A Call for a Transnational Abolitionist Front in a Time of State Emergencies: a Conversation With Lara Al-kateb & Yasser Munif


On April 3, 2020, the Alliance of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Socialists issued a statement calling for “a global prison abolitionist Movement to fight COVID-19 and capitalism.” Finalizing this issue in a moment of global emergency, we’re concluding it with this interview with two of their members. 

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: As of now, a large majority of countries in the MENA regions have taken legislation to impose measures of containment of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Can you talk about how some of these emergency legislation tend to exacerbate some aspects of violence (whether counter-revolutionary violence or engineered inequality) already at work in these societies? It is obvious when it comes to Western Sahara or Palestine, but we have no doubt that these logics are at work in many other countries, in particular the many that were experiencing revolutions in the past year.

LARA AL KATEB: First, it is clear that there has been a mishandling of the pandemic by most states and authorities. The contagious nature of COVID-19 has cost thousands of lives and puts millions at risk and yet little action to no action was taken in time. In China, scholars, doctors and activists speaking against the pandemic and its mishandling were jailed. Similar measures were taken in Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey, because states learn from each other’s tactics. Governments in the United States, Egypt, and Syria have downplayed the threat of the coronavirus for weeks while an unknown number of people were dying in their houses. Even more so, these governments opted to promote their own self-serving propaganda. For example the Health ministry in Syria went on record to say that the army is “cleansing Syria of bacteria.” Such fascistic framing should come as no surprise from Syrian forces. So what we can expect from the state of emergency is that authorities will exploit this crisis to serve their political ends in terms of enacting authoritarian measures such as cracking down on dissidents, limiting freedom of movement and increasing digital surveillance. 

YASSER MUNIF: Syrians have been under a state of emergency for more than 50 years. It was implemented in 1962 and since then, different versions of it have been imposed on the population. States of emergency are also a reality in many Arab and non-Arab countries. These societies are the targets of systematic state violence and the abuse of the carceral system. The COVID-19 pandemic obviously amplifies that by allowing the dictators in the MENA region to utilize this crisis to reinforce control, surveillance and violence, and to expand the carceral system. The powerful are well-known to never let a crisis go to waste. They are using the current crisis to expand and reinforce the regime of control and surveillance which is already in place. The politics of fear and the state of emergency are instrumentalized to impose a more totalitarian system. 

There are countless examples to illustrate the way in which the power elite is instrumentalizing the health crisis to preserve a decaying system. For example, Syrian refugees living in camps in countries surrounding Syria are demonized and often blamed for the spread of the virus. They are scapegoated by Arab regimes that are unable to address the health crisis. For instance, Zaatari Camp in Jordan, the second largest camp in the world, with almost 80,000 refugees, is ill equipped to face the COVID-19 virus. Living conditions in the camp are bad and social distancing is impossible. Residents tried to improve living conditions in the past and were met with police violence. The Jordanian government imposed a lockdown during the pandemic and is flying drones in some regions to make sure it’s respected. In the past several months, refugees in Greece were brutalized and in some cases killed by the police. The camps look like detention centers rather than anything else. During the pandemic, the government put the camps under lockdown, and ignored the residents’ pleas to decongest the space to prevent the spread of the virus. The conditions in the region and beyond are terrible for the marginal population, the subaltern, the wretched population. For these most vulnerable groups it’s going to be very difficult to overcome the pandemic.

MENA Funambulist (2)
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Poster for Prisoners’ Day commemorated every April 17 (1980)

LL: Those were also used as counter-revolutionary measures against uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon…

YM: Yes that’s true, in all of these examples that you cited: in Algeria there has been an ongoing revolt for more than a year, they have been protesting on a weekly basis sometimes more than once a week and, more recently, they had to end those weekly protests for obvious reasons. That’s true also for other countries. Those dictatorial regimes are using the pandemic to undermine and crush those revolts under the pretext that they can endanger the population.

LAK: The pandemic already injures any kind of mobilization that people can have and I’m sure authorities will use this to further exploit it. They are going to use it as a measure to instill further control on the people.

LL: Carcerality consists of spaces where the measures enabled by emergency legislation are at work in a continuous and exacerbated manner. In light of the pandemic and its potential and actual devastating effects for people who are forcefully contained in carceral architectures, you have been calling for the “formation of a global abolitionist movement” (Spectre Journal, April 2020), far beyond the united states where abolitionism defined as such was initiated thanks to people like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Could you describe the nature of this call? 

LAK: What the pandemic has made blatantly visible is the stratification between classes, between those who have and those who have not and this imbalanced power dynamic is reproduced through every facet of all our lives, through wage labor, poverty and the so-called justice system. So here, we see prisons as an extension of this power relation, an instrument of control designed to further subjugate masses according to Foucault has said. And it’s a multifaceted issue. It has to do with race, class, and gender. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says “Wherever capital yields it’s biggest stick, the all purpose use of prisons becomes more prevalent.” That is to say wherever there is a steep inequality, the use of prisons is more common which explains why the U.S. along with China and Russia have some of the highest prison populations around the world combined. We’re talking about millions upon millions. So if we’re going to stand in opposition to capitalism and the inequality it generates, we have to stand against the tools that it utilizes in order to maintain itself. You know for the past few weeks people all over the world have grown restless and bored because they are constricted to their homes. So imagine spending years like that, except much worse, spending years in a small overcrowded cell. It is an inhuman practice. To be clear, we’re not talking about making prisons better or more accomodating. We’re calling for abolishing prisons. 

YM: The prison system has been exponentially growing in the past several decades with the inception of the neoliberal era in the 1970s and 1980s and has been used to discipline and coerce societies. The prison is an important institution in every country in the world; without it, the capitalist racialized system would not be sustainable. It is a disciplinary violent institution that incarcerates the surplus population in the different societies and subjugates them, humiliates them. Oftentimes, the people who are incarcerated in the U.S., in the Arab world, and beyond are people who resist in different ways. It can be through political and social resistance, though literature, or even petty crime. I think it’s important to remember that the differentiation between political prisoners and criminals or others is often futile and that we should push back against it. The distinction is usually determined by the powerful. The prison population can expand or shrink depending on those legalistic definitions which are produced by the powerful depending on the political needs of the moment. It’s important to avoid this differentiation between political and non-political prisoners because most of the time, what we see is a semantic or legalistic distinction that should not be recognized by an abolitionist movement. It’s therefore important to request the release of the incarcerated population because it’s at the frontline. People risk their lives by pushing back against dictatorship, capitalism, neoliberalism, racism, homophobia, and patriarchy, and are incarcerated for those reasons. 

The prison system in Syria is a main pillar in the Baathist state. As Mustafa Khalifa explains, Syrian history cannot be explained without the history of prisons. The Syrian regime cannot be maintained without the prison system which is a total institution. It has been operating for several decades to crush any kind of resistance, political activity or struggle for democracy. The abolition of prison is a central demand for any serious campaign that demands democracy, justice and equality. 

LL: A call for a global abolitionist movement requires a global understanding of the carceral regime, as well as an analysis of the various typologies of carcerality (prisons, concentration camps, detention centers, jails, and refugee camps) which is something you initiate in your call. Could you tell us how you articulate this?

LAK: I think, you know, within the first few weeks, it became clear that the pandemic will dramatically affect different people in different ways according to where they stand on the socio-demographic level. People who have access to capital were able to get tested even without any showing symptoms while marginalized people are left to die due to medical negligence. In prisons and in camps, there is no medical testing, there is no medical care and medical staff nor is there any possibility for social distancing. I was reading testimonies from Palestinan prisoners and they are living in anxiety and fear due to the possibility of widespread contamination. It is a similar situation in the U.S.. So there are a few parallels to be made here.

In China, for example, more than half of the prison population are political prisoners, the same in Russia where there are university students and peaceful protesters. This same structure is replicated in Syria and Iran where hundreds of democracy activists have been arrested by the regimes. Another parallel made is the intentional targeting of minorities and specific communities. In China, we know a million Uighurs Muslims held in camps. Similarly Kurdish minorities are targeted by Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian authorities. So the connection made here is that calling for a global abolitionist movement stems from the same call that opposes authoritarianism. It is to look at the structural format of how the system operates and conclude that the injustice it inherently produces are interwoven. Sexism, racism, heterosexism, and mass incarceration. 

And similarly with detention centers and refugee camps, we’re talking about people from specific socio-demographic position, Indigenous and Latinx in the U.S., Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar for example, people have escaped war, they do not have access to basic resources, such as running water; it becomes clear that this is a global issue which calls for a global abolitionist movement. 

YM: Any serious abolitionist campaign requires a deep understanding of how the prison system operates. I think it would be wrong to try to remove any kind of specificity. Every society has its own prison system and oftentimes they have their own unique structure and history. For example the prison system in the U.S. grew exponentially during and after the civil rights movements and after the end of slavery for the incarceration of the Black population, to crush Black resistance. In the 1980s with the neoliberal turn, a large segment was turned into a for-profit institution where cheap labor is exploited. Prisons often made prisoners work for a few cents an hour. But this is not necessarily the case everywhere. In many countries throughout the world and especially in the MENA region, prisons don’t generate financial profit. They are mostly used by dictatorial regimes in the Middle East to crush resistance, terrorize the population, and monopolize power. 

We need to understand the ways prisons operate in different regions. The distinction between public and private prisons is not sustainable in different societies. Also, the distinction between inside and outside is usually confusing. To give you an example from Syria: the Syrian regime has used military hospitals for torture. Likewise police stations, as well as the Ba’ath headquarters, and schools have all become extensions of the prison system because prisons lack space. The checkpoints and the snipers are also part of that network that makes sure to contain the population and channel it to the prison system. So it’s important to rethink both 1) the minimalist understanding according to which the prison is defined as the space contained behind the walls, and 2) the maximalist understanding which views the entire society a big prison, as many Syrians believe. 

We need to understand how the prison system can adjust depending on the political needs of the moment. As I explained, the prison system in Syria expanded and colonized new spaces during the war and has become an integral part of the killing machine deployed against the Syrian revolution.

The prison system avoids scrutiny to prevent accountability. The separation between inside and outside in this case allows the state to humiliate and torture prisoners without repercussions. Saydnaya prison in Syria, known as “the slaughterhouse,” is a good example where the spatial separation is strictly maintained. A lot of research has been produced to understand the space and the way it is operated. Amnesty International along with Forensic Architecture produced a very good report that was widely read. It was based on the testimonies of prisoners who were blindfolded and unable to see anything. As prison guards are afraid to be recognized outside, the prisoners are strictly forbidden to look at their faces. After their release, prisoners tried to reconstitute the architecture of the prison based on the different sounds they heard inside. They listened carefully when other prisoners were tortured or executed or when food was distributed or even when someone used the bathroom. Amnesty gathered the information based on the sounds, their intensity, frequency, direction, and source. Through forensic architecture they were able to reconstitute the architecture of the prison. This is the type of knowledge that is needed to build a solid and robust abolitionist campaign.

LL: Such a call does not merely multiply the examples of carcerality, it also allows us to multiply the examples of reparative justice that can be used to construct an abolitionist imaginary and strategy far beyond examples taken from the u.s. context. Do you have some in mind that you could share?

MENA Funambulist (1)
Poster at an Abolish ICE protest in the united states on July 2, 2018. / Photo by Steve Rapport.

LAK: I have to say I’m not that well versed with reparative justice. The angle I can provide right now, the state along with its capitalist policies assign funding, time and people’s efforts towards structures that form the police force, the army and prison complexes. And this is done within intention to consolidate the power of the nation state. So if power and resources were distributed evenly, this will lessen the inequality gap, the lifestyle gap, we will find a lowering in crimes that are rooted in poverty. We need to allocate resources to serve general wellbeing which includes community involvement towards resolving conflict. We frequently talk about providing an alternative to capitalism and part of that to re-humanize individuals from a system that continuously commodifies and alienates them. And that goes for our interpersonal social bonds with prisoners as well. Who once they get out of prison or jail have extreme difficulty finding a job or going back to any kind of normality within their lives.

YM: It’s important to be creative and think beyond the current system we live in. That will require a lot of creative and critical thinking. In this moment of economic, political, and now health crisis, the prison system is expanding and an increasing number of people will be incarcerated. But there are also many examples where the state is retracting. To go back to Syria, the revolution was able to take over some territories where the Syrian state and its violence disappeared for an extended period. People had the space to think in creative ways about how to implement reparative justice. That’s not an easy question. When you don’t have a centralized power imposing a coercive legal system, the power in these regions becomes dispersed. 

What I saw in Syria when I visited the liberated areas is a pluri-legal system where different legal systems were operating at the same time in the same spaces. This is really interesting, as it shows there is potential for doing things differently. For example in Manbij, there were at least two or three different legal systems operating at the same time. The people were trying to come up with a system that is more just, more egalitarian. It was a bricolage of different things based on the Arab legal code. There was also the tribal code, and there was the Islamic State and Al Qaeda trying to bring their own reactionary Islamic system. I saw some creative experiments in those pluri-legal spaces where people were experimenting with different ways of doing. From that experience, it’s important to think locally and not necessarily try to generalize systems that are oftentimes not generalizable because societies are different, and each moment is different. 

But beyond that, I think it’s important to be humble, to listen to the populations. The Zapatistas in Mexico have also come up with their own participatory system which is based on ancestral cosmologies, on the long histories. We should learn from these examples and their histories. So there is a lot of experimentation that needs to be done. There is a lot of listening that needs to be done. A lot of reconstruction from those local dispersed voices, and the way they are trying to cope up with the disappearance of the state and its centralized violence.

LL: While we construct abolitionist futures, we can support the various uprisings that are happening in carceral spaces. We have published in the past an interview with Orisamni Burton about the 1971 Attica uprising, as well as a text by Imran Mohammad while he and his imprisoned comrades were organizing against their detention on Manus Island by the Australian government in 2017. Do you also have revolts in mind that are part of your imaginary? 

LAK: There is a quote that has been floating around lately which I’ve grown to be very fond of. It says “We can’t go back to normal because normality was the problem.” In the previous year in 2019 we saw a relentless drive, a wave of revolts by students, by women, by the labor force, that took place in Chile, Lebanon, Sudan, France, to name a few. So there was something brewing on a global level. What the pandemic did is to expose the inhumanity of capitalism through a multitude of ways. Whether it is through wage labor especially considering essential workers, the medical care system and refugees and prisons. Revolts in my imagination post COVID-19 include demanding shorter working weeks, securing people’s basic needs including healthcare, shelter and so on as a fundamental right. It is looking to solve societal problems without the use of force, fear, criminalization and punishment. These fights against wage labor, the revolts against oppression, against discrimination: they all belong to the same narrative. As part of the Alliance of MENA socialists, we have a brochure dedicated to demanding the liberation of female political prisoners focusing on activists who have taken part in the revolts I just mentioned. We mention Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent feminist activist, who is currently jailed in Iran. As of last month, she announced a hunger strike demanding the release of prisoners. And while Iranian authorities release some prisoners, they maintain they won’t extend the measure to political activists. Amnesty has recently reported that 36 prisoners in Iran have been killed after they protested against medical negligence. So I believe the part is largely on us on the outside to demand and revolt for their rights. 

YM: Resistance and prisoners revolts are as old as the prison system. They have existed as long as prisons as an institution was around. They are an integral part of any prison. In the MENA region, the prison system expanded and became a dominant institution as the populations rebelled against the colonial or imperial forces. It expanded again with the rise of dictatorship and authoritarian rule and has become a central institution in every country in that region. As I suggested earlier, it’s also part of the rise of the neoliberal economic system which requires violence and discipline (and therefore the prison system) as a main pillar. Resistance to the prisons has always been part of that. 

Without the prison system, the Syrian dictatorship would not survive for long. It became a dominant institution in the 1960s. There were a number of revolts in Syria before 2011 and they were crushed violently. One example is when the Syrian army massacred prisoners in Tadmor prison in 1980 because there was a revolt in Hama and Aleppo. In August 1980, more than 1,000 prisoners were killed because they were members of the Muslim Brotherhood Party. Despite the violence, prisoners organized several strikes to improve their conditions. More recently, prisoners organized a number of strikes to denounce the prison conditions, to request their release, or to oppose the death penalty. What’s really interesting is that in some cases, despite the genocidal violence of the Syrian regime, they were able to get certain concessions from the State. They were successful despite the violence. And this is true in the entire MENA region. In Jordan, prisoners revolted after the government banned visits during COVID-19. In Iraq, Abu Ghraib prisoners organized a revolt in 2009 and set fire to protest the prison conditions. Many prison revolts had a positive impact but they are not always well documented. Until the Arab Revolts in 2011, prisoners were forgotten and prisons were not part of the popular imaginary. This is mainly because of the blackout and the silencing that dictators impose on that institution. But resistance has always been around. The minutiae of resistance is not easy to witness because it’s unspoken and unwritten. It needs to be excavated, unearthed and better documented. The Arab Revolts are beginning to do exactly that. ■