Cannot Be Contained

by Nadeen Shaker

 Hands Up Because I Don't Know You by Sara Khan. Courtesy of the artist.

Hands Up Because I Don't Know You by Sara Khan. Courtesy of the artist.

*Warning: Violence, Torture.

The July 5, 1884, issue of The British Medical Journal contains an unsigned bulletin titled: Egyptian Prisons. The institutions were “habitations of horrid cruelty,” beset by “shocking” physical conditions from filth collecting in the facilities, to bare grounds, which were “constantly damp from infiltration from the Nile. […] On this damp ground the prisoners had to sleep, without mats or boards. They were half starved, and imperfectly clothed.” Typhoid fever often broke out. 

The bulletin then describes how discipline was maintained inside prison walls. Despite earlier reforms abolishing corporal punishment, use of the stocks, heavy iron chains, and thumbscrews was common, in addition to starving, which meant withholding bread and water for 24 hours, and the bastinado or korbaash. The bastinado was a form of torture: “The prisoner was made to lie on the ground face downwards, and held in that position by a man sitting on his back, while another one held his arms; the ankles were then tightly fastened to the middle of a thick stick (naboot) about five feet long, which was twisted round once or twice, and then held well raised above the ground by two men whilst a warder, with a rhinoceros-hide whip, inflicted as many as 500 blows across the soles of the feet.” This frequently led to death within a few hours, and if that could be avoided, the prisoner lost the ability to walk for weeks. Another torture method kept the prisoner standing for hours in the middle of the cell, with an iron chain fixed to an overhead beam around their neck. If the prisoner fainted or fell, they would be strangled. 

A far cry from humane treatment, this was the state of Egyptian prisons when Harry Crookshank, later to be known as Crookshank Pacha, became the first ‘Director-General of Prisons’ of British-controlled Egypt. In the years to come, Crookshank would lead a series of reforms explicitly related to improving the health and sanitary conditions inside Egyptian prisons. 

Yet this reform mandate would quickly change at the turn of the twentieth century, as Egypt’s nationalist movement took shape. 

As early as April 4, 1884, Harry Crookshank was celebrated in The British Medical Journal for bringing Egyptian prisons “in line with British prisons.” As a surgeon, Crookshank came to Egypt in 1883 and was in charge of a gendarmerie cholera camp at El-Wadan. He was then appointed ‘Director-General of Prisons of Egypt,’ serving in that position for fourteen years.  

Major Arthur Griffiths, who visited Egypt in 1897 as His Majesty’s inspector of prisons, extols Crookshank’s contributions in an article published in The North American Review. Crookshank began to keep records of inmate admissions systematically. Newly admitted prisoners had a signed order from a judicial authority so that unlawful imprisonment would not take place. Crookshank put an end to the mixing of prisoners and prolonged pre-trial detentions, which lasted from six to nine months and sometimes up to one or two years. Other structural reforms included the creation of two departments, of Prison and of Public Health, under the control of the Ministry of Interior.  A director for every prison was appointed and filled by an Egyptian, and the post of Inspector of Prisons was created. 

 Drawing, Stage Design, Egyptian Prison, early 19th century. Wikicommons.

Drawing, Stage Design, Egyptian Prison, early 19th century. Wikicommons.

Perhaps the most crucial series of reforms involved applying standards of cleanliness to places of detention and appointing doctors or medical men to every facility to make daily routines, prescribe medicine, and transfer the sick to the hospital. The daily average of sick prisoners dropped to one percent. 

These so-called “humanitarian” measures reproduced hierarchies supporting the British colonial project. Hygiene was often associated with racial language about the uncleanliness of Egyptians, sometimes inflected with their lower class. On writing about the remarks of a certain Sir Charles Wilson’s inspection of Cairo prisons, Thomas Archer notes that “it was stated… that the filthy conditions were attributable to the incorrigibly dirty habits of the lower class of Egyptians, and particularly the fellaheen,” or farmers. 

The mixing of British and Egyptian prisoners was often described as “undesirable.” In one passionately worded letter, British Consul in Cairo T.C. Rapp complains that Europeans were confined in the same area with the natives in the city’s Manshiyya Prison, where the water taps were only two yards apart, and the restrooms were not partitioned.  He adds that it was “degrading” for European prisoners to associate and come into “such intimate contact with the dregs of the native populace.” Perhaps the most derogatory descriptions are in Griffiths’ account of labor in prisons such as Tourah, where he praises the convicts’ employment in the quarries. He also refers to the convicts as Ishmaelites and Bedouins, which suggest brown skin. This is bound up with classed representations of uncleanliness, as he goes on to identify them as the “lowest scum of the cities.” 

By British measures, such reforms for improving conditions inside prisons were a success. In his account “England in Egypt,” Lord Alfred Milner, who served as under-secretary of finance in the late 1880s, praises the transformation of provincial prisons into “clean, decent, and properly managed” places—“the greatest contrast to the hells they were in former times.”  He also ranks the Tourah and Giza convict prisons as “model establishments.” 

But these reputations would not last. British reaction to the growth of the nationalist movement in Egypt, while not necessarily upending these reforms, gave way to a visible deterioration in prison conditions with the rise of new prison troubles: namely, overcrowding and police brutality, as well as the criminalization of new forms of political dissidence.   

At the turn of and during the early twentieth century, as the British sought to defend their position in Egypt, their style of rule marked an apparent shift away from the previous century of political and economic laissez-faire and indirect rule.  As nationalism rose and local opposition grew, the British formed new conceptions of political dissidence. Anthony Gorman writes that British authorities realized the potential of the prison system to manage political dissent. He argues that throughout the rest of the century, the state and the colonial administration redefined the term “political prisoner,” both widening and politicizing the scope of what constituted “offensive acts.”

A series of laws were enacted to stifle opposition and dissent, which led to incarceration. Foremost, the 1909 Law of Police Supervision set prison terms for “notoriously dangerous persons.”  The Publication Law of 1881, reinstated in 1894, was the first press-related legislation to make imprisonment a penalty.  Tagamhur law, a 1914 statute, criminalized and punished protest and the assembly of more than five persons by no less than six months in prison and a fine of 20 Egyptian Pounds. The prison sentence could be raised to two years (and the fine to 50 Egyptian Pounds) if a protestor was in possession of a weapon.   

As more people were funneled into prisons, they became overcrowded. In 1899, British authorities responded by allocating £E 33,000 towards the construction of new prisons and an additional £E 26,000 at the end of the year. An expenditure of £E 33,000 was to be reserved for the following year. Lord Cromer, the famed British proconsul-general, added that after such contributions the “evils attendant to overcrowding will disappear.” But they did not. According to Attia Mehanna, the holding capacity for prisons in Egypt in 1900—13,891 prisoners, including 13,340 men and 551 women—remained the same for fifteen years, despite increases in the prison population. 

 Egyptian Prison Guards. Wikicommons.

Egyptian Prison Guards. Wikicommons.

Criminal justice authorities in Egypt formed a complicated triangle consisting of the Mudirs (provincial authorities), the Police, and the Parquet (judicial officials), which the British increasingly sought to pit against each other. Starting in 1893, British authorities restricted the independence of the Parquet.  At the time, it was investigating British authorities for a raft of allegations of torture, including a riot that took place in Tourah prison.  A brigand convict was shot as he tried to escape the labor camp, and afterward, a court sentenced the ghaffirs (inspectors) and others to two years in prison.  The incident sparked great uproar over actions of the British, who had placed their men as heads of the prison. In an effort to evade accountability, the British aligned with the Police to undermine the Parquet, a major critic of police abuse. 

By 1895, the British and the Minister of Interior had ordered that a body oversee the work of the Parquet in cases where a police official was prosecuted for misconduct. Another decision put the Parquet under the supervision of mainly British inspectors.  The British were also able to bring the Mudirs under their inspection.  In April 1893, a circular sent to the Mudirs ordered them to communicate details of criminal cases to both the British Inspector-General of Police and the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, placing those officials on the same tier of authority. 

This struggle between Egyptian and British authorities over the Ministry of Interior would prove detrimental to British rule in the country. Historian Harold H. Tollefson Jr. argues that the only way the British saw to fortify their rule was to increase control over the Ministry of Interior and the police. Aware of growing Egyptian opposition to British occupation, Lord Cromer used a deceitful strategy to place a powerful British Councilor within the Ministry of Interior—a plan that was unlikely to have been approved by Egypt’s de jure rulers, Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Nubar Pasha and Ottoman viceroy Khedive Abbas II. Lord Cromer led them to believe that the position would have no executive, leaving the true, powerful nature of the role “intentionally ambiguous” and securing Eldon Gorst the top ministerial position. By 1896, according to Tollefson, the British had succeeded in taking over the Ministry of Interior.

The expansion of both the legal definition of a dissident and British institutional control escalated opposition between British authorities and Egyptian nationalists. The British clashed with the Parquet and defended the police in allegations of abuse, thereby avoiding responsibility for torture in prisons and abuse of lawbreakers. Tollefson concludes that British actions during this period “constituted a major step in the quasi-colonization of Egypt as well as a major blow to the Egyptian opposition to the British occupation, which did not recover for another decade.”

The Denshawai incident of June 13, 1906, is often invoked as a notable precursor to the national liberation movement in Egypt. It began when some Egyptian peasants objected to British officers trampling their crops. After a scuffle in which a number of peasants were wounded and a British officer died of a sunstroke, the peasants were put to trial. Four were sentenced to death by hanging, nine to prison, and the rest to flogging. In response, protests swept the country. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky writes that the Denshawai incident was so scandalous that the British were forced to make compromises: the peasants were pardoned in 1907, and in April of the same year, Cromer resigned. 

Between 1909 and 1914, British crackdown on nationalists reached its climax with the passing of a number of emergency laws. One of these permitted authorities to send any person suspected of nationalist sympathies to exile without due process. In reaction, an extreme nationalist assassinated Prime Minister Butrus Ghali, who the nationalists viewed as a puppet of the British regime, in 1910.  

According to Owen L. Sirrs, Ghali’s murder marked “a new phase of political warfare against the British and their Egyptian allies.”  The assassination forced the British to re-examine Egypt’s secret police apparatus. The old system, known as Mamur Zapt (secret police chiefs), was replaced with the Central Special Office (CSO)—the brainchild of senior British officials, including High Commissioner and Commandant of the Cairo City Police George W. Harvey, known as ‘Harvey Pasha.’  The new functions of the CSO were to collect information on secret political societies, including “individuals known, or believed to be, Political Agitators.” 

The CSO produced a report on secret organizations in 1911. Its scope of surveillance was extensive. It not only kept “thousands of files” on Egyptian students, nationalists, and foreign residents, but also conducted background checks on Egyptian civil servants, and handled espionage cases.  Such cases were often investigated in liaison with European intelligence agencies. The CSO relied on plainclothes informants for their intelligence gathering, a method that was often fraught with falsities, since a financial reward was offered to informants who would sometimes fabricate information.  

During World War I, the CSO greatly aided the British authorities, which relied heavily on its archives for intelligence on enemies to the Central Powers in Egypt. The office exposed many of these enemies, foreign and nationalist. However, the CSO failed to predict a decisive moment for the nationalist movement: the 1919 protests. Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul and his colleagues were excluded from negotiating Egypt’s independence at the Paris Peace Conference in January, arrested and jailed in Qasr Al-Nil prison, and subsequently exiled to Malta. The CSO anticipated a reaction. It detained activists, searched for bombs, and dispatched officers to power stations and depots to prevent sabotage. “But the security apparatus never caught up with events,” writes Sirrs, and “On 3 April, an assistant Mamur Zapt was murdered and, by the middle of the month, Cairo was ‘in the grip of mob violence.’” 

 Alexandria, June 11, 1882. Wikicommons.

Alexandria, June 11, 1882. Wikicommons.

Sydney Smith, who came to Egypt in 1917, served in the medico-legal section of the Parquet, and investigated a thousand murder cases, describes the macabre violence resulting from the 1919 demonstrations: “When the riots were at their worst my mortuary was in a dreadful mess. Dozens of bodies of persons killed by gunshot or otherwise lay piled on the floor, sometimes two or three deep.” Most of the bodies he examined were of Egyptians who were shot by authorities in the security apparatus. 

One of the cases Smith investigated was of Egyptians shot during a lecture of Zaghlul’s in upper Egypt. The government had tried to frame the case as the fault of members of Zaghlul’s party, but the investigation led by the Parquet showed that the bullets matched “the square-shaped slugs used by the Ghaffirs, an irregular force attached to the police.” The case was eventually dropped. Examining other deaths from a riot in Alexandria, Smith similarly placed the blame on the military, although investigators built false evidence to the contrary. 

Brutality on the part of the security apparatus also reached prisons. In one case, during an investigation of the whipping of a prisoner, Smith “put down the whip” on his own arm to prove that that was how the scars on the prisoner’s body were produced. As in cases relating to deaths of protestors, the defense team, composed of two British medical men and four others, attempted in their report to show the opposite.  

During this period, British authorities intensified their response to the nationalists. Their brutality through the police, criminal justice system, and institutionalized surveillance of the nationalists, however, could not seriously disrupt the Egyptian nationalist movement, and eventually hastened the demise of British rule.  In February 1922, the British were forced to end the protectorate and declare Egypt an independent sovereign state. Yet this declaration, writes Smith, “did not end the political unrest, rioting, and murder.” 

Throughout their rule, the British elaborated a system of prison reform, beginning with early racialized and classed regimes of management and moving to the anti-nationalist expansion of policing and incarceration. The first period of reform focused on conditions inside the prison. In the later period, as competition escalated among institutions of the criminal justice system, reform focused on expanding what constituted criminal behavior and prisons were instrumentalized to punish dissent. 

The reactions provoked by such changes—riots, protests, organizing—strengthened the fervor of the nationalist movement and destabilized British control. In today’s Egypt, as thousands languish in prison, public gatherings of ten people or more can be shut down as illegal protests, and the government is pursuing a stricter security policy, we can indeed recognize the legacies the British have left behind.


Nadeen Shaker is a journalist covering global human rights. A native of Cairo, Egypt, Nadeen pursued her M.A. in both the Journalism and Middle East Studies programs at New York University and is currently associate editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Nadeen received her B.A. from the American University in Cairo in 2012.  Her work has appeared in Vice News, the Middle East Report, Mada Masr, Quartz, CNN, Muftah, Salon, Bedford & Bowery, The Postcolonialist, AlterNet, PRI’s America Abroad, WNYU, Ahram Online, and others. She is co-founder of Ehky Ya Masr, a podcast about life in Egypt.