With a peculiar guest list, unfamiliar presidential statements, and assurances of changes to come, the Egyptian family Iftar 2022 has surely raised eyebrows among the Egyptian people and followers of Egyptian politics.
Started in 2017, the Egyptian family Iftar is an annual Ramadan tradition where the president gathers an assortment of prominent state figures, ministers, representatives of the major religious institutions in Egypt, and a collection of handpicked attendees representing various Egyptian governorates. In this event, they break their fast together and listen to a presidential speech that typically revolves around the state’s achievements over the past year, embedded with nationalist propaganda about unity behind the mother-state that protects us from the dark forces aiming to bring our country down.
This year differed. Before the event, numerous statements by the president and members of parliament about pleasant news to be announced were circulating, followed by the surprising news announcing the release of 41 political prisoners in pre-trial detention on typical charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading false news. The list included activist Radwa Mohamed, researcher Abdo Fayed, journalist Mohamed Salah, and doctor Waleed Shawky. On the Iftar day the following week, we saw figures perceived by the state as opposition on the guest list, such as former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, and journalist and former political prisoner Khaled Dawoud. The speech this year took an unusual tone of reconciling disagreements, expressing delight at the recently freed political prisoners, and referring to ousted president Mohamed Morsi in a confoundingly respectful manner.
While the event concluded with several announcements, two in particular sparked a controversial debate among the public: The reactivation of the presidential pardon committee for political prisoners, and the call for a “comprehensive political dialogue” with civil society organizations and opposition.
Theories and controversy
The statements and actions carried out over that week perplexed the public opinion—they contradicted everything the state represented. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi politely referred to the late Mohamed Morsi whom he ousted, demonized, and imprisoned to the day of his passing; expressed joy at the release of imprisoned youth when they were behind bars as a direct result of his rule; and called for comprehensive dialogue when the opposition has experienced nothing but severe crackdown and incarceration under his sovereignty.
Two major theories emerged to explain this illogical attitude by the authorities: US pressure and the imminent economic crisis in Egypt.
Egypt has been a recipient of substantial US military aid over the years. Yet, as the Biden administration took over, a shift in tone, though slight, has arisen. As put by Senator Christopher S. Murphy “…gone are the days where dictators receive blank checks from America.”
This new direction manifested in the freeze declared by the State Department last fall on $130 million in annual security assistance, justified by the exacerbated human rights conditions in Egypt, with explicit acknowledgment of political detainees as a primary motive for the decision. In January 2022, the Biden administration announced that these $130 million would be shifted to other programs.
The Egyptian regime’s need for future US funds and assistance remains stronger than ever, and with the power the US holds over the International Monetary Fund’s decision to approve the loan requested by Egypt in March 2022, the authorities are likely to change strategies in hopes of more favorable outcomes.
The second theory is closely linked to the first one, being around the steep fall in the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, with further inevitable collapse predicted as the global economy suffers, leading to a catastrophic economic crisis that would render millions below the poverty line. This theory claims that the Egyptian regime fears domestic turmoil as the circumstances worsen, and wishes to mitigate some of the tension within the country by releasing a number of political prisoners and having the so-called dialogue.
The two theories are legitimate to a large extent, with signs reinforcing that both of them are two sides of the same coin—an anticipated disaster that demands both US funds and internal stability.
The Presidential Pardon Committee: Real, or merely a façade?
Despite the emergence of this amiable tone, the bulk of Egyptian opposition and dissidents are as dubious as can be. The present dictatorship’s record since 2013 makes it challenging to believe in the sincerity of calls for political dialogue. There is prevalent awareness that this is only a theatrical performance in which the state brings out some opposition figures from the closet to play a part in presenting a particular image of change to the international community.
Why does the opposition play along then? Because they simply view this as a temporary opening to have some political prisoners freed before the door shuts again.
The skepticism extends to the revived presidential pardon committee, and for good reason. The last time the committee was active, its members were but marionettes arranged to put on a show with no decision-making power. In my firsthand experience as a six-year political prisoner in Egypt, I witnessed the true backstage puppeteers: the state security officers.
Torah Maximum Security Prison 2, Cairo, Egypt, 2018
The clanking sounds filled the hallway as the door to our cell corridor flung open, and a group of fellow political prisoners filed inside to their respective cells.
In our cell, we waited in anticipation as keys and locks rattled until the steel door swung and Mostafa stepped inside.
Once the guard shut the door, we huddled around our cellmate.
“They put us in the administration building’s reception and called our names one by one. It was a state security interrogation that they claimed was conducted for the presidential pardon. There were different state security offices from all governorates. My office, Giza, had us blindfolded during the interrogation, but the other offices did not.”
State security divides Egyptian governorates into offices, where each office is responsible for interrogating and preparing files for the politically-active residents of its governorate. Giza’s office has always been rumored to be the toughest.
Mostafa proceeded to narrate what transpired in the interrogation. The officer asked him the regular questions: How were you arrested? Are you a Muslim Brotherhood member? Do you pray? How religious are you? Tell me about your family? Does your wife wear a niqab?
Then, he moved on to question him about post-release plans: Do you plan to stay in Egypt? Will you ever speak about politics again? What are your plans if we release you now? How do you feel about the country? Do you hate us for locking you up all those years?
For 20 minutes, the officer bombarded Mostafa with questions, yet Mostafa was not bothered—he had a final sentence of 25 years in prison for a protest in 2013. A pardon prospect was a miraculous window of hope: He might see the other side of the wall again.
That was my second year in Torah Maximum Security prison 2, and my fifth year incarcerated. I was in the “pardon block” as it was known in Egyptian prisons during that period. The authorities released three pardon lists after the initial launch of the presidential pardon committee: Eighty-two prisoners in November 2016, 203 in March 2017, and the third and biggest list in June 2017 with 502 prisoners right before Eid Al-Fitr. A year elapsed since then, but the stream of releases had dried up. It wasn’t until this week, in the first half of 2018, that the interrogations suddenly resumed, injecting hope into the veins of Egyptian political prisoners and their families once again.
Months later, before Ramadan 2018, Mostafa’s name was called among over 200 other political prisoners in a long-awaited fourth pardon list—he was, at last, going home.
When I remember my days in the pardon block in Torah prison, I always recall one constant remark made by state security officers that our prison mates repeated when recounting their stories: The presidential pardon committee is but a façade; we as state security officers are the sole entity that prepares lists and picks names.
Every released list proved this, as we all, prisoners and families, witnessed the names enlisted from the pool of prisoners gathered and interrogated by state security, while names sent countless times to the committee never showed up on any lists if they had not been brought to the “pardon” block and interrogated.
As more of us departed prison over the years, our testimonies about the pardon committee and the real process determining the lists reached human rights organizations on the outside, hence the cynical notions among circles of opposition about the effectiveness of this committee.
Since this year’s Iftar, we have seen the release of only one political prisoner with a presidential pardon: Hossam Moa’nis. While the news of Hossam’s release filled us all with joy, it seems evident that they released him as a quid pro quo for former candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi’s presence at the Iftar. Hossam was the founder and manager of Hamdeen’s presidential campaign in both 2012 and 2014, and Hamdeen stated on multiple occasions that he considered him a son. His release came on the day directly following the Iftar, with a dedicated pardon issued to his name. This was merely an individual step forward; it was but a drop in a bucket of thousands of political prisoners.
Some Egyptian human rights organizations compiled a proposed roadmap to end the file of political prisoners once and for all. The ambitious list demanded the urgent, comprehensive, and just release of all political prisoners in a transparent process, and highlighted that if the state is serious in its intention to tackle and dissolve this tumor haunting our country, it should back the promises up by actions.
The initial signs are not positive. After assurances of a pardon list before Eid Al-Fitr, we remain hanging to no avail. No dialogue has started, none of our jailed companions have yet seen the light, and families of the incarcerated struggle to submit the names of their relatives amidst the chaos and lack of clarity as to how the pardon committee operates.
Yet, we wait, hoping against hope that this time is different, that the lost will soon reunite with their loved ones, that prison will cough out a portion of the innocents lying in its pits, and that a day will come soon where Egyptian can live without the constant threat of handcuffs and bars one wrong step away.
Abdelrahman ElGendy is a writer and former Egyptian political prisoner who spent six years and three months behind bars.