DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Egypt has a history of breeding militancy in its jails. Some of the figures who inspired the birth of al-Qaida became extremists during their abuse in prison there. And now, it appears to be happening again, possibly on a wider scale, due to the broad crackdown on rights in Egypt. NPR's Leila Fadel has been talking to people who have been in Egyptian jails about what's going on behind bars.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Today in Egypt, in the name of fighting terrorism, authorities are jailing people for things as small as a Facebook post or being at a protest or, in the case of Hossam el Deen, being in the wrong place at the wrong time when security forces came to arrest a neighbor.
HOSSAM EL DEEN: There is just one accusation for me that I am related to a terrorist group. This is the only accusation that I have. Without any evidence, without any proper action, without anything.
FADEL: For five months, he was in prison - never charged - and finally released in March. But it's what he saw inside the maximum-security prison where he was held that scared him - young men, many who hadn't committed crimes at all, becoming hardened radicals over the course of their confinement.
EL DEEN: And they are - they didn't commit a certain crime, but in jail, they become ISIS. And this is a very - it's very hard for many people. It's not one or two or three - many.
FADEL: Many of those jailed were Muslim Brotherhood supporters, a party forced out of power in a coup and then outlawed. They were thrown in jail by the thousands.
EL DEEN: I saw even Muslim Brotherhood members become ISIS now. Some of them spent three years now without any real accusation and with very hard conditions. So they become thinking that violence is the solution.
FADEL: It's a decades-old problem in Egypt. Several well-known Islamists are thought to have become extremists or turned more extreme after abuses in jail. The current head of al-Qaida was tortured in Egyptian prisons. Deen says he's terrified that the tougher Egypt's security measures become, the more people will resort to violence. He rejects that option, but he's seen impressionable prisoners turn to it in jail.
EL DEEN: No one give us a solution. No one give us a way to get our rights and to live in peace in this country. We don't see, till now, a light at the end of the tunnel.
FADEL: I made contact with a man still in the maximum-security prison where Deen was also held. He asked me not to reveal his name or how we communicated, out of fear for his safety. He's in his mid-20s and was sentenced to more than two decades in prison by a military court with no evidence against him. Today, he sleeps on the floor with no mattress, in a cell with 10 other people. ISIS members in prison with him try to recruit him frequently. They bring him food. They talk to him about his father, who was killed, along with nearly a thousand other people, when the government crushed two sit-ins in Cairo in 2013. They tell him he should take revenge. When he refuses, he says, they threaten him and call him an unbeliever. And he's afraid of them. I'm stuck in a circle, he says - the Egyptian government from one side and ISIS on the other. Vulnerable prisoners like him are a worry to analysts watching the region. Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in security studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic studies in Britain's University of Exeter.
OMAR ASHOUR: The current regime will be producing the next wave of major political violence and terrorism in Egypt.
FADEL: Ashour says that's happening in large part because of prison treatment. The man I spoke to in prison says there are more than 100 ISIS members inside his prison, and they openly sing Islamic State chants together at night. Security expert Ashour says that, unless there's reform to stop prison abuses and wrongful convictions, Egypt's prisons will continue to be fertile ground for armed groups to find recruits. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.