How the US Helped Build Egypt’s Prison State

The fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 threatened Washington’s relationship with one of its most valuable client states. But since then, US military aid has been used to build up a new machinery of repression that’s strangling the hopes of the revolution.

US defense secretary James Mattis and Egypt's Central Military Zone commander General Ayman Abdel Hamid Amer depart after Mattis placed a wreath at the Unknown Soldier Memorial April 20, 2017 in Cairo, Egypt. Jonathan Ernst - Pool / Getty

News outlets have been churning out obituaries for Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to add to their annual, debilitating “state of Egypt” roundups marking the anniversary of his ouster in 2011. But there are still a number of glaring silences when we talk about Egypt today. One concerns the changing relationship between Egypt and the United States, and its profound impact upon the Egyptian people. The importance of that relationship should not be underestimated: since the 1979 Camp David Accords, Egypt has received over $70 billion from the United States, leaving it second only to Israel as a recipient of US aid.

In his 2016 book The Egyptians, Jack Shenker argued that the people of Egypt had shown the world what a frontline struggle for democracy looks like during their revolution. Egypt’s protesters wanted something more substantial than mere elections when they rose up against Mubarak in 2011. Egyptians dreamed about a different political future and posed some fundamental questions about the true nature of democracy, its implications for daily life, and the obligations of the state. After a brief opening, the country’s generals responded to this hopeful dissent with a repressive clampdown, jailing record numbers of people. The repression targeted non-conformists and suspected political organizers, from Islamists to liberals and left-wingers.

The uprising of 2011 led to an existential crisis for the Egyptian state. Daily life for the average citizen in Mubarak’s Egypt was slow, grinding, and violent. The uprising ended his regime and started to chip away at the state’s routine hierarchies, institutions, and practices. The old relationship with the United States could no longer hold up because the state apparatus was fraying, and a new political order had to be constructed. Mubarak had outlasted four American presidents. The relationship sat on cruise control for years, even when there were disagreements between the two states.

For its part, the Obama administration was willing to support virtually anything that maintained the US alliance with Cairo. But, especially after the military regime’s assault on a protest encampment in August 2013 that killed nearly a thousand people, the United States recalibrated its vision of the alliance. That change has resulted in deeply harmful consequences for daily life, mobility, and political dissent.

At a crucial moment after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president in 2014, the United States changed the way its aid was distributed, diverting funds towards border surveillance technology and counterterrorism. President al-Sisi also clearly thinks highly of US-style mass incarceration: Egypt has built nineteen of its sixty-two prisons since 2011. Currently, more than 60,000 out of a total of 106,000 inmates are classified as political prisoners.

A Model Client

As Jason Brownlee has masterfully documented, the US-Egypt alliance under Mubarak offered a model for what a “stable” imperial relationship should look like. The Egyptian ruler wasn’t flashy. He was a low-maintenance client leader who valued mutual respect between elites. Mubarak might grumble and feel unappreciated, but he would always be there when the United States needed him to secure its interests. While DC policymakers would issue the occasional protest against the arrest of an opposition activist, Egypt’s president kept his sponsor happy by maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, helping facilitate US military campaigns in the region, and holding the Egyptian Islamists in check.

Ultimately, the old relationship came down to dollars. As veteran Egypt researcher Steven A. Cook noted, just over a year before the 2011 uprising: “Egypt has helped create a regional order that makes it relatively inexpensive for the United States to exercise its power.” In spite of occasional turbulence, US aid to Egypt yielded a return through the privileges and access it afforded that far exceeded the initial outlay. But the same calculus didn’t apply if you were an ordinary Egyptian who wanted more bread, freedom, or social justice.

The 2011 protests brought down the Mubarak regime, and the state began to fragment. The uprising led to the disbanding of institutions like the ruling party, and the removal of some ministers who had spent too long thieving. The police were disgruntled, but they accepted the plan of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for a transition that would protect them. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) also endorsed the leading role of the SCAF generals during this transitional phase.

When elections were held, the Brotherhood leaders hoped to emulate the Turkish example of Islamist politicians who had incrementally nudged the military out of positions of authority. Instead, the MB president, Mohamed Morsi, turned out to be a clumsy leader whose autocratic impulses provoked strong opposition. The army seized the opportunity to mount a coup against Morsi and put forward Field Marshal al-Sisi as the SCAF’s figurehead for a new regime.

“Restoring Democracy”

The July 2013 coup was a hinge event for relations between Egypt and the United States. Military intervention against the elected president put the Obama administration in a bind, as US law requires the cutting of aid if a leader is removed from power by undemocratic means. But the State Department refused to utter the word “coup.” John Kerry even claimed, less than a month after the SCAF seized power, that Egypt’s generals were “restoring democracy.”

The United States had to react in some way after the military-style assault on a protest encampment in Cairo’s Rabaa Adawiya Square six weeks after the coup, which claimed the lives of almost a thousand people. Obama froze aid temporarily, but his government went to great lengths to avoid embarrassing Egypt’s new rulers. By March 2015, he was ready to approve the delivery of helicopters to the Egyptian army.

The resumption of military aid worth $1.3 billion came with an agreement that the United States would exercise control over arms purchases. Egypt has more tanks than all the countries in Africa and Latin America put together, but US weapons manufacturers have switched from that line of production to one of the fastest growing defense industries: high-tech border surveillance equipment, drones, and new techniques for exercising control over state frontiers. Indeed, the “homeland security” industry is expected to generate more than $700 billion in sales during the next decade. Profits in this sector have doubled in the last ten years. Border technology is the new golden calf of militarism, and the United States has been adjusting markets accordingly.

Meanwhile, US non-military aid to Egypt fell to a paltry level, sending a clear message that social and infrastructural projects that would benefit ordinary Egyptians no longer mattered. So far as we are aware, the United States did not actively seek to transform Egypt into a carceral state, nor suggest a policy of restricting free movement for its citizens. But this approach flowed “naturally” from the security perspective of a shaky client autocracy and its imperial sponsor.

Washington redirected its aid from conventional weaponry and military exercises toward “homeland security.” For example, in July 2015, the State Department signed an agreement with Cairo to sell the Egyptian regime $100 million of surveillance sensors and communication upgrades, with scores of defense contractors available to train Egyptian personnel. The Pentagon said that this transfer of technology and skills would increase Egypt’s ability to conduct surveillance “along its border with Libya and elsewhere.”

Carceral State

High-ranking officials in Egypt now oversee a contracting state apparatus with a dysfunctional political economy. Government services and subsidies for the population are continually being cut, stoking up popular discontent as living standards fall. To preempt this, the state has been investing in its security apparatus. The more it spends on repression, the less it can spare for social needs, and the cycle repeats itself. As the security specialists go about their work, every problem starts to look like a nail, since they only have a hammer to work with.

Restrictions on the mobility of political dissidents are meant to contain any buildup of pressure around social grievances like soaring inequality, a depreciating currency, and the price of bread, not to mention frequent infrastructural breakdowns and accidents. The regime is erecting walls, both physical and political, to control the population. Egypt’s relationship with the United States is helping to normalize more insidious forms of state violence.

US officials have long turned a blind eye to repression in Egypt. As Barack Obama was about to board a plane for Cairo in 2009, a reporter asked him directly if Mubarak was an autocrat. The president insisted that he did not want to use a “label for folks,” before describing Mubarak as a “force for stability.” On the day that the uprising finally brought down Mubarak, Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, claimed that it would be inappropriate to call Washington’s ally — who he knew “fairly well” — a dictator.

Donald Trump has been less euphemistic in his praise for Mubarak’s successor al-Sisi, even referring to the Egyptian president as “my favorite dictator” at the G7 conference in September 2019. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, used the occasion of a speech at the American University in Cairo the same year to reproach Obama for being insufficiently supportive of Arab dictatorships (and of Israel). In any case, Egypt seldom features on the US news agenda these days.

Before the 2011 uprising, the country had forty-three prisons. SCAF built a new jail during the transition period, and Morsi’s short-lived presidency added two more. The remaining sixteen have all been constructed since the 2013 coup. The figure for new jails does not include the detention centers in Central Security Forces camps, or military prisons. According to Human Rights Watch, there is an “assembly line of torture” in the state’s carceral machine. Some prisoners have been behind bars for up to five years without being charged with any offense.

Others have been locked up on bogus charges, such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, who served a five-year sentence for protesting without permission. After his release in March 2019, Abdel Fattah still had to report to his neighborhood police station for twelve hours of detention every night. The state imposes these extreme probationary conditions on ex-prisoners it considers dangerous. Naturally, this severely restricts a person’s ability to travel any distance from their home for fear of being late when they report for detention in the evening. In September 2019, Abdel Fattah was re-arrested after protests against state and military corruption, and he is currently back in prison, yet to face any charge. Although his legal team secured a court ruling that called for his release, the prosecution immediately appealed, and he continues to waste away in jail.

Controlling Dissent

Other forms of state violence have also soared under al-Sisi’s watch. The Al-Nadim Center for victims of torture had already reported 464 disappearances by February 2016. Interior Ministry forces have been involved in an extraordinary number of gun battles in desert regions. Reuters has documented 108 shootouts between mid-2015 and the end of 2018, resulting in 465 deaths. Even if we cannot identify the people who have been killed by the security forces, we can still look at the pictures of their dead and bloodied corpses displayed on the Ministry’s Facebook page.

More than 2,100 people have been sentenced to death during al-Sisi’s presidency, and Egypt now ranks sixth in the world for annual state executions. In Mubarak’s last three years in power, the state executed eleven people. In 2011, there was just one execution, with none recorded in 2012 or 2013. But the coup led to a sharp increase: 15 in 2014, at least 22 in 2015, 44 in 2016, followed by 35 and 43 in the next two years.

NGOs that treat victims of torture, or publish reports on the state’s record, are liable to be shut down. Journalists who still do serious research — an endangered species in Egypt today — face constant threats. Foreign reporters have also been targeted: the Egyptian authorities arrested and deported David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times when he tried to enter the country in February 2019. Kirkpatrick had recently reported a story that al-Sisi would have preferred to keep hidden: the permission he had granted for Israeli air strikes against Islamist rebels in Sinai. To conceal the deployment of Israeli jets, drone and helicopters over Egyptian territory, the regime had turned North Sinai into a closed military zone.

Relations between Israel and Egypt are now warmer than they ever were under Mubarak. When Trump shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem, Egyptian diplomats formally condemned the move. But a secret-police official was recorded instructing TV presenters to persuade their viewers that Palestinians should go along with Trump’s initiative and accept Ramallah as the capital of their would-be state. According to a Western diplomat based in Cairo, the Israeli government has returned the favor: “Israeli diplomats are always adamant on defending Egypt from criticisms that arise in the world’s major capitals, whether they have to do with the human rights situation or the economic situation.”

Travel bans are another key form of repression deployed by the regime. Most activists are no longer allowed to leave Egypt, whether for holidays or professional conferences, especially leading campaigners such as Aida Seif al-Dawla, Gamal Eid, or the investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat. No one knows who is on the list in advance: you can only find out by going to the airport to catch your flight out of the country. There were fifty-six travel bans imposed by the SCAF regime and Morsi combined in 2011–13. In the two years following the coup, the figure rose to nearly 500.

Spying on critics of the regime is pervasive. In October 2019, a US cybersecurity firm discovered that government officials had created a sophisticated app to install software on the cell phones of activists, allowing the state to track their movements and monitor their calls and emails. The app’s default coordinates matched those of the secret police headquarters in Cairo.

Internal Borders

With more people on the move globally, as the US security state exports police and military counterinsurgency tactics, and well-armed, well-funded ruling elites in poor countries lose the ability to govern, a dangerous vision is emerging for our political future. Most people tend not to experience border techniques inside a country. But this is rapidly changing.

Egypt is currently building a second wall next to Gaza to seal off its 2 million Palestinian inhabitants. There has been talk of building a wall across the Libyan border as well. Yet the full panoply of border controls is also being used domestically, with mass incarceration, travel bans, extreme probationary constraints, and physical barriers that can lock down iconic points of revolutionary symbolism such as Tahrir Square. The Egyptian authorities are shutting down coffee shops and leisure activities in Cairo’s downtown, while CCTV cameras squat on the ledges of neglected yet magnificent buildings.

One of the last decisions in which Hosni Mubarak played a part came during the early stages of the uprising, when his regime ordered the wholesale release of prisoners from several of the country’s prisons. Egyptian citizens, many of whom had never relied on the state to look after their communities, sprang into action. Ordinary people organized checkpoints at the boundaries of their neighborhoods, where they would check identity cards and question strangers before allowing them passage. If the Mubarak regime had wanted to frighten the people of Egypt, most of them hardly blinked. That’s how a connected society works together to survive under incompetent and untrustworthy leadership. But movement restrictions change that whole dynamic, undermining social connectivity as people become more atomized.

The United States realizes it cannot buy a way out for Egypt’s leaders. The situation bequeathed by Mubarak is one of chaos, indebtedness, and violence. But it will require plenty of foreign cash just to buttress the enfeebled state apparatus. Since 2011, Washington has seen the Egyptian economy become even more dependent on international aid from the United States, but also from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Egypt’s foreign debt is currently higher than it has ever been, having skyrocketed since 2014. The country has received nearly $12 billion in aid each year since the coup from three Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. Along with Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar, these donors have supplied a total of $92 billion since Mubarak fell in 2011.The IMF now has Egypt on the hook for ballooning external debts that are offset by cutting back on the government subsidies and services that Egyptians rely upon.

As ordinary people have to get by on less and less, the security forces need regular investment, care, and support to hold the wobbly state together. There is no longer a big ruling party that can be used to organize regime loyalists. Members of parliament scarcely put up any resistance to what al-Sisi wants, and they recently voted to extend limits on his term in office. Meanwhile, the military is using its vast economic monopolies and undisclosed billions to forge alliances with Egyptian businessmen and employ as many poor laborers as it can.

Al-Sisi is busy trying to build walls that can stop people from connecting. The continuing redistribution of wealth from Egypt’s people to its ruling elite is storing up raw material for another popular eruption. The generals are haunted by the specter of the last uprising at every turn. The structure of power is being reorganized for a future where states have abandoned their social commitments but need spaces to confine those who are unwilling to accept their slow suffocation.

A system like that can only survive through ever greater deployment of violence and incarceration against its citizens, and with the committed support of the world’s most powerful states. Our own security establishments warmly appreciate al-Sisi’s role as a coercive bulwark against Egyptian social movements, against the Palestinian resistance, and no doubt soon against the flow of migration into Fortress Europe. But they will also be looking at the Egyptian laboratory for innovative strategies of control and repression. The bordered world desired by the global rich is more intimately connected than one might think.