By Geoffrey Mock, Middle East Country Specialist
The future of Egypt is now behind bars. A generation of young Egyptians – activists, artists, journalists, lawyers and others – who embodied the promise of Tahrir Square and who offer a creative vision of a new Egyptian society – has been shut down and silenced because of their beliefs. Mass protests have given away to mass arrests.
One of the more than 16,000 people caught up in these arrests is Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a young Egyptian photojournalist who goes by the name Shawkan. In August 2013, he was taking photos of a peaceful sit-in when security forces moved in violently. In contemporary Egypt, that act of taking photos is a crime, one that now could potentially have him facing the death penalty.
This is how Shawkan later described that day:
“I was taking pictures of people protesting on the streets of Cairo when police came and locked down the streets. Thousands of people were immediately arrested – not only Morsi supporters, but also dozens of people caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It was like a Hollywood movie. It felt like we were in the middle of a war. There were bullets, tear gas, fire, police, soldiers and tanks everywhere. I saw how armed police took over the Square. After identifying myself to the police as a photojournalist, I was arrested.”
One of the 12 cases currently part of Amnesty International’s Write4Rights campaign, the 28-year-old Shawkan has spent the past three-plus years held in a four square meter prison cell with 12 other political prisoners. He’s faced no trial, but he’s had plenty of court hearings, each one only to postpone his trial to a future date. His next court date is Dec. 10 – International Human Rights Day.
His courage both in his determination to show the world what was happening in Egypt in 2013 and in surviving more than 1,000 days in jail on bogus charges is inspiring. This week, he was one of four recipients of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award, given to journalists who have faced threats, legal action and imprisonment.
But prison has taken a toll on Shawkan.
Earlier this year, I met a childhood friend of his, Ahmed Abu Seif, who has launched an international campaign to free Shawkan. Ahmed talks about the spirit Shawkan threw himself into on any activity, and his desire to be part of something that created a better Egypt. In the many photos we’ve seen of Shawkan, his smile is always infectious and welcoming, a reminder of the giddiness so many of his generation felt in the heady days of January 2011.
But now, Ahmed said, prison life leaves him vomiting and prone to fainting and feelings of hopelessness and being in limbo. He suffers anemia and Hepatitis C and his family have told Amnesty International that he has not received adequate medical care in detention. The photojournalist has described Tora Prison, where he is held, as “like a cemetery.”
“I want any sane person to answer me: What is going on? Why am I being unfairly placed in solitary confinement?” Shawkan recently wrote. “Has it not been enough to have spent almost 1,000 days in detention unfairly and on false grounds? A thousand and one nights? … Why all this oppression and persecution? Has it not been enough?”
From the promise of Tahrir Square to Shawkan facing charges that could bring the death penalty, Egypt is heading in the wrong direction on human rights. One of the lessons is, however, that it didn’t have to be this way. There still can be a future for Egypt in which Shawkan and all of the young activists are not in jail, but leading the way to their stated vision of a new Egypt built on respect for human rights.
We’re at a moment in history where national leaders around the world are using words like “order” and “security” to pull back on freedoms and to silence anyone who has hope for a different kind of society, one more open to a variety of voices. In Egypt, the last word may yet belong to Shawkan:
“You keep me feeling that I’m not alone. You all have become my power and my energy and without all of you I cannot go through this.
“I want to send my deep love and respect and my appreciation of all what you are doing for me. I feel so lucky to have such kind people like you. And indeed it’s my honor to count you as my friends.
“KEEP SHOUTING, JOURNALISM IS NOT A CRIME!”