the Cairo-based organisation was unable to find out any details about their detention. The network’s website puts the number of sentenced prisoners at 82,000, while there are around 37,000 pretrial detainees.
These estimates do not include those detained in 2022 and 2023. Nor do they include those held in secret prisons, or those forcibly disappeared without being presented to the Public Prosecution or receiving due process.
The lists of detainees include prominent politicians, former presidential candidates, journalists, human rights activists, academics, women and children, all held on charges of a political nature, such as attempting to overthrow the government, joining a terrorist group, spreading false news and misuse of social media sites.
The secrecy about the numbers of detainees in Egypt under Al-Sisi has been the main concern of nine human rights organisations, which issued a statement last February under the heading “Egypt: The numbers of prisoners must be made public”. They called on the Egyptian authorities to increase transparency by announcing the number of detainees and prisoners as well as disclosing the number of those detained recently for their opposition of the regime.
The organisations, including Human Rights Watch; the Committee for Justice, Freedom of Thought and Expression; and Democracy Now for the Arab World, sent letters on two occasions containing detailed questions about the number of prisoners in Egypt. The first was sent on 15 December 2022, and the second was sent on 19 January this year. Both went to the Interior Ministry, the Attorney General’s Office and the government’s National Council for Human Rights; no replies were received.
Government secrecy on this issue raises growing concerns about the scale of violations committed against Al-Sisi’s political opponents. The Egyptian president has built more prisons since taking office; there were 168 official detention facilities in 2021, in addition to police stations, according to human rights reports.
Every now and then, the Egyptian regime plays the presidential pardon card with promises of a political breakthrough, but such decisions only benefit a few dozen people whose sentences were about to expire in any case. Political and media figures are kept behind bars, most notably Abdel Moneim Abu Al-Fotouh, Hazem Abu Ismail, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed Adel, Hoda Abdel Moneim, Marwa Arafa and Hala Fahmy.
Since the launch of the Presidential Pardon Committee more than a year ago, the Egyptian authorities have released 1,151 people. In the same period, another 3,666 have been arrested, according to the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, another independent organisation.
Islamist opponents of Al-Sisi have offered more than once not to stand as presidential candidates, or even retire from political work for ten years, in exchange for the release of political detainees. Such offers have been made in vain. Even ransoms of $1,000 per detainee have been offered, but to no avail.
In 2019, an unofficial initiative was made by some detainees who each offered to pay a $5,000 donation to the government’s Long Live Egypt Fund as a goodwill gesture to support the Egyptian economy, in exchange for their release and a pledge to retire from politics. These proposals came as the regime was seeking ways to boost its foreign currency reserves, which included the granting of Egyptian citizenship to foreigners in exchange for a bank deposit in US dollars, and allowing Egyptian citizens living abroad to pay compensation in dollars in lieu of conscripted military service.
Such initiatives have been unsuccessful, not least because the security services want to keep the opposition’s hand tied with hostages. Moreover, there are human rights concerns that initiatives like this might lead to more arrests for the purpose of exchanging detainees for dollar bills.
Some experts believe that the price to be paid for an Egyptian deal to empty the prisons of detainees will be high, especially for the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement will most likely have to be dissolved, its overseas media platforms closed down and its leaders handed in to the authorities. Recognition of the legitimacy of President Al-Sisi is also likely to be one of the demands that seem all but impossible to meet.
Analysts question the Egyptian regime’s intentions towards reconciliation, especially with Al-Sisi on the verge of a third term in office, extending to 2030, and the opposition’s loss of any cards to put pressure on the government, which make it hard to conclude any deal of this kind.
Local and international human rights organisations put forward several demands in July, representing broad outlines for resolving the crisis, starting with the immediate release of the sick, minors and the elderly detainees as a first stage. This would be followed by the release of all those imprisoned in media-related cases, and then the release of all those who have exceeded the maximum limit for pretrial detention. The next step would be pardoning prisoners with political sentences who have already served more than half of the sentence, followed by pardoning all civilians against whom sentences were issued by a military court.
However, this offer failed to move the regime; its response was more arrests and a noticeable slowdown in the number of releases. International pressure on Al-Sisi eased as he was needed to play a role in the Gaza issue and implement US plans to clip the wings of Hamas in occupied Palestine.
The Egyptian opposition was, and still is, counting on a regional mediation role played by Qatar and Turkey, paving the way for national reconciliation in Egypt, in exchange for political concessions by the opposition, and perhaps financial and investment incentives offered to Cairo by Doha and Ankara. However, the intertwining of the issue with the situation in Libya, Gaza and the eastern Mediterranean in general hinders mediation efforts, as does the absence of a green light from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Al-Sisi’s two main regional allies.
Splits within the Egyptian opposition don’t help its cause, meaning Al-Sisi is able to procrastinate even as he works to get rid of his political opposition, especially the Brotherhood. The people of Egypt have been waiting since 2013 for a deal to bring about domestic and regional transformations which would see tens of thousands of innocent people released from prison. The wait must continue, though, because the conditions just aren’t right at the moment and are unlikely to change in the near future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.