Four years after Egypt's uprising, prison ranks swell: A writer's story

Novelist and poet Omar Hazek is just one of 41,000 people arrested since a July 2013 coup in Egypt.

Ahmed Omar/AP
A man being detained in Nov. 2013 in Cairo, at a protest against the previous detention of activists under Egypt's anti-protest law.

In his early prison months, Omar Hazek worked only by night, snatching time with his notebook when guards fired up the strip lights outside. The young writer could wait hours for that moment, his cellmates sleeping all the while.

"He always said he couldn't live without writing - he had to find a way," says Mr. Hazek's sister, Zahraa. Now living inside an Alexandria prison, 36-year old Hazek is one of thousands of Egyptians detained under a searing crackdown against dissent.

Hazek was arrested during a protest in December 2013, a few days after Egypt’s government outlawed public gatherings without official permission. A talented poet, the young man had been due to discuss final details of his first novel with printers that evening.

Instead, he spent the night in a police station. He would later be sentenced to two years in prison, charged with attacking an officer and possessing a weapon, accusations his family dismiss as absurd. “How could a gentle poet beat a policeman,” Zahraa asks. “He would never hurt anybody - this is a man who once won prizes for his romantic verse.”

A 2012 video shows Hazek captivating a panel of judges with his soft delivery of one of his poems. Hazek stays busy in prison. As well as working on two novels, he has been documenting his time inside through a series of open letters.

“Prison — it is the highest price I have paid,” wrote Hazek in May.

Almost four years after millions of Egyptians gathered in public squares to demand the downfall of president Hosni Mubarak, a reconfigured version of his regime is back in force. Under strongman president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, those same public squares are off-limits to demonstrators. The Egyptian media moves largely in lockstep with the authorities, proclaiming the crackdown as a war against terrorism.

Charges of fabricated charges

Rights groups say they have documented thousands of cases like Hazek’s, in which individuals in the vicinity of demonstrations have faced seemingly fabricated charges. “Egyptian prosecutors have used the same laundry list of charges, like “inciting violence” or “harming national security" to justify perpetually renewed pretrial detention orders of tens of thousands of protesters or alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

Over 41,000 people are believed to have been arrested since July 3, 2013, the day Morsi was ousted. Detainees are generally held inside police stations, riot police barracks, and formal prisons. Hundreds more have been held inside a military-run black-site in the eastern city of Ismailia.

As Egypt’s prison service has struggled to keep up with the volume of arrests, reports from custody suggest conditions are growing dire. Inside detention facilities, torture is commonplace and is now accompanied by extraordinary overcrowding and routine denial of medical care. Hazek’s poignant letters reveal his struggle to reconcile his former life with the one he now leads.

When his lawyer brought him a copy of his first novel, submitted on the day of his arrest, Hazek was at a loss. He hid the book. “I don’t know why I did that — perhaps I wanted to hold onto a private moment, to keep it personal, as in a fully packed cell nothing is ever personal,” he wrote.“Then I showed the novel to my dearest friend, and he hugged me, and that’s when others in the cell knew that something happy had happened to me, so I showed the novel to everyone.”

Hazek and his fellow detainees say their family visits fly past all too quickly, especially as many relatives travel hours to the prison, laden with food to supplement the inmates meager rations.

Former inmates say they were often painfully aware that their relatives were not giving them the whole story of life outside the prison walls. In a letter, dated April 9, Hazek described the pain of knowing that a fellow detainee was being kept in the dark over his father's failing health. "I learned from my mother that [his] family transferred the father from a private hospital to a public one, after they ran out of money. Now, I cannot sleep," Hazek wrote.

The poet’s own father, Abdel Aziz, is finding the separation hard. “Omar was such a big presence in this house - now it’s just quiet,” he says, sitting in their downtown Alexandria home. “But prison has changed him - he’s not a romantic anymore, he’s a realist.”

But with a year left to serve inside prison walls, Hazek’s spirited letters give his family reason to hope. In a recent note, he wrote of his dreams of freedom, and to have one poem re-published. “If I die, do not bury me here,” it read. “Bring me the sky.”

With additional reporting from Mohamed Ezz.

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