Summer 2019 We are probably, one of the luckier families. I mean… Interviewer: You’re going to ruin the interview for us. Lucky how? Don’t make us laugh. Laila Soueif
Mathematics Professor, Faculty of Science, Cairo Uni I, personally, was never imprisoned. Came close, but it never happened. I was lucky. When I started being politically active, I always had a relationship with prisons Starting in January 1977, all my friends were either imprisoned or they were on the run. I was one of the few in the student movement that was not wanted by the authorities. And as such, I was always trying to meet up with the ones that were wanted and provide them with whatever they needed. My first real relationship with prisons was with the imprisonment of my husband, Seif, when he was arrested in 1983. It wasn’t the first time he got arrested, but the first time while we were married and the first time to be a violent experience involving torture and an actual trial with sentencing. Seif was arrested towards the end of ’83 and he was then released on bail and then sentenced in ’85 and served his sentence until the end of ’89. When he was arrested, I had my child, Alaa, who was still very young and I was pregnant with my second child, Mona, and she was born while her father was in prison. Seif’s father passed away while he was imprisoned. And Mona was born while he was imprisoned. After Seif was released, he didn’t go back, but from 2006 we entered the phase of Alaa going in. During the ’90s and the beginning of the ’00s. Because I was interested… I was interested in human rights and specifically in torture. So, I was always keeping up with all the news through the different people following up on torture cases, etc. And then came the independent judiciary movement of 2006 during which Alaa was arrested and stayed imprisoned for three months and then came the revolution of 2011. Alaa was arrested several times; during one of those times his son, Khaled, was born while he was in prison. When Seif became ill and passed away, both Alaa and Sanaa, my youngest, were imprisoned. When my father passed away 2 years ago, Alaa was also in prison. So, some major events in our lives took place while Alaa was imprisoned. Like, Mona’s wedding. Mona was married while Alaa was in prison. Actually, it’s not just prison. Everything that is happening in the country is making even the small joys in everyone’s life bittersweet. Prisons in Egypt Prisons in Egypt are garbage, always have been and probably always will be. The most important thing I’ve learned through my experiences with the prison system is that prisons are unjust, even for criminals. The way prisons are run in Egypt, its administration and the level of corruption, etc. It has a heavy concentration of injustice. If political prisoners face serious rights violations, then, normal criminals face even worse violations. Siberia Prisons suck by nature, despite anything, it’s terrible, insane and has no meaning. After engaging with the prison system so closely, I started becoming convinced that exile in Siberia must not have been that bad because at least people had the chance to create a life. A tough life, in a tough place, but a life, nonetheless. A life. They can plant, do things, whatever. But, prisons here, they’re just a literal waste of one’s time. Seif—Resistance The additional harassment during and following prison sentences nowadays were not present previously. Before, once you were imprisoned, you were able to create a life within prison; you can get various things inside as long as you can afford it. There wasn’t the systematic stifling that is currently happening. Sure, there were things that were prohibited to enter, but within prison walls, the wards were open, prisoners can move and interact freely and you can read and do things without the current constraints that are in place. The current prison system that we are witnessing now wherein prisoners are put in solitary confinement and prevented from reading materials and visits after sentencing: that we have never before witnessed. While Seif was imprisoned, he was able to plant in an open garden and do various activities, in addition to being able to study as well. His real form of resistance, was when we agreed he’d finished his studies while imprisoned, so he wouldn’t have wasted his time inside. It was actually a coincidence that he became a human rights lawyer. We just needed any field of study for him to occupy his four year prison term. The faculties that would accept remote studies, were either arts, commerce or law. He wasn’t interested in commerce at all, so we were torn between arts and law. We decided on law because it would give him a private profession he can pursue that didn’t require security background checks. For example, he wanted to work as a teacher, but no one would hire someone that was a former political prisoner. Seif was already learning English prior to his imprisonment. Prior to imprisonment, he could read in English. He always read and spoke English well. He loved reading and whatever he found he read and that’s the best way to learn English. As such, he was released with a law degree and he intended on pursuing a career in law, but he was not intending on specializing in human rights. When he was released on bail, there was a mistake in his paperwork and the case was scratched out, so we thought the case was over. During that time, there was a scholarship available in my faculty, and I was the only one that fit the required criteria. So, I went to the head of the faculty and expressed my interest in the scholarship. He was a kind and great man, Dr. Attiya Ashour, may God rest his soul. He said to me straight-forwardly: “If you’re husband gets arrested in a couple of days are you going to flake on the scholarship?” I confirmed my commitment to the scholarship under all circumstances. And, sure enough, Seif was arrested a couple of weeks later. I even had Dr. Ashour’s secretary tell me that her boss must of jinxed him. At that point, I had already committed myself to the scholarship. In retrospect, I’m happy with my decision. Otherwise, I would have just sat around, doing absolutely nothing. I took the scholarship and traveled. And, of course, I finished my studies. There was really no other choice. I mean, I left him to go do my PhD, I couldn’t very well not follow through. The Families One of the main unchanging features of prisons, is that you wait hours on end at the prison gates, with other families. So, we spend our times talking with each other and sharing each other’s stories and we also help each other out. Seif, because he was serving his sentence with others convicted of criminal offences, serving long sentences, and many of them do not get any visitations, or very limited visitations, so, they would ask for Seif’s assistance. So, he’d ask me to bring them things or to go visit their families. I’d have to go searching for families I didn’t know. These were all relationships. But, truth be told, the relationships mainly centered around Seif. Because he had this power to befriend everyone and find out everything. He had an amazing power in that regard. Sanaa’s imprisonment because it was a female prison and the women are chatty among each other. That was a constant. In addition to the fact that I had Mona with me and she inherited her father’s power to sympathize with others and discover their stories and issues and try to help them find solutions. So, yes, she would constantly, always she would build a relationship and try to help people, or at the very least lessen their burden, because there’s not much anyone can do, especially now. Polarization What’s certain is the state of polarization in our society is much less among the families of prisoners. Because we’re all in the same boat. At the beginning of the imprisonment, there is still polarization, Little by little, it ends. People interact as just families of prisoners, and not as leftists or Islamists, and not even as criminal, at a certain point, it ceases to matter. The Collapse of the Justice System This is not a difference in prisons, but a difference in the justice system. The justice system during Mubarak’s time was not like this. Yes, there was injustice, but at least, the judges were still.. judges. To varying degrees, but still judges. They actually look at the case and base verdicts on the law, in a strict manner, but still within the confines of the law. This current erratic state in which we live, with any verdicts thrown about and unlawful extending of detention and the complete dismissal of the law and blatantly ignoring torture and the dismissal of the dates of arrest and everything is not just. This injustice is not exclusive to political prisoners. People speak of the judiciary being politicized. That is not the case. The judiciary is not politicized. It is non-existent. If it was politicized, it would harm only political activists, but serve justly among the criminally charged and that is not the case. The judiciary simply does not function properly. There could very well be a good judge here and there, but the end result, I’m a mathematician, so the end result is random. I bet you, if we did an experiment, and pulled verdicts out of a box randomly and compared them with the verdicts currently being served we won’t find a statistically quantifiable difference. A New Life? When Seif was released in ’89, he was to a certain extent, ready to start a new life. There was no probation following your release, like we currently have. And the circumstances allowed for this, because he entered while a member of a communist organization and was released when there was no organization left. Most of the organizations had disbanded and the world had changed and he was no longer convinced, when he was released, he was convinced, he was no longer suitable for political work, because he was destroyed from the torture and made to give up information. After a while, he was convinced that it was in general not the right time for political work. As such, he was, whether personally, or due to social circumstances, ready to start a new life. He started his work as a lawyer and then became a human rights lawyer, so it was really a new life. Rich and full of achievements. Alaa, on the other hand, specifically because of his probation, his life is complicated. He can’t take the decision to travel, he can’t make any clear decisions in his career; his life is complicated. A big chunk of his life is beyond his control, and he can’t even decide to stop politics because he has to fight against his horrible probation. He can’t take the decision to stop. How would he? Lucky Family If we compare ourselves with many of the families of other prisoners, we’re actually pretty lucky. A family, each member of which has a steady income. We don’t have the problem of having only one provider on which to relay. We have a supportive extended family. So, life progresses. Especially in the past period, we’ve heard of tragedies. We’ve heard about people who have divorced their imprisoned husbands, not because they wanted to, but to collect her father’s pension; because otherwise there is no income, the only means of an income, is that she divorce so she can collect her father’s pension. When some prisoners receive food from anywhere, they give it to their families and not the other way around. In addition, to something I witnessed over time, that visitations are decreasing because people don’t have enough money. In 2014, the lines for visitation would be extremely crowded. Following the floating of the EGP and the ensuing inflation, in the lines, you find four people, maybe six people waiting, only a few, for the exception of major holidays, of course. Because people can no longer afford to visit. All people: criminal, political, etc. Scorpion Prison The number one maximum security prison, aka Scorpion, has a level of degradation within it that is beyond anything seen in any other prison. Visitations are prohibited for years, denying prisoners access to treatment, that is seriously a place where people go to die. Outside of this extreme case, all of the adversities faced by political prisoners, are equally, if not more so, faced by criminal prisoners. Health Services Closed wards, for example, affect the health of prisoners. Previously, wards were open, so prisoners spent most of their time in the open space between them where they enjoyed direct sun light and fresh air. In many of the prisons, inmates are not allowed any recess or are allowed recess in closed quarters. That in itself, is a major regression in health. Medical negligence in the prison system is frightening. Part of it is intentional and part of it is like everything else. Part is intentional. Absolutely, there is an intentional part. But, then there is another part that is like everything else in the country. Like the deterioration of all civil services, health services in prisons are deteriorating, to the point of complete disappearance. Probation and the Judiciary There is supervision and probation and they’re two different things: probation is a sentence granted by the court as part of the initial sentence. Same as a prison sentence. The law for probation does not stipulate its execution as it is currently being done. It does not stipulate that people spend the night in jail or stay for 12 hours, from 6 pm until 6 am. Hence, in theory, there should be legal procedures that can be taken so that probation is executed in accordance with the law. That’s in theory. In practice, however, the judiciary currently does not deal out justice. Even the State Council, which is a bit better, than the criminal justice system, even, the State Council, prolongs cases. Legal Procedures There have been no responses to our petitions. That’s in addition to other petitions, for example, to allow people to bring their laptops to jail, so they can at least work during probation. We had several requests that we actually presented to the Ministry of Interior and through other official channels. We requested that Alaa gets a release from probation for three days for the holidays. They kept evading our requests and lawyers. And again, we sent it through an official channel. In short, there are legal procedures, but will they provide you with the justice you deserve amidst a collapsing judicial system? We don’t know. There is an overarching sadness, in which you live, experience joy and excitement, but the sadness is always there.