Mahmoud Mohamed: Egypt's birthday boy behind bars

Mahmoud Mohamed: Egypt's birthday boy behind bars
The story of Mahmoud Mohamed, an 18 year old imprisoned for wearing a t-shirt, is representative of the cruelty that many young activists have faced in Sisi's Egypt.
6 min read
01 Jan, 2016
Mahmoud, imprisoned for wearing anti-torture shirt, turns 20 on January 1 [Facebook/Tito Tarek]

To lose one's freedom is tragic. To have a childhood locked behind bars is soul destroying. Mahmoud Mohamed’s is such a tale. Mahmoud was a typical Egyptian boy whose interests, most certainly, did not include politics when the Egyptian revolution unfurled its flag.

Mahmoud's case, now known as the infamous ‘Torture T shirt’ case, is but the tip of a dangerous iceberg for the Egyptian regime. Most estimates of political prisoners range in the 40,000 + range but that figure has swelled in 2015. But the story lies low beneath the numbers.

At the crux of the matter are dignity denied, torture inflicted, and, in Mahmoud’s case, a childhood destroyed by a security apparatus that views all prisoners as "guilty" till proven otherwise. So recounted his brother Tareq ‘Tito’, an activist himself, to The New Arab.

Mahmoud’s birthday, his 20th, is on the first day of the new year 2016. His birthday cards, if they reach him, will be photographs taken by supporters. For the ‘crime’ of wearing an anti-torture T-shirt he has been denied his freedom for over 700 days.

"Mahmoud was arrested due to suspicion of the T shirt he was wearing’’, explained his brother (Egyptian law which does not allow for any punitive action for wearing a particular item of clothing). Ironically enough, the T shirt wasn’t even Mahmoud’s but his brother’s.

While Mahmoud, as a 15 year old on January 25th 2011, had zero interest or comprehension of the tumult rocking the nation; by the time the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt he had started to develop an interest, explained Tito. "He would hear conversations… he asked questions and I did my best to answer". But, in no way, was the young boy politically involved.

Mahmoud didn’t grow up in a revolutionary household either, his parents are termed "classic Egyptian parents", apolitical and concerned more with their children than anything else. While his older brother Tito, now 22 years old, Mahmoud, had only just turned 18 days before his arrest.

An older brother, whom Mahmoud naturally looked up to, was deeply enmeshed in the political scene. Some are older than their chronological age, while others are fully submerged in their childhood and may in fact be younger, emotionally and mentally than said age. Mahmoud was the latter, says his brother. "If anything Mahmoud’s innocence spoke of younger man than 18. Tragically, that is no longer the case.

Mahmoud’s face, fatigued by torture, prison, and a society that has largely forgotten about its political prisoners, looks aged beyond its years. " prison is a tomb…people enter alive and exit dead", explained Tito.

In many cases that killing is literal, either through torture or medical neglect as is well documented, but in even more frequent cases, that murder is figurative. The regime seeks to kill the spirit, to impound the soul and obliterate the will to live. To silence voices, the Sisi regime, systematically imprisons, for many reasons, but chief among them is the emotional destruction meant to give birth to despair. Where hope is the revolution’s engine, the birth of despair is the counter revolution’s strategy.

Whereas Mahmoud’s story is one of personal tragedy the regime’s modus operandi is as impersonal as it is systematic. WikiThawara, a human rights arm, quoted by many an Egyptian and western news outlet, says the number of political prisoners is 41,731 as of April 2014. But the numbers are now higher. At a time when the security apparatus has clearly been granted Carte Blanche by a leadership, simultaneously fearing for its tenuous hold on power and yet arrogantly using a pain inducing stick, the numbers of those imprisoned for political views have soared. Two months ago, the Ministry of Interior, the same one on record as refuting the existence of Forced Disappearances, unabashedly claimed that it had arrested an additional 11877 Egyptians on ‘terrorism’ charges.

Although an informational black hold exists about arrests from April 2014 to January 2015, by the most conservative estimates, the number of prisoners is currently at 53,608. Presuming a ratio of 100 people, families and friends, affected by the imprisonment of those under the umbrella of ‘political crimes’ we are looking at well over 5 million Egyptians affected by this security chokehold. When revolution erupted, nearly 5 years ago, it did so, many believe, powered by many similar abuses by the Egyptian security complex, in the long term, and the murder of Khaled Said, in the short term. Both dynamics are now part of the daily conversation between ruler and ruled. The Sisi government has taught us that Egyptian rulers have both short memories and longer sticks.

After his arrest Mahmoud was tortured. Initially, as the call to prayer offered a painfully contrasting backdrop, Tito talked about how he was tortured in Marg precinct. It did not end there. Mahmoud "was electrically shocked on various parts of his body" said his sibling very matter of factly.

Torture has become a fact of life now, more than ever. These details should come as no surprise to anyone closely following post-revolutionary Egypt. Though the Mubarak era was rife with security abuses every regime that has followed since has upped the ante on human rights abuses. In February,  Human Rights Watch reported that a former high ranking economic advisor to the Morsi regime and a negotiator with the IMF, Abdallah Shehata, was also subjected to ‘’electrocution and other mistreatment’’. Whether it is Mahmoud or Abdallah, a low ranking civilian, a revolutionary or a former official torture is not an exception- it is the system and political prisoners, in particular, are its victims.

The dastardly partnership between political imprisonment and torture will continue to affect prisoners long after they have emerged from behind bars and the intent is to break the will of those who dare speak. Some studies of political prisoners, internationally, show a strong tendency towards Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the figures are as high as 60%. With depression, disassociation and bipolar disorder as possible outcomes those who emerge may not be in any kind of physical or emotional shape to stand up to the regime once again. This, for autocratic regimes like Sisi’s, is the cherry atop a violently oppressive cake.

There have been multiple indications in the past month that the regime fears the coming 5th anniversary of the January 25th revolution. Many have wondered why with an opposition so organizationally dilapidated? The answer lurks in the systematic injustice of the political imprisonment of over 50,000 Egyptians. When millions are affected, indirectly, that issue alone can provide a spark for the next uprising.

Mahmoud, a boy on entry to Sisi’s jails has aged into a man; as you read this he turns 20. It is men such as these, apolitical at the start, whom the regime should, now, fear. With a continuing iron fist it is only a matter of time before the government is punched back.

Amr Khalifa is an Egyptian analyst and commentator. He has written for Daily News Egypt, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah and Arab Media and Society Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @cairo67unedited

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.