Arbitrary Detention: from Syria to Egypt

A conversation with Razan Ghazzawi & Mahinour El-Massry

We share with you the first entry of [episode_1], a podcast series produced by Kohl Journal, as we await news from Alaa Abd El-Fattah following his decision to escalate his hunger strike ahead of COP27. In this episode, Egyptian activist and lawyer Mahienour El-Massry and Syrian activist and scholar Razan Ghazzawi reflect on the long and dark history of prisons and detention in Egypt and Syria, offering a counter-narrative on prisoners, solidarity, and possibilities for justice.

On Alaa, Mahienour wrote on social media two days ago: “With his body, Alaa is fighting all of regime’s narratives full of injustice and distortion towards people whose primary accusation is a dream of a better tomorrow. With his body, Alaa is fighting for himself and thousands of others inside prisons. He’s fighting for survival and hope.”

#FreeAlaa and all prisoners.

The episode is in Arabic. Full transcription and translation to follow.

In collaboration with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Zuhour: Hello everyone. In today’s first episode of our podcast, we will host lawyer and activist Mahienour Al-Massry, as well as Syrian-Palestinian researcher and activist Razan Ghazzawi. Our discussion will revolve around the topic of arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance in Egypt and Syria. We will also try to give more critical and analytical approaches of the prison system in these two countries. Moreover, we will cover the historical contexts that have led us today to hundreds of thousands of detainees, men and women, who have disappeared due to forcible arrest. At the same time, we will imagine different ways of solidarity and organization around detainees, especially those who break the prevailing narrative and belong to marginalized groups.

We cannot talk about detention camps and prisons in Egypt and Syria today without tackling the history of political arrest in these two countries over the course of recent history, all the way from arrests and enforced disappearances of Islamists to pursuing and arresting communists and leftists and many large segments of society, whether under the rule of Assad, Abdel Nasser or Hosni Mubarak. Razan and Mahienour, your experience with the subject of political detention started before 2011. Razan, you were arrested in 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Mahienour, you were arrested several times, the last of which was in 2019. Therefore, can we talk about this period in Syria and Egypt? Mahienour, you can start.


Mahienour: Talking about prisons in Egypt is not easy. There is even a historical saying about prisons system that we, as Egyptians, repeat: Egypt has put Prophet Youssef in prison. In Egypt, prison is an inherent part of the state since the beginning of the Egyptian civilization. It is an institution that revolves around the ruler, the God in different forms and variants, and it has taken the shape of the modern state, whether under occupation or even after independence. Prisons in Egypt go back to the 1800s. When prisons are sold and privatized, as everything is in Egypt, they are emptied and prisoners are transferred to another institution as part of the deal.

In Egypt, prisons are a stop for almost all groups and currents, including the presidents of the republic. Sadat was imprisoned and Morsi died in prison. We’re talking about prisons before January 2011. This system has a strong presence in the Egyptian political life. The entire Arab region is going through the same changes in a short period of time. In Egypt, the beginning of 2005 saw the start of the “Kifaya” movement and the bloggers’ activity, which was quite extensive. It was always imagined that a political prisoner has a specific profile, and that political prisoners would help us understand prisons as a tool used by the state to subjugate its citizens, whether in their political orientation or concern with earning a living. So, the idea of arrest was at a time limited to the Islamic current and there was always the dilemma within the leftists of how to show solidarity. If you are in solidarity with a person, does that mean you support his ideas? Rifaat Al-Saeed, the President of “Al Tajamouh” party, is at the origin of a saying well-known amongst leftist: “always against Islamists and with the state sometimes.” But a group of leftists reversed the sentence to say, “always against the state and with the Islamists sometimes, in cases of arrest.” When Mubarak became president in 81, the first thing he did was to release groups of political detainees as a sign of the beginning of a new phase of openness. But there were a few political detainees left who were detained without any trials or lawsuits. Those have stayed in prison for dozens of years. For example, a large group of citizens refusing Mubarak politics was released between 2010 and 2011. This group included workers who had participated in labor strikes, farmers whose lands were confiscated, or young people from different currents who had participated in demonstrations.


Zuhour: We will talk about solidarity with the detainees in detail during our conversation. But since we are still talking about the time before 2011, I would like to know more about this period in terms of the solidarity of different segments of society with the Islamist detainees. Was this tangible and which form did it take?


Mahienour: I was a university student back then and a member of a leftist group. We had a sit-in to show solidarity with Ayman Nour, a liberal, and Khairat el Chater, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were in a political disagreement with him because he was undergoing a military trial. There was an argument about selective conditional solidarity and showing solidarity with the person who represents you. This simply means that no one will be in solidarity with anyone else, and people will remain isolated. This was exactly the idea the state was trying to push. The punishment can reach those who are not in your movement. But with time, agreeing to injustice or to arresting a person means you are giving the state permission to imprison you as well.


Zuhour: Razan, can you tell us about your activity prior to 2011?


Razan: I was first introduced to the idea of arbitrary arrest and blogging in 2006 when the Occupation launched a war on Lebanon in the South and Beirut’s suburbs. In 2007, the Syrian blogger Tarek Al-Bayassi was arrested at his home because he wrote a comment against the authorities. At that time, I met Razan Zaitouneh who taught me how to write a statement. I wrote my first statement showing solidarity with Tarek Al-Bayassi. Back then, Tarek was affiliated with the Islamic Brotherhood and there was a controversy over the Syrian bloggers in Syria. Should there be solidarity with a person affiliated with the Brotherhood? That was the question and here lies the importance of Razan Zaitouneh’s work at the time. In fact, she was working from a principle of rights, whether she agreed with the person or not. Razan was everyone’s lawyer back then for a dozen years. She, along with other lawyers in Syria, were doing a great job. They were the only ones who would dare defend prisoners or go to court and risk their life back then.

Razan and many others were banned from travelling and were sometimes under house arrest. So, she was taking a huge risk. Add to that the paralysis and partisanship within the educated opposition and active society. This led to conflicts about whom to support and whom not to support – a subject which we can tackle later. It is good to know that the regime was taking advantage of this paralyzed partisanship culture back then. Some people showed solidarity of course. But the regime benefitted from those who didn’t since their inactivity justified any arrest. When I am in conditional solidarity with who this person is and what their political background is, then it determines whether I have a problem or not with them being a prisoner or a detainee. Thus, the idea of prison itself is possible and the idea of imprisonment can be non-violent if that person doesn’t agree with me. Therefore, Razan Zaitouneh’s work was revolutionary before 2011 since she also aimed to abolish prisons. Before 2011, in Syria and from my personal experience in blogging, the regime was targeting everyone, especially young people and students at schools and universities or any other citizen. Anyone writing a report could find themselves condemned. Therefore, why is describing political detention in Syria a real problem in my opinion? Anyone expelled from Syria, who immigrates and becomes a refugee, and who wants to tell their story about being arrested, would find themselves unable to do so because the description about Syria in general within the organizations or associations is a political one and is not considered as arrest.


Zuhour: Since the demonstrations erupted in Syria, enforced disappearance and torture were among the first tools the regime used in a ferocious manner. Today, the regime authorities have more than 150 000 detainees, and this is a very small estimate. The same thing was done by El-Sissi after the Rabaa Al-Adawiya massacre: thousands of unprecedented arrests, torture, killings, and executions. I last heard that there were 65 000 political prisoners in Egypt. Aside from the huge increase in the number of detainees, has there been a change in the way Assad and El-Sissi use prisons as a tool to suppress revolutions?


Razan: The regime had one response and that was arrest, which takes me back to Mahienour’s words about arrest and why it is an inherent part of the regime and the state. Even before the start of the movement, whether in Damascus, in Hamidiya, or in Daraa, some persons attempted to show solidarity with the revolutions in Egypt and in Tunisia. Those persons only wanted to show solidarity; they did not want to topple any regime. But the regime’s response was to arrest those who were standing there silently, neither shouting nor demonstrating. Of course, back then, prior to the demonstrations, there were massive arrests and people stayed home out of fear. People were advising each other to walk together. Then, checkpoints appeared in Syria, and they are linked to arrest there since they remind us of the settler colonial occupation in Palestine. I, as a person who lived in Syria back then, had not seen checkpoints since Hafez Al-Assad died in 2000. Back then, we were forced to close and mourn. That was when I first saw checkpoints in Syria. The second time was during the regime’s response, not to movements and demonstrations, but to calls to demonstrate in Syria. We were still talking about it on the internet when checkpoints appeared and arrests started. In my opinion, arrest was arbitrary well before 2011 and became worse after that year. We were arrested at checkpoints or at work. I was arrested at work. I remember those I worked with from 2011 to 2012. The movement has lost a lot of people who are in prisons to this day, and nothing is known about them. Arrests after 2011 have destroyed the movement and took away the people who were pioneers in their work, organizing, discourse, and social connections. In fact, the movement lost a lot because of the arrests in Syria after 2011.


Zuhour: At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the regime was still arguing that this was terrorism and those demonstrating were not Syrians but foreigners coming from abroad. This was not new since Mubarak, Ibn Ali, Gaddafi, and all the rulers had done the same, under the cover of opposing “external interference.” But the regime held on to this argument, which led to many legal amendments that are still functional today, such as terrorism courts. 


Razan: It is very important to know that the regime in Syria declares that it supports Palestine and is a resistance against imperialism and Israel. But it is not limited to that since this regime is using the narrative of terrorism as well. We have to point out that authoritarian regimes, called Post-Colonial regimes have learned from the West, although they are fighting the West. The terrorism Court in Syria was established in 2011 by a presidential decree and underwent many amendments and then was re-formed in 2017. After that, there were additions to it by decrees in 2018 and in 2020.


Zuhour: Mahienour, something similar happened with El-Sissi in the way he used demonstration laws. I think this happened immediately after Rabaa Al-Adawiya massacre.


Mahienour: When El-Sissi came after the big massacre he committed, he wanted to establish that the massacre was not exceptional. But there are other ways to massacre people without using weapons. Moreover, it was not “normal” for a country like Egypt to use weapons and blood, especially that it differs in its international situation from Syria, and it has allies in the West and the East. Its presence on the international scene required smarter, sugar-coated ways to cover up authoritarianism with laws. 

Egypt has a huge arsenal of laws from before the revolution, and our legal legacy is to be accounted for. The state uses law as a battlefield, and it tried to drag the revolution there since it had the upper hand in this field. Many of us were drawn to the idea of legal battles, the most famous of which are the courts. In my opinion, that was allowed back then but needed deeper moves. The battle should not remain a legal one, because we know very well that law is in the hands of the authorities, and they determine its form and nature. Therefore, El-Sissi set some laws. We had a law by virtue of which we were punished, and they used it to punish me. It’s the right to assemble law which goes back to the British Occupation and stayed effective after the revolution, until mid-2013. That same year, to declare the New State, El-Sissi decided to set the Demonstration Law, and many activists were tried and sentenced accordingly. This law was expanded to the military court in 2011 after the revolution by decision of the Supreme Military Council, with El-Sissi’s approval. A group of people, like Ismail Iskandarani who is a researcher in Sinai affairs, could pose a threat to the state; Ismail for instance is an academic and politically neutral. He says that terrorism and terrorist groups exist in Sinai on the one hand, but that the state is terrorizing the civilians and killing them on the other. He was the one who warned us about Hisham Ashmawi, a terrorist who used to be an officer in the Egyptian army before turning into one of the leaders of extremist groups.

This shows how much you are exposing a regime that mainly benefits from terrorism using two methods. The first is suppressing society through law, such as the terrorism law, imposed in 2015. The second is asking for foreign aid and international support all the time along with trying to silence any solidarity attempts that can happen by law, in particular with trade unions. In any case, trade unions, media, and publishing houses have lost their independence. Of course, this led to the state controlling sites and voices. In the end, the court of economy was used to silence any voice. I’m not only talking about the political ones in this case, but about people’s attempt to get out of the official economy. Egypt is a country composed of 105 million citizens. With technological development, groups of young people are considering using TikTok for profit. This bothered the Egyptian state, which primarily works as a contractor, because it found itself unable to impose controls, take taxes, and earn profit from these people. Therefore, the regime decided to lock them up. The first group to be sacrificed was a group of young girls so that society can always have a justification, which in this case was preserving public morals and traditions. This also became a new weapon in the hands of the state. So, El-Sissi’s regime is trying to play its own game, which is, “I am not Islamic, but I am so. I am not reactionary, but I am so. I won’t give a space to be challenged, such as by being told that I am not religious enough. However, at the same time, I will be the only spokesperson for religion.” El-Sissi was obsessed with issuing laws to show the West that we are a modern state, not a repressive one. “We are not like Syria and Bachar El-Assad’s regime. We have arrests and enforced disappearances but within the framework of the law and we are the main spearhead in the face of terrorism.”


Zuhour: There is certainly a big difference and a large expansion of the groups affected by arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance. Did this lead to building any kind of struggle and joint solidarity that went beyond expectations and ideologies between different societal groups, due to the large number of people who were arrested?


Razan: There isn’t a single household in Syria exempted from arrest. The situation is that serious. This was going on before 2011 and it escalated after that. But I feel that awareness in organizing with imprisoned people and around arrest has changed a bit.

At least in Damascus, we were part of such a movement, and there was one in other Syrian areas as well. I was lucky to get out of prison; since then my goal has been to work with prisoners I really couldn’t imagine continuing my life whereas some people were still behind bars.

So that was a big part of my activity the first time I got out of prison. In fact, those who were released from prison and detention organized themselves to keep on working with those who were imprisoned. We went there many times and made arrangements. For example, if we didn’t have a car, we would talk to someone who had one. We set a group of experienced people. Someone would drive and someone else would communicate with people in the judicial system. Another person would call a lawyer, and another would try to get in contact with a human rights organization that can give money to prisoners. We also tried to visit prisons.

There was a lot of organized movement and the idea of solidarity with the detainees was supported. There were people working with prisoners who did not have lawyers, whether they were political or not. There were lawyers’ organizations that I still remember to this day. Their role was very important because they defended persons who didn’t have lawyers. Many lawyers were arrested, and a lot of this work has decreased especially because of the bad economic conditions that Syria is experiencing today. The resources are scarce and there are sanctions against Syria as well. Moreover, it is prohibited to bring money into Syria. The regime doesn’t allow it, nor does it allow the transfer of money. This started after 2011 because people who were demonstrating got arrested. Even people who protected them and their families were arrested as well. Paranoia, that is what has been happening in Syria after 2011.


Zuhour: Mahienour, what can you tell us about the changes concerning the arrests that took place after 2011?


Mahienour: The situation in Egypt is a little different. In Syria, the siege affected the regime, the people, and the human rights organizations. The situation in Egypt was a little different since there was a confusion between the human rights activists, the politicians, and the revolutionaries. Moreover, some of those who called themselves human rights defenders were linked to the interests and agendas of other countries; depending on these countries’ positions vis-a-vis the Islamists for example, they would be in solidarity with them or not, and so on. Of course, there are groups that differentiated between politicians and the human rights defender, and dealt with things in a more Machiavellian manner, meaning that they did not adopt any higher principles. To them, any chance at getting any power should be seized, which is what the Muslim Brotherhood did. Therefore, they lost a lot. They were an alternative to the Mubarak regime with the same mechanisms, but also with experience dating back to long periods of repression and from a more conservative background, so there were attempts to silence other opposition groups and try to control the state. But when a coup took place in July 2013, the big calamity was that the military regime arrived in its uniform, which means that the same authority that had committed the massacre expanded the circle of arrests after it ended, since it learned from the Mubarak experience that no space should be left for any movement to take place. Thus, any movement would be suppressed. So, it started with the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose popularity was not big due to sectarian speeches. The suppression got to the leftists and the liberals, to punish afterwards any citizen with economic demands. After that, the authorities started arresting young people who make videos on TikTok where they would appear singing. Then, those who posted comic videos on TikTok were considered terrorists. So, political arrests got into most Egyptian homes and all the classes were affected. We can even say that the only place in which the Egyptians are fully represented is the prison. There you can find businessmen, workers, men and women, Islamists, leftists, liberals, atheists, anarchists, people without identity, gays, heterosexuals, adults and children from urban and rural areas. So, this is the largest grouping of Egyptians. Some jurists seek to continue working and those who are relatively close to the state try to differentiate between the types of arrests and the reasons thereof. On the other hand, the feeling of fear is always present. Those who are released from prison are always afraid because they feel they might be arrested again. In fact, some persons, even though inactive, are arrested repeatedly only because they have a file with the state security. The first time I was arrested in 2008, my late grandmother said, “Don’t say that you were arrested out of respect to the family reputation.” Back then, going to prison was a societal stigmatization and the idea of political arrest was not known yet. Thus, she thought I would stay in prison because I was certainly a criminal.

Now, we are all living in a special society composed of persons released from prison. That means that there are relationships between people who left prison. In the supermarket, you find out that the seller was imprisoned. You go to the pharmacy; you discover that the pharmacist was behind bars. This is something that happens to me frequently. I take a taxi for example and suddenly the driver says, “I saw you in court, or this so-called person is my brother.” If someone finds out I am a lawyer – if they hear me talking on the phone for instance, they start asking me about arrests. So, this has become a basic matter in the Egyptian daily life.

I am totally convinced that nothing lasts forever. Any weapon in the authorities’ hands can become a weapon against them. Razan said that prisoners have one common experience now. That’s true since there are relationships forming due to the large suppression politics applied by the state.


Zuhour: Did the solidarity circle expand since 2011, especially that there is a sort of consensus among many groups that torture and arrest are a brutal tool, no matter how different the political orientations of the people arrested?


Mahienour: I would like to talk about my situation. In fact, I have made a mistake in this matter. I have been shown a great deal of solidarity compared to thousands who weren’t that lucky because that was the preferred form of the West: a girl who shows her hair and has liberal ideas. But I don’t want to talk about international issues. I would rather talk about internal ones. I have gained relatively internal support from groups in the Egyptian society not because I am not the typical religious veiled person, but because I don’t seem to break the traditions or societal norms. People decide to support you according to your profile. I had support from abroad since I fit the profile of a progressive girl with her unveiled hair. But I also got some internal support since my appearance fits the local traditions.

When you express your opinions fully, people decide to stop supporting you. In my opinion, things were not done consciously at first. We were attracted to the idea of movement in the streets. Our discourse was limited to responding to that of the state. But in moments of defeat, we get to reflect on our beliefs, and we talk about them. This is when support decreases significantly, especially when you announce that you defend homosexual or transgender rights or that you fully believe in religious rights. 

This made me think that revolutions start as a very large movement with small demands to topple the regime or an individual, which is very trivial. But when there is a siege, big and real demands start to appear, reflecting the true image of the society each of us believes in.


Razan: I met a woman from Daraa in prison who is a pharmacist or used to work in a pharmacy. The regime accused her of smuggling weapons to the Free Army. That’s why she went to the Terrorism Court and then was imprisoned. Therefore, we go back to hierarchy. I am a well-known person. A campaign was launched for me; people wrote about me because I was a blogger who wrote in English. I was a non-veiled blogger writing about queer issues and harassment, so the West showed interest in me through the media and support campaigns. In addition, the regime did not consider me a dangerous person. I am talking here about my own experience, which is not a general one, as the regime deals with every case differently. Some other bloggers, who are also not veiled, are still behind bars. Therefore, my story is not the perfect example. I did not go to the terrorism court for example, which was the case for some others. So, who are the detainees we talk about and those we don’t?

When there is a big campaign in favor of a female detainee, whether straight or lesbian, she will be bullied because of that, and the bullying will be justified as “but there are other detainees, why are we are not talking about them?” Of course, these things wouldn’t happen if the detainee is a man. One of the category of people we do not talk has to do with class and proximity to resources and networks. In other words, we talk more about people we know, and less about those who are at a socio-economic distance. Work on the ground is therefore essential to build these alliances. However, it is very hard to work from exile unless you have the support of those working on the ground. People in the Opposition who refused to leave Syria and insisted on working while they were still there had to negotiate how radical they could be. Those working on the ground do not have the privilege of making their voice heard while the regime, the Intelligence, the checkpoints, the security, and its agents have their eyes on them, especially after the revolution.


Mahienour: Sometimes, we limit political detention and solidarity to specific names. We are sometimes guilty of limiting the representation of entire groups to specific names. For instance, Alaa Abd El-Fattah came to represent groups from the left wing. If we talk about Ahmed Duma, then it is the revolutionary groups, which did not have any specific orientation. If we talk about Aisha El-Chater, then we are talking about Islamic women. But this is a tool in the hands of the state, as it allows it to show that there are few political prisoners.

I was in prison with my late friend Sarah Hegazi at the same time, and we had the same political categorization. But Sarah was subjected to harassment by the prisoners. When it was decided to transfer her to another prison, they isolated her from the rest of the prisoners, as if she was stigmatized. However, homosexuality exists in prison and is a very well-known matter. But a political homosexual person should undergo a double punishment according to them. Her imprisonment opened a very important file about the homosexuality movement in Egypt. Also, the expansion of arrest made transsexuality widely known. Malak El-Kachef for example was put in a men’s prison because there was a problem with her papers. She pushed people to see the issue from a different angle. Add to that Hussam Ahmad, whose papers as a man were not done yet, so he was detained in a women’ prison for a while. 

In my opinion, the real gain in revolutions is the development of awareness. I remember that I did not have a position against the death penalty at first. But being more in contact with the prison system was the beginning. Afterwards, you come to realize that the prison as an institution encourages class division. The main idea is to explain to people that prison is not an institution designed to punish wrongdoings, but rather an institution designed to perpetuate the idea of class division. We can see for example that the rich is able to escape punishment. Even if for a reason or another they do end up in prison, they have enough resources to live in prison as Razan said, whereas others do not have any means to support them through incarceration.

The idea is to knock down the authority and the racist institution of the state that seeks class division, by reducing the number of prisons. The problem was that several political detainees believed in the prison system but not for them. They believed prisons are essential to fix society.

We learned that there is no individual survival, and no battle is more important than the other. In fact, there is only one system with many aspects, so it must be fought from all its sides. You will lose solidarity and support. But on the other hand, you will gain a greater number of people because you are consistent with your ideas. You cannot forget your principles to get more solidarity. You cannot marginalize, say, the Palestinian or consider the Occupation as a democratic force just to get support from the West. You cannot stop defending homosexuality, transsexuality, and feminist issues just to get internal support.


Zuhour: To end this episode, we go back to a topic we talked about before we started recording. It was the abolitionist and anti-prison movements in the region. These ideas did not develop as they should. Do you think that till the present day, they have not matured yet and were not given the possibility of a broader organizing, even after millions of people were subjected to the violence of the prison system in the region in one way or another, whether the said violence was personal or touched family members or friends?


Razan: We are talking about an idea linked to the history of slavery and the writings of those who were enslaved. It is also not a coincidence that going against the idea of prisons is linked to that history. In my opinion, that is one of the reasons behind the absence of an anti-prison movement. It did not occur to our mind because this experience never existed, which also reflects the privilege of being close to whiteness as Arabs. When Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians in this region travel to Europe or America, they benefit from their proximity to whiteness. That is something that exists and has a racist history. When immigration started, the Syrians and even the Lebanese were leading advocacy campaigns so they can be registered as white in America. This does not mean that there is no organizing against prisons; it is a rights-based, popular, familiar, and personal organizing, friends, family… In fact, I believe there wasn’t a theoretical movement against prisons or to close prisons. But there definitely was a popular, grassroots movement against prisons in Syria and the region. It did not start against dictatorships and the revolutions we are seeing. It started as a movement against French and British colonialism and occupation and against the Zionist occupation in Palestine. That movement started back then and is still ongoing. 

The broad popular base is against violence in prisons in the region. In Syria, it is about freedom campaigns, not demands to close prisons. It is rather about releasing this prisoner or that other one because they are from the revolution and against Assad regime. There are many reasons behind demanding to set a prisoner free. And this is exactly the problem. In Syria, we know very well that prisons are not linked to persons working necessarily in the political field or who have spoken against the regime. Any person walking in the street, or any neighbor who has a report written about them, and any woman whose husband or brother has connections… anyone can go to prison in Syria. The matter is not limited to a political point of view related to the revolution as it is seen today. Any person linked to the authority, whether an employee or any official, can go to prison. 

Therefore, we, as revolutionaries, cannot demand the release of any particular prisoner because he was political. Thus, I, as a former political prisoner, refuse the label of former political prisoner. I refuse the word “political” and I would rather say that I am a former prisoner. Why? That has a great impact when you go to work or to apply for university or for a scholarship in Europe. If you say you were a political prisoner, you get respect. Whereas if you say you were just a prisoner, everyone fears you.

It creates a stigma, not for the political person who already has a supportive political community, and who has many facilities in Europe and further abroad. The non-political prisoner is stigmatized because of the lack of support. Prisoners considered “non-political” lack opportunities, and they cannot even talk about him/herself and his/her experience since he/she is not a political prisoner. People start wondering what kind of crime he or she has committed. 

If I want to rent an apartment in the US for example, I am asked to declare if I went to prison or not. I, as a former prisoner in Syria, was terrified. The US has nothing to do with Syria and I was not imprisoned there. Yet, I was frightened because had I been a former prisoner in the US wanting to rent an apartment, then things would go bad. Such details really continue to target us.

For this reason, we go back to the rationale behind the idea of being against prisons and closing them, as well as prisons’ links to slavery and hatred of black people. That is why, in the US today, there are demands to close prisons because they are targeting black people in their daily life for no reason. A person walking down the street might be arrested or killed. In our region, we could learn a lot out of this momentum. If we look at prison from a different perspective, we would be forced to come out a little from the circle of political activism, the revolutionary and activist elites.


Mahienour: There is no rational use of prison. The idea of the state dealing with a wrongdoer, or a guilty person does not exist. It is pure propaganda when someone talks about the law and punishing the wrongdoer. It ends up as a punishment for society as a whole and imposing control.


Razan: Let us go back to this question. Is there an abolitionist movement or not? In my opinion, there are many movements, but they do not demand to close prisons. I want to talk about an experience I had in prison with an uprising of sex workers in early 2012. Some of the women there were trying to contact some clients through the units (phone units). So, they would talk to them on the phone. They had of course smuggled phones through bribes and internal sources, as it goes in Syria and the region. That is how they got phones. Customers used to send them units and the woman would work, selling and buying. There is also a network of material relations within the prison. One day, they were told on and their phones were confiscated. So the women went on strike. They would start knocking on the prison doors, which resulted in a noisy echo since the ceiling was high and the doors were made of iron. They also knocked on walls for at the same time, many days – I don’t remember how many. This sit-in by sex workers that took place in the prison is beyond the scope of revolutionary discourse and outside the framework of the Assad regime in the imaginary of the Syrian revolution. Yet, in my opinion, this was an abolitionist movement against the prison, the state, and the jailer, and it was not related to the revolution. As to my demands to release sex workers and female criminals as well as many people who are falsely detained, they reflect the nature of this regime and here lies the revolutionary image.


Mahienour: Prison is a double-edged sword in the hands of the state. At this moment, it is preventing people from speaking, but it is creating a common experience and a critical eye. People have started to see that there are greater numbers of prisoners, and they are not the criminals that people fear. The greatest number of them are just victims of society and the regime and it is the poorest who are usually put behind bars. However, there is another group in a state of arrogance. These are the political prisoners who believe in the idea of prison and see it as a weapon they can use against the authorities and society at any moment when they disagree with their orientations, opinions, and convictions. In my opinion, the beginning of the idea of abolitionism in the Arab world is somewhat different than the one in the West, knowing a part of it is racist. But some people of the same skin color, same religion, and same language keep using this method to always have a grip on the joints of the economy, the state, and society as a whole. 




This episode is produced in collaboration with Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Middle East Office, Beirut.

Zuhour Mahmoud

Zuhour Mahmoud is the Communication Strategist at Kohl. She is a writer and a DJ based in Berlin. Her work focuses on critical approaches to music, technology and politics and their life cycles within the digital sphere.

Razan Ghazzawi

Razan Ghazzawi (they/she) is a Syrian-Palestinian blogger, campaigner, activist, and scholar. They received their PhD in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Sussex, Brighton. They also hold an MA in Gender, Sexuality, and the Body from the University of Leeds, UK, and an MA in Comparative Literature from Balamand University in Lebanon. In their thesis “Pedagogies of Everyday Queer Protests: Rethinking Political Subjectivity and Violence in Syria and Lebanon 2011-2021,” they examine everyday queer and trans encounters at checkpoints, prisons, and queer asylum in the contexts of “war on terror” and the “refugee crisis.” Razan is a EUME Fellow in the academic year 2022/23. They are a former prisoner from the Syrian state and an award winner of Frontline Defender in 2012.

Mahienour El-Massry

Mahienour El-Massry is an Egyptian human rights lawyer known for her activism and work to promote judicial independence and prisoners' rights by organizing peaceful protests, raising awareness through social media, and organizing support for political prisoners in the form of solidarity events and fundraising bail for prisoners. She has supported and defended prisoners even when she was imprisoned herself. Mahienour's activism includes a broad scale of human rights work. She has been a tireless activist for victims of political violence, and her solidarity has often served to raise protestors’ morale. She has spent long nights guarding Syrian refugees in police stations to ensure they are not tortured or deported; worked to locate missing people lost in the country’s security labyrinth; and defended those protested during Egypt’s uprising 12 years ago.