The photojournalist, who has documented protest clashes and post-conflict trauma across the capital, isolates an exchange: “Our country has gone downhill economically because of the revolution,” says the anti-revolution camp. “Yes,” replies the pro-revolution camp. “We have lost a lot — for one — because of the estimated tens of thousands who have since been imprisoned for practicing freedom of expression, association and assembly.”
Today, “one of the main figures who represents journalism in this scenario is Shawkan,” Elrasam adds, evoking a symbolic gesture: On May 10, 2016, Mahmoud Abou Zeid, the Egyptian photojournalist and prisoner of conscience known as “Shawkan,” stands inside a defendants’ cage with his hands upraised and in the shape of a camera.
The Ominous Limbo
In a letter entitled “The Walls of My Life,” from March 5, 2015, Shawkan portrays unbearable isolation inside Egypt’s infamous Tora Prison:
I am dying. No one knows what’s going on inside me. My spirit fights to stay alive. I am not only trapped inside these four walls, but I’m trapped inside my mind. I vomit frequently. I find it hard to breathe. I feel pressure on my chest. I carry the weight of failure and it is heavy. I carry huge pain and grief that I am failing to realize the power of my dreams (sadly). For almost two years, this is my life, all because I was following my dream and doing my job as a photojournalist.
Now, having spent over three and a half years behind bars, Shawkan stands trial — a mass trial, alongside over 700 defendants in the “Rabaa dispersal” case, featuring several senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders — for numerous offenses including murder, illegal assembly, weapons possession, and belonging to a terrorist group (i.e., the outlawed Brotherhood).
He rejects the charges — some of them being punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty — and has endured beatings, solitary confinement, as well as a hunger strike (complete with Hepatitis C, for which the authorities have reportedly denied him treatment).
“I am a journalist who has no affiliation but to his profession,” he avows in another letter from Tora, entitled “Cruelty and Insult,” published on March 9, 2016, “a journalist who answered the call of the government itself to cover the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in.”
On the morning of August 14, 2013, amid “bullets, tear gas, fire, police, soldiers and tanks everywhere,” Shawkan, in his mid-20s at the time, was arrested alongside a number of local and foreign journalists. They were covering the state’s raid on a protest encampment in an east Cairo square called Rabaa al-Adawiya, which lies adjacent to a mosque of the same name. “We discussed plans to sneak past the police and into the protest,” wrote Mike Giglio, an American journalist with BuzzFeed, who was also detained during the dispersal. “But [Shawkan] left to take some pictures first, camera in hand.”
At the sit-in, security forces waged a “Tiananmen-Square-style” assault on tens of thousands of people — the vast majority of them unarmed Muslim Brotherhood supporters — who were calling for the reinstatement of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi following his ouster by the military in July 2013. By nightfall, the operation struck a death toll of at least 817 protesters and eight police officers, according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch. Giglio was released (with some apologies) a few hours after his arrest, and has said that his “last memory of [Shawkan] has him kneeling [in the detention zone] amid rows of other prisoners.”
Demotix, the London-based photo agency that Shawkan was on assignment for at the time of his arrest, has confirmed his credibility, stating that they had previously sold his work to such publications as Open Democracy, Time magazine, Die Zeit, and many more. Amnesty International, Freedom For Shawkan, PEN America, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the photojournalist Steve McCurry, and others are advocating for his immediate and unconditional release. Last fall, the Committee to Protect Journalists honored him with its International Press Freedom Award.
In September 2015, after Shawkan’s pretrial detention had exceeded the two-year cap enshrined in Egyptian law, he was at long last referred to court. Since then, his trial has been repeatedly postponed. Most recently, he reappeared in the defendants’ cage on February 25, only to be instructed to disappear back into ominous limbo until March 21.
The Predatory Systems
Last fall, in honor of the United Nations’ International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, Reporters Without Borders published 35 satirical hunting permits, each one for a “predator of press freedom” — i.e., “presidents, politicians, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that censor, imprison, torture or murder journalists.” Each permit includes their attack technique, their kill tally, their enforcers, their favorite targets, and their official discourse.
The Islamic State’s attack technique is listed as “barbaric acts in religion’s name.” North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has a kill tally for “complete absence of independent media.” King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s command of Saudi Arabia is, in part, fortified by the enforcers, who are identified as “the intelligence agencies, interior ministry, Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Communications and Information Technology Commission, and Internet Services Unit.”
The favorite targets of Mexico’s Los Zetas crime cartel include “politics, business and crime reporters and human rights defenders whose work has some degree of impact on the cartel’s interests.” And in Turkey, which was named the world’s top jailer of journalists in 2016 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the official discourse of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is described as “denial cloaked in threats.” For example, “Defamation of the President,” a crime punishable by up to four years in prison, has been leveled against hundreds of journalists since Erdoğan took office in 2014. (If Donald Trump’s “running war with the media” — e.g., his “you are fake news” and “very dishonest press” accusations — should escalate under his presidency, perhaps one day, he’ll join the rank of press predators as well.)
In early January, Elrasam examines the permit for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — “a fantastic guy,” according to Trump — and uses the portrait of Shawkan in the defendants’ cage for cross-reference.
Sisi’s attack technique is listed as “mass arrests,” wherein “journalists are subject to mass arrests, especially when covering demonstrations, prolonged pretrial detention, and often long jail terms (even life imprisonment).” Since leading the overthrow of Morsi in July 2013, his kill tally includes six journalists with at least 25 imprisoned. His enforcers are “the security services,” whose favorite targets are “all media outlets suspected of any kind of link with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
And his official discourse is described as “complete denial.” For a case in point, the general-turned-president is quoted from a September 2015 interview with CNN: “I don’t want to exaggerate, but we enjoy unprecedented media freedom in Egypt. No one in Egypt can prevent anyone working for a media or a journalist from expressing their opinions.” (Sisi’s imprisonment of journalists reached an unprecedented high in 2015, and the number is only increasing.)
An uneasy grin infiltrates Elrasam’s tight-lipped expression of deep contemplation. “It’s what I know, and what I can confirm,” he says of the predatory system.
The Depths of Oppression
“If they won’t release Shawkan, I’ll bring him home,” Elrasam thought to himself in mid-January. “I’ll photograph a dream.”
Holding the body of a camera in his hands, Elrasam — on a personal assignment in Cairo — stations himself inside a bedroom that has been vacant since August 14, 2013. He directs the central spotlight on two brothers.
Mohamed Abou Zeid, 30, presses an image against his chest. “My brother’s photo gesture was his way of greeting his colleagues, and telling them to persevere,” he introspects. “But it wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone [so they might] understand the depths of this oppression.”
Shaking his head, he adds:
Shawkan is being punished for doing his job, and no matter how much we write, speak or shout, the authorities won’t listen […] Apart from his colleagues, friends and our close family, these cries are being neglected, and he’s in a state of helpless depression in the face of his case being postponed.
Elrasam has photographed other journalists in the same defendants’ cage where Shawkan has repeatedly appeared and disappeared, including Al Jazeera’s Abdullah Elshamy and the so-called “Marriott terror cell” for the Associated Press in May 2014.
Inside the Tora Prison complex courtroom, Elrasam says the defendants’ cage sits across from the designated area for photographers. Among the rows of benches stretching between the cage and the cameras, there is a border embodied by a collective of police officers.
In another letter from Tora, entitled “Hold On To My Dream, Don’t Leave the Cameras,” published on November 22, 2016, Shawkan indicates how that border cuts across the court, and into his unconscious mind:
Do you know what is more painful than four walls and a disease: Dreams. My dreams have nothing but a white color that I hate. They have no people, except for the prisoners in my cell. They contain no adventure, but for the parts pertaining to my illness and death. Injustice has filtered into my dreams. What I want to say is that my dreams are related to my current reality, with no past and no future.
As Elrasam holds on to the camera, Mohamed reflects on his brother’s dreams: “Rest assured that, in our country, injustice is the norm.”
Cover Photo: Riot police in Cairo / 2011 © Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a.k.a. “Shawkan”