On January 25, 2014, Karim Taha and Muhammad Sharif organized separate marches about five miles apart in Cairo to commemorate the third anniversary of the uprising that toppled Husni Mubarak. Both demonstrations were quashed, and the two men met up to share a cab home. The driver took a detour that led them straight into a police checkpoint. They were both arrested and interrogated at a police station. The next day, they were transported to an unofficial prison at a military camp near one of Cairo’s satellite cities.
The facility was poorly maintained. Its 2,000 square feet encompassed ten cells, several of which were for solitary confinement. Taha and Sharif, both in their twenties, were locked up in a cell with 66 other inmates. All in all, they estimate, the prison might have housed 280 people at a time. “You slept like a sword laying on its edge,” Taha recounted during an interview in Cairo. There was no room to toss or turn.
Things looked bleak indeed until they met Sheikh Fanta, a salafi with a ginger beard and nicknamed for the orange soda, who invited them to sleep in the comparative luxury of the 21-square-foot cell he occupied along with seven others. Taha and Sharif considered themselves liberals, and did not expect the hospitality of an ultra-conservative Islamist.
Sheikh Fanta’s cell was far more agreeable than their previous accommodations, where the mix of prisoners included drug dealers, murderers, rapists and takfiris, people “who accused others of apostasy, even their own wives. No one talked to them,” Taha said. In the sheikh’s cell, everyone identified first as Egyptian. But among them, Taha continued, were a socialist, Muslim Brothers, salafis and jihadis, “and even someone with no ideology.”
A week later, three more detainees were brought to the camp. Rumors flew that they were takfiris. The guards warned the inmates not to approach the new arrivals, said Sharif, as they were “nothing like you.” A dangerous convict known by the sobriquet Abu Anas was among them. He and two accomplices had killed a policeman standing guard at a church on their way to rob a jewelry store, according to news reports, before they were apprehended. Abu Anas spoke to no one, and refused to eat or pray with the other inmates.
In February 2014, Sharif and Taha left the unofficial detention facility for Wadi Natroun, a maximum-security prison and former CIA “black site” on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.
What they encountered could have been the model for a painting by Piranesi. The cell to which they were assigned was shared with 24 others. It had four windows and a small bathroom. “It was so cold,” Sharif said, “that if you touched your bare head on the wall for three minutes, you would get a sore throat then and there.” Taha quickly ascended to cell leader while Sharif assumed responsibility for distributing food rations, which consisted of chunks of meat, rice, bread, beans and lentils. The inmates invented ways to make the food edible by slicing the meat thin like shawarma. They brewed tea in a contrivance that involved bottled water, string, cloth, plastic and a cooker. They shared smuggled cigarettes, and scrawled lines from the young revolutionary poet Mustafa Ibrahim on the walls.
On the political front, they formed a group they called the Coalition of Egypt’s Prisoners, which was comprised of revolutionary socialists and other secularists, as well as Islamists. They sent out occasional press releases. They started planning a hunger strike after officials refused their requests for better treatment, more exercise and more than half an hour in the bathroom. The hunger strike began in late April and lasted for almost a week. Coalition members refused all food and visits. “We succeeded, and people started talking about a hunger strike in Wadi Natroun,” Taha said.
On May 28, however, the warden instituted a new punitive measure. The visiting hour in Wadi Natroun usually took place between noon and 1 pm but without notice the warden moved it back to 4 pm. When the cell was finally opened, Taha strode into the booth where the warden was standing and harangued him for the long delay. A police officer punched Taha in the chest. Taha lobbed a water bottle at the officer, as other prisoners tried to separate the two. Enraged, the warden threw Taha into solitary confinement.
That night, the prisoners broke out in chants for the release of Taha and another inmate. The administration let the men out of solitary confinement the next morning. But on a radio in their cell the inmates heard a broadcast that claimed a mass escape attempt had been stopped. Three days later, guards meted out collective punishment, including beating and public shaming.
That was not the end of the repercussions. On May 31, special forces sent by the Interior Ministry stormed one cell after another on both wings of the ward. They pushed the prisoners out into a corridor and administered beatings “wherever they could get us,” Sharif said. “I’d never seen so many soldiers where they led us next—the space we used as the bathroom.” It was an expanse of ground enclosed by four walls and roofed with barbed wire.
The prisoners were ordered to strip down to their underwear. “Our hands were tied behind our backs using our torn-up clothes, just like prisoners of war,” Sharif said. They spent the next five hours kneeling under the torrid May sun, blindfolded, as the jailers dealt them additional blows. Taha was among 19 prisoners summoned for transport to another facility for further punishment. Still in his underwear, he was taken to what he later found out was Gamasa prison, located a six-hour drive away in a different province. Fatalities have been reported there.
For nine days, he had no idea where he was, locked up in a pitch-dark cell with another man. In the silent blackness, he said, “bugs virtually became your friends.” He was provided with scant food, blankets and a bucket in lieu of a toilet. Guards beat him every day, mostly on the back, masking the marks with Voltaren gel they forced the prisoners to apply. His hands became horribly swollen.
Back in Wadi Natroun, Sharif said, he and the rest of the inmates spent the next three weeks in a cell holding criminals. The space was subject to intrusive searches every other day. Officers would slash open sacks that held the prisoners’ belongings, throw their food away, and beat them, or make them stand facing the wall. “One time, an officer came in with a knife and a bar of soap,” Sharif said. “He thought someone might have hidden something inside it.”
Such treatment continued until Taha and Sharif finally faced trial and were acquitted on June 16, 2015.
After Taha’s release, the authorities pursued him again in connection with another political case. He evaded arrest and fled to Prague, and was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.
Sharif is back in Cairo, trying to find a way out. He has undergone extensive therapy to overcome the trauma of prison. “Leaving Egypt,” he said, “is consuming my thoughts.”