Lauren Bohn writes: It takes about 30 minutes to drive from the teeming Cairo neighborhood of Faisal to what locals call “El Sijn” — Arabic for “the prison.” There are many in Egypt, but everyone seems to know the prison: Tora Prison, opened in 1908. It has housed a diverse assortment of the country’s dissidents, businessmen, Islamists, and statesmen — including the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for nearly three decades before his regime fell in the uprising that began almost exactly five years ago.
Since then, the upheaval hasn’t stopped, and it’s as much personal as it is collective. The country saw its first-ever democratic elections; another wave of protest over the rule of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president those elections brought to power; a military coup, led by then-Army Chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and a reinstatement, under now-President Sisi, of the kind of authoritarianism protesters risked their lives to escape five years ago. The crackdown has ensnared liberals and Islamists alike, leaving the prison as a burial chamber for the aspirations of the revolution, in all their wide variety.
Nourhan Hefzy has memorized the way there. The route winds through Faisal’s trash-strewn maze of narrow streets and past the more manicured fringes of Cairo, beyond the French School and the boutiques. It ends at a sepia-toned compound of cement in a bleak, brown desert. Somewhere inside that compound is her husband, Ahmed. He has been locked away there for the past two years.
“It’s been five years since we’ve toppled Mubarak and we’re back to square one,” Nourhan says. At 26, Ahmed was one of Egypt’s most prominent liberal activists, and remains a living symbol of the revolution: once vibrant and triumphant on Cairo’s streets, now languid and silenced behind bars. The young couple used to talk for hours about their plans to open a bookstore, maybe even start a publishing house dedicated to fostering freedom and democracy in a country with a severe deficit of both. Now their conversations are limited to a hurried, supervised 20 minutes every other week.
“It is worse than square one,” corrects Ahmed’s mother Fathia, who often accompanies her daughter-in-law on visits to El Sijn. For her, the journey to the prison evokes a more-distant past, after her father and almost all her male relatives were arrested decades ago for being members of the then-banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The organization, whose political party was briefly in charge of Egypt’s government following Morsi’s ascent to the presidency, has once again been banned. But Fathia never thought her son — a staunch critic of the very group she and her husband have dedicated their lives to — would also end up behind bars. [Continue reading…]