The Abu Zaabal prison complex lies some twenty miles northeast of Cairo, where the dense urban cacophony of the capital quickly gives way to rolling fields, rubbish-strewn canals and small clusters of hastily built red brick buildings. Outside the main gate—a pair of large metal doors flanked by Pharaonic-themed columns—sit four army tanks, their long snouts pointed up and out.
Gehad Khaled, a 20-year-old with an easy laugh and youthful intensity, has been coming to Abu Zaabal on a regular basis for nearly four months to visit her imprisoned husband. Abdullah Al-Shamy was among hundreds rounded up on August 14, the day security forces violently stormed two sit-ins in Cairo and Giza that formed the epicenter of support for the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, leaving up to 1,000 people dead.
Abdullah was at the Rabaa Al-Adeweya sit-in for work. As a correspondent for the satellite news channel Al Jazeera, the 25-year-old journalist had been stationed at the pro-Morsi encampment for six weeks, becoming a familiar face to the channel’s viewers in one of the summer’s biggest international news stories.
Gehad would visit Abdullah at the sit-in, where he was working around the clock. The two had been married in September 2012, though Abdullah spent little time at home because of regular deployments to countries like Mali, Libya, Ghana and Turkey for Al Jazeera. “The longest period we spent together since we were married was in Rabaa,” she says with a smile.
Now, Gehad sees Abdullah just once every two weeks inside Abu Zaabal, waiting hours each time for a fifteen-minute visit. She brings him food, water, clothes, newspapers, books, toiletries and other necessities to alleviate the austere conditions inside Egypt’s jails.
The prison waiting room is bustling with other families carrying plastic bags and suitcases of supplies. Children scamper around their parents, women carry babies. Over the past few months, thousands of Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters have been rounded up and thrown in prison. More than 700 of those arrested in the August 14 raid on Rabaa were imprisoned at Abu Zaabal, and the walls of the waiting room bear the signs of the political divisions that have torn Egypt apart.
Drawings of a hand holding up four fingers, a symbol for Rabaa (Arabic for “four”), are scrawled in felt pen alongside slogans such as “Down with military rule” and “CC the killer,” in reference to army chief Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who deposed Morsi on July 3. Some of the graffiti has been angrily crossed out by family members of prisoners convicted of regular crimes who oppose the Brotherhood.
Similar divisions exist within Gehad’s own family. Her father is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a staunch supporter of Morsi, yet Gehad, who has began protesting the regime since 2008, says she doesn’t support the group and accuses them of abandoning the revolution. In what has become an increasingly common phenomenon in Egyptian society, the political cleavages within her family often spilled over into heated disputes, compelling her to refrain from discussing politics with her parents and siblings.
Despite her misgivings about the Brotherhood, Gehad spent a lot of time in the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in, not just to see her husband but to be a part of the protest. “We have been standing against the military since 2011, and we still are now,” she explains. “We didn’t change our position, the Brotherhood did. Now they stand against the military too. We are continuing, and they have joined us.” Her attitude is not shared by other revolutionary activists who view the Brotherhood not just as political opportunists but as a separate wing of the counterrevolution. These activists point to abuses the Brotherhood committed during their time in power as justification for refusing to join even a tactical alliance with them against the military after the coup.