It’s certain that among the beneficiaries of the current crisis engulfing Egypt were thousands of jailbirds – under-trials, criminals and political prisoners –who walked free from their cells amid the chaos. What’s not certain is exactly how many and from where. Perhaps, the most vexing question is how.
After being interred at the Natron Valley prison for four days Sobhy Saleh, former MP and a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Alexandria, , walked free on January 31. He told HT, “One of the criminals opened the gates of our cells, and shouted, ‘All you brothers, get out now.’” Later some of those ‘freed’ claimed they had been given the keys by the guards.
At Natron tea-shop owner Kemal and some if his local patrons claimed more than 10,0000 people had walked out of the prison even earlier. The crowd , they said, included some members of Lebabon’s Hezbollah party. Nashat, a professional diploma holder who runs a superstore nearby, claimed, “Many of them were looking for a lift, but the cars (on the Cairo-Alexandria highway) were speeding by. Six of them were run over and died on the road.”
The crisis started after the first speech by President Hosni Mubarak, late on January 28, in which he promised to sack the cabinet and appoint a new one. Locals saw hundreds of policemen board vans and leave early on January 29 morning. Kemal showed a video (whose authenticity cannot be verified) on his phone about small fire that had been lit at one of the police pickets by some of the prisoners who then came out.
But Saleh, a lawyer by profession who joked there were more prisons than schools in Egypt, said only some of the prisons from the large complexes at Abu Zabaal, Tora Istiqbal and Natron had been opened. Other reports suggest that some of Cairo’s 20-odd prisons were also opened.
For one, Ayman Nofel, a Hamas leader and an undertrial at Cairo’s al-Marj, was received as a hero a few days later in Gaza’s Nuseirat camp.
Thousands of people have also been freed from the lock-ups of hundreds of police stations that have been gutted in every region of the country. Even on this, videos suggest that some of the destruction had been done by police who “wanted to show why they are indispensible to the common people’s security”.
But for everyone out, there are many more still in. “The police wanted to spread a sense of unrest by releasing the criminals; political prisoners like me were not the intended ‘beneficiaries’. They had jailed 34 senior Brotherhood people – whom the authorities called leaders. But there are still 350 of our young members inside.”