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The Centrality

of Prison and Incarceration

in the MENA Region

(1) That is, imprisonment for criticizing or opposing the state as opposed to imprisonment for committing criminal offenses.

(2) It would be interesting to compare the volume of imprisonment actions taken by states compared to those taken by non-state actors. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, for instance, the Syrian regime was responsible for 87% of all unlawful detention cases in 2017. See: Al-Hayat, February 5, 2018.

(3) “Inside Tadmur: The worst prison in the world?” BBC News, 20 June 2015.

(4) Michel Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Édition Gallimard, 1975; Michel Seurat, Syrie, l'État de barbarie, Presses Universitaires de France, 2012.

(5) Several versions of this response have been attributed to Kamal Jumblatt.

One, which mentions Syria under Hafez Assad, appears in “I speak for Lebanon,” a collection of interviews with Jumblatt edited by French journalist Philippe Lapousterle (Zed Press, 1982).

Interestingly, “big prison” is a leitmotiv in speeches given by Kamal’s son and successor Walid Jumblatt.

(6) This and many similar accounts are available in the six-volume series, “Encyclopedia of Suffering” (Mawsou’at al-Azab), which was compiled from classical Arabic chronicles by late Iraqi literatus Abboud Ash-Shaligy.

(7) Kent F. Schull, Prisons in the Late Ottoman Empire, Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

(8) See: The Case Assaad Chidiac (Kissat Assad Chidiac), Dar al-Hamra, Beirut, 1992.

(9) Rudolph Peters, Egypt and the Age of the Triumphant Prison: Legal Punishment in Nineteenth Century Egypt.

Annales Islamologiques 36, 2002.

(10) Suitable information about “La Question” is available on Wikipedia.

(11) U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to keep Guantanamo Bay open means that foreign detention centers will remain a “live” issue for some time to come. (link)

(12) Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World, State University of New York Press, 1996, P.168.

(13) Cf: Christopher de Bellaigue, “Are French prisons ‘finishing schools’ for terrorism?” The Guardian, 17 March 2016.
A detailed comparative study about prison radicalization can be found in “Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 Countries,” a policy report published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), 2010.

(14) An exception is Syrie, le cri étouffé (The Muted Scream), a documentary film about female prisons in Syria broadcast recently by France 2. See, Annick Cojean, “En Syrie, le viol était le maître mot,” Le Monde, 12 April 2017.

The centrality of political imprisonment and its myriad related issues (such as unlawful detention, suppression of freedom, enforced disappearances, torture, mistreatment, trauma and others) is evident today throughout the MENA region (1).

Despite the many differences and nuances that differentiate MENA countries and societies, a striking similarity is that nearly all of them host a carceral nucleus that is synonymous with the abuse of power by state authorities, or as is now often the case, the various actors who have appeared from the ruins of these states (2)

The mere mention of the names of these heinous facilities strikes fear into the hearts of citizens. Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar, a former inmate of Syria’s notorious Tadmor Prison, described that facility as a “kingdom of death and madness.”(3) That same moniker could be applied equally to Abu Zaabal in Egypt, Abu Salim in Libya, Ar-Razeen in the UAE and Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib.

Accordingly, much of the MENA region can be considered an illustration of the Foucauldian “carceral state,” which Michel Seurat described as a “state of Barbarism.”(4) Indeed, when Lebanese political leader Kamal Jumblatt was asked about the state of the Arab World just a few months before he was assassinated in 1977, he gave an eminently descriptive response: “The big prison, you mean?”(5)

Incarceration and its related ills do not represent a new theme in Arab culture. In Umayyad dynasty Iraq, Governor al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf (661 – 714 AD) established the Ad-Dimas Prison where, according to chroniclers, “each prisoner had just enough room to sit in his own place. Groups of prisoners were chained together so that if one of them wanted to stand up, all of them had to do so. Each prisoner would eat, defecate and make his prayers at the same spot.” (6)  Such an account, which is rather common in literature that describes many of today's MENA-region prisons, suggests a depressing permanence.

While it may be tempting to characterize the situation in present-day MENA as simply offering “more of the same” where deeply rooted schemes are concerned, the fact is that similar to other issues, the origins of contemporary prison-related MENA matters can be traced back to the early 19th century. At that time, the region began taking shape while it remained under the shadow of Europe's colonial powers. However, prison practices under the Ottoman Empire, including the reforms made to the Ottoman carceral system, were a determining factor (7).

As early as 1830, in a landmark discovery of “freedom of conscience,” a young Lebanese man named Assaad Chidiac died under torture during his detention in a Mount-Lebanon (actual Lebanon) convent for having forsaken his community by converting to Protestantism. Chidiac's death might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the publication of a book by Butrus al-Bustany, a towering figure of the Arab-speaking 19th century literary renaissance known as “An-Nahda.” In that work, al-Bustany recast Chidiac from being the victim of an obscure “church” war to a symbol for freedom of conscience (8).

In parallel with the advancement of that freedom in Mount-Lebanon, Cairo's Muhammad Ali Pasha was pushing Egypt toward its age of modernization. As historian Rudolph Peters notes, “One of the most striking developments of the Egyptian penal system in the nineteenth century is the shift towards imprisonment as the main form of punishment at the expense of corporal and capital punishment.”(9) Most of the carceral facilities built then remain in use today, and some have emerged as being among Egypt’s most notorious “political prisons.”

In 1922, as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson continued to advocate his Fourteen Points, the concept of “self-determination” was becoming increasingly fashionable. That same year, Najib Rayyes, a young and independent Syrian journalist, was languishing in prison on Arwad Island some three kilometers off Tartous after being arrested by French mandate authorities. During his imprisonment, he wrote a poem that captured the imposing nature of that facility and the bleakness of his existence within its walls. While Rayyes was not the first to produce such a literary piece, his poem, which begins, “Oh, Prison Darkness, stay indeed, we yearn for darkness,” quickly gained tremendous renown among his Arabic speaking peers in the Mashreq and Maghreb. Over time, it spawned slogans, icons, songs and even a political statement that speaks for all who protest unfair imprisonment.

But in the MENA region, prison does not always operate in a closed Mashreq and Maghreb circuit. In 1957, Henri Alleg, a journalist and editor of Alger Républicain newspaper, was arrested by paratroopers under the command of French General Jacques Massu. In detention, and after more than a month of interrogation and brutal torture, Alleg wrote "La Question," a booklet that describes methods of torture from the victim’s perspective. When "La Question" was published in France a year later, it helped introduce debate over French policy in Algeria and changed public opinion in that country (10).

Indeed, one can hardly reflect on "La Question" and the public's reaction to it without instantly recalling more recent prison scandals that involved the incarceration of MENA citizens by foreign powers, namely the abuses committed at Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison by U.S. personnel who had taken charge of that facility. In the Arab world, the Abu Ghraib affair opened a Pandora’s box. Not only did those abuses recall the facility's grim history under Saddam Hussein, but they also prompted questions about similar wrongdoings in other overseas detention centers (such as those in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay) that primarily involved citizens from the MENA region (11).


An extreme example of the power of prison can be found by considering the case of acclaimed Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyed Qutb, a theoretician whose “strong critique of society, on the basis of his Quranic vision, [was] distilled from his painful prison experience.” (12)  Of course, not everyone who endures political incarceration develops into a Quranic exegete the likes of Qutb. Nevertheless, writings such as Signpost on the Road and Qutb's eventual execution in 1966 are today powerful motivating factors for Islamist leaders worldwide. As a result, a strong link exists in the MENA region between imprisonment and radicalization, and indeed, a significant number of MENA-oriented terrorists received their initial introduction to extremism while behind bars. Clearly, therefore, it seems anything but happenstance that prisons, especially but not exclusively those in the MENA region, have of late been dubbed “schools for terrorism.”(13)


But while radicalization in prison was seen until recently as a problem restricted to the Arab world, the new role assigned to imprisonment in this modern age, defined by the global fight against terrorism and the mitigation of radical extremism, means that prison-based indoctrination is now a global issue. This expansion of the domain and role of “prison” clearly poses new challenges and makes the need for exhaustive reforms in the security sector even more pressing.


It is also important to note the gendered aspect of prison in the MENA region. Here especially, taboos regarding discussing violence against women and sexual violence in general also apply to the topic of prison. Prisons for females do not receive the same volume of media coverage as do those geared to their male counterparts. Moreover, it is even harder for female ex-convicts to reintegrate into society after their release because of the shame and incomprehension associated with such experiences in MENA societies (14).


Prison also emerged as a popular reference following the almost simultaneous deaths of two Arab rulers, King Hassan II of Morocco on July 23, 1999 and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria on June 10, 2000. As soon as the debate over their legacies began following their respective successions, two infamous prisons—Tazmamart in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains and Mezze in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus—became synonymous with, and symbolic of the practices adopted by those two dictators. Unsurprisingly, among the first actions taken by their respective successors (their sons, King Mohammad VI and Bashar al-Assad) was addressing the symbolic weight of those two facilities. After all, the legitimacy of their respective successions depended on the issuance of a formal intent to diverge from the legacies of their fathers. Mohammad VI, whose father closed Tazmamart in 1991 under pressure from the international community, allowed the truth behind that secret prison to emerge. Bashar al-Assad decided to shut down Mezze and promised to turn it into a cultural center—a promise he has yet to fulfill.

The closure of those facilities promised a new chapter in the history of prison in the MENA region, one in which the abuses of the past could be brought to light and repudiated, and the transformation of Tunisia’s Bourj Ar-Roumy facility from prison to museum exemplified that vision. In reality, however, further entrenchment of the prison issue took place, and the already complex topic of prison-related developments in the region became byzantine.