Creating a generation of imprisoned minds

Just one more Arab who knows a few things about the US/Israeli backed dictatorship in Egypt. With no real democracy, what does this persecution do to the mind?

In a small cell in Egypt‘s al-Marj prison, the BBC World Service brought encouraging news to Ayman Nofel. The senior Hamas commander from Gaza had just passed the third anniversary of his imprisonment on unspecified charges.

The voice coming from his radio told him that prisoners at another Egyptian jail had been freed amid the chaotic uprising sweeping the country. He saw his chance and wasted no time.

“I shouted to other prisoners to break down the doors and gates,” said Nofel, who described himself as the only political prisoner among al-Marj’s criminal population. Using smuggled mobile phones to mobilise locals to storm the prison gates, Nofel and his fellow-prisoners fought their way outside the walls and to freedom.

In an unintended consequence of the Egyptian people’s revolt against decades of repression and economic misery, the Hamas militant accused of planning bomb attacks against Israel found himself at the centre of a hero’s welcome in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.

One by one, men queueing under the blue tarpaulin of a reception tent stepped forward to embrace the commander of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. They flung arms around his shoulders, clapped his back vigorously and planted kisses on each cheek before turning to accept a celebratory sticky pastry and cup of potent Arabic coffee. Despite the festivities, Nofel, 37, a stocky man in a checked shirt, said he was ready to return to “work”. Three years “and a few days” in the dank and wretched conditions of an Egyptian jail had not dulled his eagerness for what he described as “the next battle”.

The Hamas commander claimed he was held for political reasons in Egypt after being detained at a security checkpoint in Sinai in 2008. “I never went on trial. My family got a lawyer, who went to court and got an order to release me but I was never freed.”

His escape came amid the chaos of the early days of Egypt’s revolution. Having broken out of the prison with help from local people he contacted “people here in Gaza”. Hamas? “Yes, of course. They arranged for some Egyptians to pick me up,” he said. Nofel stayed in a house in the area for about seven days “until the situation was more stable”. Finally he was brought through a tunnel dug beneath the Egypt-Gaza border to his home and family. He was grateful to the Egyptian protesters who “inspired us to rise up against the prison guards. This should have happened earlier. They have spent 30 years being enslaved by the regime.” He hoped to see the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt – “and all over the world, not just Egypt”.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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