I first saw Ammad in my fifth year in prison. Lingering before the barred window during our recess hour in Egypt’s notorious Torah maximum-security prison #2, the destination for many of those deemed “enemies of the state” by the Egyptian authorities, I noticed a squatting figure, with a frail body, back against the wall, dragging furiously on a cigarette as if his very survival depended on it.
I instantly recognized that he had Down’s syndrome. His incarceration in a maximum-security prison, rather than a care center should have provoked disbelief, but I had long since lost the capacity to be shocked by the Egyptian regime. Through sheer misfortune, I’d learn about, and like thousands of fellow political prisoners, he was arrested without cause from a protest’s perimeter, given no legal protection, arbitrarily, and sentenced to a mass trial without the opportunity to defend himself against vague and politically motivated charges.
That day, I watched Ammad cough forcefully, each rasp causing me to wince and my own chest to tighten. I approached him, and I learned from passing fellow prisoners that his name was in fact Mohamed, one that he could not pronounce properly due to a speech deficiency. Hence, the entire prison knew him as he introduced himself: Ammad.
A month later, during a frightening coughing fit, Ammad implored the guards to take him to the clinic, only to be shooed off as an “imbecile”, with streams of laughter and mockery following him back to his cell.
Two days later, he fell into a coma after a fit of blood-coughing. His cellmates in the adjacent cell pounded on the steel door of their cell, crying for help. The guards ignored them for more than an hour before lazily climbing to our floor.
Eventually, they transported him to a hospital—he had tuberculosis.
Ammad died the following week, his soul slipping through the dank prison walls. Yet, I could find no solace at the end of his suffering: Ammad was murdered.
He could, and should, be alive now. If he had been transferred to the hospital sooner, if his cell had not been crammed to twice its capacity, if his cry for help had been answered with the requisite duty of care, and if monitoring of prison conditions was a sincere undertaking, rather than a tragi-comic theatrical performance, Ammad would still be here.
Ammad epitomizes the tragedy of medical negligence in Egyptian prisons—the deliberate murder of prisoners by prison authorities through failure to provide for their basic health care needs. He died of tuberculosis in a prison he shouldn’t have been inside in the first place, denied the medical care that his case required and to which he was entitled.
The shocking part? This tragedy took place in 2018, two years before the pandemic hit. After Covid viciously invaded Egyptian prisons in 2020 and after, the situation spiraled out of control and death has become the norm.
Execution by Negligence
Tahzib wa Islah’—discipline and correction. This is the motto of the Egyptian Prison Service, engrained on the entrance of every detention facility in Egypt—an ever-present Orwellian farce that conjures the world of 1984: The Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Love tortures and violates, the Ministry of Plenty works to starve the people, and the Ministry of Truth assumes the responsibility of instilling and bolstering falsehoods and fabricating history.
Ammad’s preventable death was not the exception to the rule. The Committee for Justice, a Geneva-based rights group, reports that medical negligence led to the deaths of at least 100 individuals in 2020, with at least 677 believed to have died of medical neglect in the six years prior. Many of these are political prisoners, detained for their political views, activism, peaceful protest, or for simply doing their jobs as journalists and lawyers.
In its 2021 end-of-year report, We Record initiative documented 60 death cases, at least 7 of which were due to a Covid-19 outbreak, 27 victims of medical negligence, 4 victims of torture, and 7 deaths because of fires breaking out in detention spaces. Due to the absolute lack of transparency and official numbers from the authorities, and the difficulty to document as families abstain from speaking up in fear of endangering themselves or their incarcerated relatives; these numbers most likely reflect but a fraction of the status quo.
In a world where neither discipline nor correction exist—In a study conducted in 2011 by the National Center for Social and Criminological Research, the recidivism rate among Egyptian ex-convicts reached 34.6%—and medical neglect and human-rights abuses hit terrifying record numbers, one must ponder the futility of our prison system.
The pandemic exposed the critical cracks and deadly—to the literal meaning of the word—failures of the Egyptian prison system jeopardizing the lives of both political and non-political prisoners alike, with a non-existent health care system, and ill-equipped administrations with a terrifyingly inadequate response to crisis.
The Cost of Prisons: Is Oppression Really that Fund-worthy?
In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis describes the American prison system as “Mass imprisonment [that] generates profits as it devours social wealth, and thus it tends to reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.”
In a state-owned incarceration system, only the second half of the statement mirrors reality. The financial incentive that exists within the prison industry in the US ceases to be, and while American capitalist beneficiaries fight tooth and nail to uphold the status quo that generates their modern-slavery profits, one fails to see the logic of perpetuating such a lose-lose situation in the Egyptian context where prisoners lose their lives and suffer horrendous health and human rights violations while costing the state massive amounts of much-needed funds at a time of unparalleled inflation and economic crisis.
Egyptian legal researcher and lawyer, Rida Marae explores the social and economic cost of Egypt’s prison system in his research paper with the Arab Reform Initiative, showing that the budget dedicated to operating Egyptian prisons boomed between 2013—when the military coup in Egypt took place and cases of politically motivated incarceration exponentially surged to horrifying numbers—and 2021. Based on the General State Budget statements, the 2013/2014 budget dedicated to prison expenses—only the 49 prisons following the Egyptian Prison Service—amounted to 785,063,000 EGP (seven hundred eighty-five million, sixty-three thousand Egyptian pounds); a number that exploded into a terrifying 2,186,387,000 EGP (two billion, one-hundred eighty-six million, three hundred eighty-seven thousand Egyptian pounds) according to the 2020/2021 budget. This does not account for the other 137 detention facilities not directly following the Egyptian Prison Service.
Egyptian economy suffered severe blows under the pandemic, and the situation was exacerbated after the Russian-Ukrainian war, as tourists from both countries made up one-third of the total number of the influx of Egypt’s visitors. Not a light hit, since three experts—Elhamy Al-Zayat, former chairperson of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, Said Al-Batouty, a UNWTO economic adviser, and Hisham El-Demery, former chairperson of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Board—confirmed in their early-year predictions that Russians are to rank as the number one nationality visiting Egypt for tourism purposes in 2022, contributing the largest part of an awaited rise to $7.2 billion in tourism revenues.
The second hefty blow lies in the fact that Egypt, the biggest wheat importer in the world, gets 80% of its wheat from the two countries—an arrangement that the war will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact on.
With these premonitions of an economic disaster to come, releasing tens of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners incarcerated for their views and activism has become more urgent than ever, and an initial, unpostponable step to alleviate both the health hazards and economic burdens that would allow the finances to be channeled to more vital needs.
Egyptian prisons are undoubtedly outmoded, and death does not differentiate between political and non-political prisoners; we must adopt alternatives to incarceration to achieve criminal justice that does not sentence prisoners to execution by negligence. Community service, restorative justice focused on reparations, and various similar options that in fact center around “correction” and social healing must be explored—we could still rescue future Ammads awaiting the same horrid fate.
About the author
Abdelrahman ElGendy is a writer and former Egyptian political prisoner. Arrested from a protest, he spent six years and three months behind bars between October 6, 2013, and January 13, 2020.
Incarcerated at 17 and released at 24, he started and earned a mechanical engineering BSc from Ain Shams University in Egypt while in prison. His smuggled prison writings circulated online until published in 2018 by Mada Masr, an independent journalism platform in Egypt. Since his release, he has turned to writing and advocacy work, utilizing counter-narratives of the marginalized and oppressed as a form of resistance to the propaganda of tyrants, with a focus on advocating for the release of Egyptian political prisoners.
ElGendy’s writing is featured on Mada Masr, Raseef 22, Daraj Media, AlManassa, Newlines Magazine, and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. He is also the copywriter and editor of the Leading Change Network NGO. He currently pursues his MFA in Creative Writing, a nonfiction track, at the University of Pittsburgh.