Expanding Solidarity with the Arab Region Will Strengthen Prison Abolition

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Consensus is growing across U.S. social movements that people living in the U.S. have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Palestinian liberation due to Washington providing Israel with $3.8 billion in annual military aid. Union teachers are preparing votes in solidarity with the Palestinian people and polls indicate a shift in thinking, particularly on the left and with young people and BIPOC communities.

Solidarity with Palestine is often based on a recognition that the U.S. government has allowed our taxes to fund Israeli state violence and that racist U.S. systems like policing and prisons share resources and technologies with Israel. Yet we should also recognize that the U.S. imposes disastrous neoliberal economic policies on Palestinians and that these policies are essential to U.S. domination of many parts of the Arab region and North Africa.

For example, in many countries in that region, U.S.-led economic neoliberalism is devastating the population. The U.S. works closely with authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt that also partner with Israel and global neoliberal policies.

In Egypt, the U.S. has imposed accelerated privatization, exacerbating poverty and leading the Egyptian market into selling “cheap labor” to global corporations in exchange for profit – for a few — under the guise of progress.

Recently, the massive growth of the Egyptian prison industry has accompanied these shifts. In April 2021, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported that out of Egypt’s 78 prisons, 35 were built after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. Out of those 35, 17 have been built since 2016. U.S.-led neoliberal economic policies have substantially shaped this growth. Prisons are increasingly set up in ways that force inmates to pay for meeting their own basic needs and police are profiting off inmates through bribes.

The U.S.-funded militarization of Egypt is partly responsible for problems such as the harsh state violence against detainees and activists who criticize the Egyptian regime and its military and economic policies. The U.S. government gives $1.38 billion annually to Egypt, 90 percent of which goes to military financing due to Egypt’s geostrategic importance in furthering U.S. imperial interests in the region — including the colonization of Palestine and the implementation of regional neoliberal reforms.

The Egyptian regime routinely punishes those publicly criticizing their practices. It is no surprise that more than half of the 120,000 people incarcerated in Egyptian prisons today are political prisoners, including many of the youth celebrated across the world for leading the Egyptian revolution for bread, dignity, and social justice.

Human Rights Watch refers to systematic horrific abuses of Egyptian prisoners as crimes against humanity. In addition, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program found a perfect home within Egypt’s secret prisons. Starting with Bill Clinton’s administration, the U.S. transferred foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to interrogation centers in places like Egypt where anti-torture rules are virtually non-existent.

Most people in the U.S. do not closely follow the grave impact of U.S. policy on the region, notwithstanding recent breakthroughs with support for ending the war on Iraq or the popular movement for Palestinian liberation.

Nascent linkages between Palestinian freedom and Black Lives Matter movements do, however, point the way toward growing international solidarity. Similarly, the movement for prison abolition in the U.S. could be strengthened through a more robust global agenda.  U.S. financial support for torture in Egypt is an extension of U.S. policies of genocide and enslavement, which continue today through the incarceration, torture, and dehumanization of BIPOC communities within the prison industrial complex. Resistance against the privatization of U.S. prisons would benefit from more global solidarity.

Working with mothers of police torture survivors in the organization MAMAS, I have heard many accounts of violence by the Chicago Police Department. Chicago mothers of police torture survivors sound very much like mothers I know in Egypt. Leftist mothers like Laila Soueif, whose two children are incarcerated as punishment for their involvement in the 2011 revolution, spend days and nights protesting outside prisons waiting to learn if their children are dead or half alive. Communities in Cairo and Chicago are both up against direct and indirect funding from the U.S. government.

Economic disinvestment policies devastating Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities in the U.S. contribute to the targeted criminalization of BIPOC communities. Privatization preceded the police killing of Mike Brown and the Ferguson uprising which linked Black Lives Matter and Palestine freedom activists and eventually raised up Congresswoman Cori Bush who has spoken out in Washington for both causes.

As the prices of basic commodities rise across Egypt as a result of privatization, the government encourages economically hurting detainees to learn trades so that they can ally with corporations benefiting from devalued Egyptian labor. Global neoliberalism thrives on both poverty and prisons, be they in the U.S., Egypt, or elsewhere. They reinforce each other. Global corporations benefit as they profit from cheap labor.

If we want a robust prison abolitionist movement that can truly dismantle the foundations of the prison industrial complex, it must be global. If we want solidarity with Palestinian and Arab social movements then we need to understand the region and its significance to U.S. imperialism. No one Arab country is an island. The impact of U.S. policy in one country is regional and related to developments in neighbors.

Many regional leaders, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are friends of the U.S. government which provides the funding to oppress Egyptians and their Arab neighbors in places like Palestine. The arrangement with the Israeli government is similar.

Activist groups in the U.S. are pressing the Biden administration to stop military funding to countries such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen.  Rights groups are urging the Biden administration to change course in its annual military assistance package to Egypt by compelling the regime to improve its rights record and emphasizing Biden’s campaign promise of “no more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator.”

Deepened regional and global analysis alongside increasing international solidarity will be crucial to advancing mutual abolitionist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist campaigns.