Egypt’s Revolving Prison Door: Sudden Freedom for Inmates Who Languished

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CAIRO — It was hot, Egypt-hot, when friends and relatives gathered one recent morning outside the concrete walls of Cairo’s notorious Tora prison to greet the newly released. The flowers one family had brought were beginning to wilt. Babies were wailing. The crowd was bunched together in the shade, greetings and laughter alternating with silence, their excitement cut by the strain.

By the clock, the prison authorities were running late. But Khaled Dawoud, a former inmate, was used to their ways. By Egyptian standards, he joked, a three-hour delay to see his former cellmate and five other political prisoners walk free was nothing.

“My heart is going like,” Mr. Dawoud said, flapping his hand over his chest. A journalist and opposition politician, he had spent more than 18 months in Tora as a political prisoner before being released last year. “I’ve been through what they’ve been through,” he added. “Swear to God, today is the peak of the peak.”

Over the past decade, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tightened his grip on power by snuffing out the smallest signs of dissent, Egypt has arrested tens of thousands of political prisoners. They are detained without charge or trial for weeks, months or even years — at least 4,500 of them in the six months between September 2020 and February 2021, The New York Times found, and often in conditions that range from abusive to life-threatening.

Lately, there has been a sudden shift.

The authorities have released at least 400 detainees since April, when Mr. el-Sisi unveiled a new pardon committee and called for a “national dialogue” with opposition factions to discuss greater political openness.

Political analysts see this as part of an effort to sanitize Egypt’s human rights record before it hosts a United Nations climate conference in November and, perhaps, to signal concessions to a population hard-pressed by rising prices.

“Things are finally moving,” said Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who was also waiting outside Tora prison, arms patiently crossed, for Alaa Essam Ramadan, Mr. Dawoud’s former cellmate.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know,” Mr. Lotfy said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. But it’s good for us, so.”

Members of the pardon committee have said recently that more than 1,000 people — politicians, political activists and journalists, among others — are being considered for release. Yet at the same time, lawyers say, the authorities are making new arrests every day, while at least 33 of those released since April have been consigned to detention again under new accusations.

Most of those released from Tora prison on that hot day in June had waited three years for that moment, never getting formally charged, never going on trial. After all of that, to be handed a pardon so suddenly felt supersonic.

No one outside the secretive Sisi government knows why, exactly, or why now. But for the dozens of friends and family members waiting outside Tora, the releases were long overdue.

“This is the first time since 2018 that no one I really, really care about is in prison,” said Lobna Monieb, a podcast producer whose father, cousin and friend had all been detained in recent years. “It’s a good moment.”

Her cousin was freed in 2019, her father last year. Now she was waiting for the release of her friend, Kholoud Said, a translator and researcher at the famed Great Library of Alexandria. Ms. Said was first arrested in April 2020 after writing posts critical of the government on Facebook. Like thousands of other political detainees, she was accused of joining a terrorist group, spreading fake news and misusing social media. But she was never formally charged or tried.

Others among the crowd outside Tora prison fanned themselves on hard benches, awaiting clearance to visit detained relatives inside. Many had brought medication and plastic bags of food, even though they knew they might not be permitted to give it to the prisoners. The rules changed constantly: Peanuts were sometimes allowed, though only if skinned; dates had to be pitted. Today, the guards had told them, lemons and cucumbers were out.

Mr. Dawoud knew why. Prisoners often tried to smuggle in hashish and SIM cards in fruit and vegetables, he said.

Sensing that Mr. Dawoud was something of an authority among the crowd, a trio of women approached him, asking whether he could do anything for their sons. One man had spent eight years in pretrial detention; another, five.

They were among the tens of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners who mostly go unnamed, many of them Islamists — the ones who never draw Western pressure for their releases because almost no one knows what happened to them or why.

Mr. Dawoud gave the mothers his phone number.

“It’s very different from this side, right?” he said to Walid Shawky, another former inmate who had come to welcome those being released.

Mr. Shawky, a dentist and political activist, had spent four years in pretrial detention before being released in April.

“I still can’t feel anything,” he said. “It’s so hard. But I’m trying, step by step.”

Mr. Dawoud remembered how that went.

“The best thing for you is your daughter,” he said. Nour, Mr. Shawky’s 5-year-old, was only just getting used to having him around, he said.

Seeing the families waiting to visit, Mr. Dawoud said, filled him with guilt over what his own loved ones had endured. His sister had died while he was detained; his father fell ill with cancer, dying shortly after his release.

Since getting out last year, however, Mr. Dawoud said he had tried to move on. He had married and had a daughter. Now government officials have summoned him to participate in Mr. el-Sisi’s national dialogue. Maybe, he said, but he had one demand: Release my friends first.

Other opposition figures, too, have insisted the government let hundreds of detainees go as a condition of joining the dialogue. Releases have followed, though fewer and more slowly than they had hoped. The government says it has released at least 700, while the opposition puts the figure around 400.

But even after political prisoners leave detention, the shackles, for many, remain in one form or another. Most of their cases stay open, allowing their prosecutions to resume at any point. Some former detainees must return to police stations for nightly or weekly check-ins, or on delicate political anniversaries; others are banned from traveling.

In that sense, Mr. Dawoud had been lucky. Now he dandled a baby on his knee, greeted his former cellmate’s mother, checked his phone, answered a call, then yelled congratulations to another family.

“I don’t want to come here ever again,” he said.

As two hours stretched to three and the temperature climbed toward 100 degrees, a government photographer materialized — proof, Mr. Dawoud said, that the authorities wanted to publicize the releases. But even the official photographer had to wait around.

Ms. Said’s sister Shorouk Said was trying to entertain several bored and tired children. She looked tight with exhaustion.

“I’m frozen now. But I think when I see her, everything will change,” she said. “But there’s still the injustice. We’re super happy, but we want to know, why did this happen?”

Men in suits came and went behind the prison gate, smoking and checking their phones.

Mr. Dawoud had managed to get the attention of one of them, a prison official he remembered from his time in detention. He signaled to him, splaying his hands with exaggerated impatience: When are they coming out?

The official pointed at the floor twice, in staccato: Now. Now.

Mr. Dawoud threw up his hands, pantomiming ecstasy.

“Thank God!” he shouted. “I think Kholoud is coming now.”

Then suddenly, he was shouting her name.

People clapped. Women ululated, and ululated again. Wordless but smiling, Ms. Said hugged her friends and family one by one. Tears fell. Someone’s phone was ringing with the ringtone that all Samsungs play by default, a sentimental swell of violins, but, in the tumult and the joy, no one bothered to answer it.

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