Shawkan: ‘As if’ the state were concerned with the right to communication

Editor’s note: Photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) was arrested along with two foreign journalists while covering the state’s violent dispersal of the August 2013 Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in to protest the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. Although the two foreigners were quickly released, Shawkan has remained in detention ever since. His health has deteriorated and he has been reportedly denied access to medication. According to Amnesty International, Shawkan has faced torture in prison, and lawyers have been denied full access to key documents in his case.

Mada Masr publishes a translation of this article as we received it from Shawkan.

Since I am in detention, I apologize to you, dear reader, for opening this article without documented information or a narrative of details. Still, what I say is accurate.

Constitutions worldwide grant human beings rights and duties, and regulate their relationship with both national authorities and their societies. These include: the right to life, the right to education, the right to freedom of expression, the right to communication, and so on. I want to discuss here the right to communication and correspondence.

However, in Egypt, Al-Mahroussa [the protected], nothing seems to matter in the preamble to the Constitution except one article. It is as if the Constitution was only made to determine the duration of the presidential term and nothing else.

Everyone ignores the rest, from judges to cleaners. There are no laws, no rights, no duties. Each to their own. Here, the law of the jungle rules, corruption is rampant and rights are lost.

I recall the infamous amendment of this article by President Anwar Sadat, who limitlessly extended the length of the presidential term, an alteration he didn’t get to enjoy, as he was assassinated by Islamists. Mubarak followed and enjoyed this amendment for 30 years before prompting the January 25 revolution.

This article has been brought up again recently by parliamentarians, as if the House had finalized all the provisions that complement the Constitution; as if Egypt had fulfilled all the people’s demands, leaving nothing to be discussed except this article. Local councils do not matter, neither does civil society, or people who are unjustly rotting in prison because of a damn law concerning pretrial detention.

Everything that matters to the people is not important. The state remains concerned about its image to the world and the salt of the earth, boasting laws and a Constitution. This is the image of parliamentary sessions, court chambers and police on the roads. As for the philosophy upon which it is all based, this is a mess.

The right to life is hardly tenable, with Egypt occupying a high position globally for road accidents and deaths.

As for the right to free expression, Egypt occupies an advanced position in jailing journalists, regardless of statements by Journalists Syndicate Head Abdel Mohsen Salama and Diaa Rashwan, head of the State Information Service, claiming there are not any detained journalists and that anyone in prison is there because they have committed criminal offences. This is an even greater disaster, when the regime accuses journalists of murder and other crimes, as well as detains political opposition figures and critics and maltreats them.

Similarly dire is the right to education. Our public universities are at the bottom of the pile for global education standards.

Allow me, dear reader, to recall a term used by genius novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who described the state as a state of “as if!” — It is as if we have a constitution, as if there is rule of law, as if there is education, as if there are courts, rights and duties … as if there is a state!

The state is founded on a shallow image with no depth, no planning and no vision for the future, despite persistent efforts to move forward. Gigantic projects have been undertaken with no thought as to how to operate or sustain them, because all that matters is the image; “as if” we thought about priorities.

After this depressing introduction, I will express my opinion on the right to communication and correspondence. As we have already understood, it is a constitutionally granted right. But again, the “as if” taints the image.

Scandinavian countries have gone further and included the right to access the internet in their constitutions. The state is therefore obliged to make it available to all citizens, in exchange for a little extra tax.

In Egypt, the right to communication is monopolized by major mobile phone companies, which drain citizens through the high cost of calls and “extra” services. These do not amount to quality services, not to mention the bad networks. Nor do they contribute to the building and development of society by setting up schools, or development programs or scholarships. They have their eyes on citizens’ pockets only.

This constitutional right to communication does not exist at all in Egyptian prisons, the number of which is several times that of universities.

If a mobile phone is found in a cell during morning and evening checks by prison security, then you have committed a major crime, along with the associated humiliation, common theft of your belongings and disruption by informers. It is as if you had stolen or were caught carrying narcotics. Surprisingly, the penalty for theft and narcotics is lighter than that for possessing a mobile phone in a “political ward,” for which you are taken to a black hole without water or air, except for a small opening to keep you alive. There is no toilet. You lie on the floor and your clothes become filthy, you become part of the cell. If it is summer, you might die of the heat, and if it is winter, you might die of the cold. The penalty here is depriving you of your humanity, of all your rights, of your dignity.

In 2013, the penalty for possessing a mobile phone was a day in a disciplinary cell and deprivation from family visits for three days. It was then increased to three days in a disciplinary cell and one week with no visits. Then to a month in a disciplinary cell and a month with no visits. We don’t know how far the penalty will go.

Political detainees play hide and seek in prison. It is impossible for prison authorities to stop phones being smuggled in, despite the severe penalty. On the contrary, there is a direct correlation between the increase in the penalty and an increase in mobile phones, simply because it is not a right that can be surrendered, nor can communication with one’s family.

When I asked a prison officer about the severe penalty for phones, he answered, “The danger lies in a phone being obtained by a dangerous terrorist. This could enable him to coordinate an escape operation, or to manage a terrorist operation from inside prison.” He is right, but what about the person who did not commit a crime, or is not a terrorist? Also, there are prisoners whose families cannot come to visit them in prison because of ill health, or for economic reasons.

In prison, everyone is in the same category concerning rewards and punishment. There is no difference between a terrorist, a politician, a journalist or a criminal. Everybody is treated with humiliation and excessive maltreatment, unless you are lucky and one of your relatives is a general or security director or an officer, or if you have foreign nationality.

Increasing the penalty and maltreatment here is absolutely not justified. It feeds negative vibes, especially with prolonged legal trials, despair, frustration, violations and torture. Instead of fighting terrorism, the state is feeding it in its prisons.

I don’t know when the Egyptian mind will address problems from a preventative aspect, and not just close the door when the wind is blowing.

My suggestion is regulation. Since communication is a right granted by the Constitution, why don’t prison administrations allow the installation of phone booths to be used for communication and correspondence, and standardize this across all prisons? The lines could be monitored, and there could be a reasonable fee, which would benefit the prison administration and national communication companies in light of the tremendous number of calls that would be made from inside prison. This way, the smuggling of mobile phones would stop, as well as the game of hide and seek. It might also reduce torture and violations in prisons due to the possession of illegal phones. It would be a positive tick on the human rights record of the Interior Ministry, which is in dire need of thinking out of the box. And this would satisfy those concerned with security, human rights and humanitarian needs.


Cairo Prison

September 3, 2017


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism