Un/Making the Mu’taqal: Towards a Cultural Economy of Political Imprisonment in Egypt

By Hannah Elsisi
Submitted to Session P4832 (The Cultural Politics of Violence, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Identity/Representation; Modernization; Theory;
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Analyses of the Arab Spring have highlighted, if barely interrogating, the deeply rooted culture of police brutality and confinement that undergirds Egypt’s modern history. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak’s prisons overflowed with opponents from across the political spectrum, with a further 100,000 political prisoners detained since January 2011. This paper seeks to motivate and explain the Egyptian state’s extensive use of the mu’taqal as a tool of political repression. The term al-mu’taqal, similar to the Russian gulag, here refers both to a diverse array of experiences ranging from imprisonment to detention, penal labour and torture as well as to a single complex interaction of all those parts, or a carceral assemblage (Deleuze and Guattari).

The paper begins in considering what delineates political imprisonment or camp internment (A. Neier and H. Arendt) from Foucault’s vision of the modern disciplinary prison. That is how do we understand sanguinary and indeed public spectacles of repression, hitherto attributed to absolutist exertions of sovereign power, when they are exercised alongside, or even within, repertoires of biopolitical power and citizenship? Against Talal Asad’s relegation of such practices to the workings of either a) illiberal and unmodern states or b) modern democratic states acting in secret or against non-citizens, I follow Darius Rejali’s study of imprisonment in Iran in questioning whether a negative relationship between torture and ‘modernity’ really holds once post-colonial state practices and prisoner experiences are accounted for.

A vast extant canon of prison poetics, or adab sujun, from Egypt and the region reveals first-hand experience of painful, degrading, illegal and often culturally repugnant violence within the mu’taqal to be both routine and publicly recognised. From here, I sketch the contours of a cultural economy of the mu’taqal in Egypt along three primary axes: bureaucracratic inertia, permanent exception and what I will refer to as ‘spectral spectacles’ of penality. It is argued that the mu’taqal/a (political prisoner) as an historical subject is co-constituted along with the mu’taqal (political prison) at the confluence of these three sites. Specifically, the Mu’taqal/a is revealed to be constantly engaged in a triple process of resisting/re-telling state narratives of their imprisonment: contesting jailers’ claims to a constructive and rehabilitative prison experience; refuting legal and social prescriptions of their criminality or dishonour; and negotiating global and local cultural distributions of what constitutes ‘sensible’ state repression or ‘violent’ political activity.