Al Jazeera Journo Abdullah El-Shamy Goes On Hunger Strike In Egyptian Jail
Abdullah El-Shamy, an Al Jazeera Arabic broadcast reporter, was arrested while covering the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters on Aug. 13, 2013 in Cairo. El-Shamy’s family spoke to The Daily Beast about their memories of El-Shamy’s arrest and internment.
Through the smudged windows of a Cairo cab, Mohammed ElShamy, 19, and Mosa’ab ElShamy, 24, looked out into the twilight falling on the patchy greens and sandy dunes on either side of the highway, which lead to their home in October 6th City, a suburb west of Cairo. It was balmy, summer weather, but the temperature started dropping as the sun began to set, making the 40 minute drive slightly more bearable for the two photojournalists. It was a little after 6 pm, just a few minutes before curfew, and the brothers had to travel through makeshift checkpoints up and down the highway. Mohammed was trying to hide that he worked for Turkey’s Anadola Agency, and Mosa’ab wanted to disguise that he was a freelancer. Instead, they claimed to be employed by local outlets like Al Ahram and Al-Masry al-Youm. “The thugs were looking for Muslim Brotherhood so that they could kill them,” Mohammed remembers.
After the military-backed removal of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi on June 30, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters had set up protest camps around Cairo, most notably in Raba’a Al-Adawiya Square, in the eastern district of Nasr City. As the government’s suppression of the Brotherhood intensified, journalists began to get caught in the crossfire—such as Mohammed Bader of Al Jazeera, who was arrested in downtown Cairo while covering a protest march in July. By August, it seemed like only a matter of time before a mass crackdown on journalists—as scapegoats for wider anti-military sentiment—would really begin. Then, on August 14, the Raba’a was raided by the security forces and everything became infinitely messier for the ElShamy family.
Mohammed and Mosa’ab had spent the early hours of the day covering the forced dispersal of Raba’a, and then headed down to finish editing their photos—Mohammed in Anadola’s office near Tahrir Square and Mosa’ab at a friend’s flat. It was a harrowing day: hundreds had been killed, and the pair had spent the entire morning staring at images of death and destruction. They were exhausted and as the darkness began to creep in, they were ready to get some sleep.
As they sped down the highway towards home, Mohammed’s phone rang. Another photojournalist was calling to tell him that during the dispersal of the camp, he’d been swept up by the authorities, but was ok now. There was some bad news, however: The police had arrested Mohammed and Mosaa’b’s older brother, Abdullah, 25, along with his 21-year-old wife, Gehad Khaled; her sister; and a few hundred others. Mohammed hung up the phone and broke the news to Mosa’ab. They had suspected that something like this might happen—that Abdullah might be arrested—but they were pretty sure he’d be released within a few days.
“They all got stopped outside Raba’a,” Mosa’ab recalls, “They were trying to use the ‘safe’ exit.” When they had made it to the gate, a police officer greeted them.
“Show me your IDs,” the police officer commanded.
Abdullah dutifully pulled out his passport.
“Oh, you’re a foreigner?”
“No. That’s an Egyptian passport,” Abdullah replied.
“He was really stupid,” Mosa’ab adds of the police officer, as he recounts the story that Gehad and Abdullah later told him. The police took Abdullah to the police station to “check” his passport, leaving Gehad and her sister outside.
“Where’s Abdullah?” The women asked a police officer at the station an hour later.
“Oh, he was transferred.”
Abdullah was moved to Cairo Stadium, which the security forces were using as a holding area. That was the last time anyone from his family saw Abdullah until long after he was formally transferred to Abu Zaabal prison four days later.
By the time Mosa’ab and Mohammed made it home, their mother had heard what happened. She was in tears.. It was dark by now, and a mandatory 7 PM curfew was in place throughout Cairo. No one had any idea where Abdullah was, whether he’d been released, whether he had been killed, or whether he was still just being held.
At the time, Abdullah was working a broadcast journalist based in Nigeria for the Qatar-based network Al Jazeera, covering conflicts all across the African continent. He had come back specifically to cover Morsi’s overthrow and was still in town when the authorities raided Raba’a. His arrest was the second in a series of high-profile lock-ups of Al Jazeera journalists—shortly after Abdullah was scooped up, Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed, all working for Al Jazeera English, were arrested as well.
Abdullah made a name for himself covering conflict zones, most notably with his coverage of the 2011 Libyan Civil War. Long ago, his father, ElShamy Noshi, says he had come to terms with Abdullah being on the frontlines and close to possible death. “We expected that he may be killed, but Allah protected him.”
In the same vein, from the start of his coverage of Raba’a, Abdullah had chosen to stay in the square, rather than find a place to hide nearby, says his wife, Gehad.
Around 8 PM, Mosa’ab heard his phone ring and went to answer it, only to find Abdullah on the other line. He was looking for Gehad, but hadn’t been able to get in touch with her since they had been arrested and separated (her phone had died.) He told them where he was being held, and that there were at least a hundred other people with him. Everyone, including Abdullah, expected that he would be released soon.
“That wasn’t the case,” says Mosa’ab with a slight chuckle.
For more than seven months, the ElShamy family, along with the international journalism community, has been fighting for Abdullah’s release. Over eight weeks ago, Abdullah started a hunger strike to bring governmental attention to his plight. Abdullah’s personal lawyer has even tried to get Abdullah’s case tried separately from the main Al Jazeera case, a tactic that eventually led to fellow Al Jazeera employee Mohammed Bader’s acquittal last month—but the government denied Abdullah’s request. Nothing has worked.
ElShamy’s case has been extremely difficult on his family, who says they were not allowed to visit him for weeks after his transfer to Abu Zaabal prison, north of Cairo. In fact, when Abdullah was transferred to Abu Zabaal on August 18th, family members say, they had not been informed of the precise date he’d be moved. So when they heard the news that 37 prisoners had been killed during transfer to the prison that morning, they spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what happened to Abdullah. “I didn’t know if Abdullah was in that car or not. I didn’t even know if he was alive or not,” says Gehad.
When they finally got to visit Abdullah at Abu Zaabal, they say they were only allowed to speak with him through the prison bars, in a tiny visitation room the size of a walk-in closet. A crowd of friends and family members for those arrested at Raba’a crammed themselves into the tiny room to speak with their loved ones, and take home their laundry, as Egyptian prisoners are required to send their laundry out for cleaning each week.
In the police station the day before his transfer, he had handed Gehad his ragged clothes, only for her to notice a giant blood stain on his shirt. Distraught over what she thought was Abdullah’s blood, she tried to ask him what had happened to him that his shirt would be covered in blood. That wasn’t his blood, he said, but rather the blood of someone he had seen attacked in Raba’a during the raid. “You didn’t see it in the Square?” he asked, genuinely astonished she couldn’t remember. For three days he’d been forced to wear the blood, as his wife was unable to bring him any fresh clothes.
Two and a half months later, Abdullah was transferred to the Tora prison complex in southern Cairo, where he now resides. The visitation room here is more spacious, and slightly less depressing, his family says. Being a photojournalist, Mosa’ab remembers things first in terms of their lighting and color. “Ironically it’s very colorful and vibrant,” he says of the room where three of Abdullah’s family members are allowed to visit him every Tuesday, “But with the locked windows, it doesn’t get much light.”
The floor is covered in potato chip wrappers, discarded water bottles, and the ever-present dust that defines Cairo. At one end of the room is a bright hallway leading back towards the entrance. At the other end is a dark hallway leading out into the first prison of Tora, “Tora Istiqbal” (meaning “Tora Reception,” a dubious name for a prison if ever there was one.)
The family sits at the table, arranging the gifts they’ve brought—books, newspapers, water, juice, medicine, and some clean clothes. Suddenly, from the dark hallway, prisoners start to emerge one by one, accompanied by officers moving them along. Abdullah and his family lock eyes and suddenly everything is ok, at least for a little bit.
He’s getting thinner due to his hunger strike, but he’s in good spirits. He’s reading everything the family can get him—most recently he’s been reading a two-volume Islamic history, some novels—in particular George Orwell novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm—and English language papers like the International New York Times, The Financial Times, and Daily News Egypt. He always has a fresh load of wash for Gehad to clean and bring back next week.
But amidst the bright colors and limited natural lighting in Tora’s visitation room, Abdullah illuminates the monotony of prison life. He tells the family about the other inmates who are visiting their families, about their lives before, and now during, prison. He tells them about the guards—“He’s easy, sells cigarettes [for cheap.]” And he tells them about Ahmed (not real name), the informant.
Saleh, he says, has been trying to get him to give up on the hunger strike. “He keeps coming to Abdullah every few days and telling him ‘You’re just going to hurt yourself. It’s only going to get you into bigger trouble, nobody cares about hunger strikes here,’” says Mosa’ab. Ahmed’s kicker, he says: “‘We’re not in America!’”
By far Abdullah’s biggest fear is getting severely sick while in prison.
During one visit, all the prisoners came in distraught. When Gehad asked Abdullah what was wrong, she says he replied that at around 3 AM that morning, an elderly man who had been arrested at Raba’a had suffered a heart attack in their area of the prison. When his cellmates realized what was happening, Abdullah said, they started shouting and banging on the doors for the guards to get him out and take him to the clinic. Soon, all the prisoners in the whole cellblock were banging and screaming. But the guards did nothing, Abdullah told her, refusing to open the door for seven more hours. At that point, Abdullah said, the man was already dead. “Here we feel that we are very cheap, our souls. It is very hard. It is a very hard feeling,” Gehad says Abdullah told her. “Here is a prisoner, like our colleague inside of the prison, dying right in front of us. It is very hard.”
During Abdullah’s visit with his family, relatives of the other inmates come up to him, wishing their best, and offering to pray with the ElShamys for Abdullah’s swift release. “The relatives of those who were in Raba’a are obviously following the case and Abdullah is the most well known detainee among those 500 or so. So they know about Abdullah ElShamy,” says Mosa’ab, “You know they’re very happy to meet us and pray for Abdullah, and to personally see him and greet him and encourage him.”
Inside the prison, Abdullah lives in a 1x3 meter (about 3’x10’) cell, says Mohammed, which he shares with eighteen other men. Crammed inside, there are only eight bunks, forcing the men to take turns sleeping. Ten stand, eight sleep, then eight different men sleep, all in a rotation.
If you’re a prisoner in Egypt, your visitation rights are entirely up to the discretion of the guards. Sometimes the prison has just had an inspection so the guards decide to ramp up their “security” by stopping families from giving inmates books or Western newspapers, notes Abdullah’s family. Some days the guards don’t care at all. Inmates are also not allowed to send or receive letters from their family when they visit, so many times the guards will get suspicious that visitors are smuggling letters in cakes, books, or pretty much anything else.
The family tries to get as much time in as they can before Abdullah’s taken away again. Counting down the moments they have left with Abdullah, always an indeterminate amount. Some days they get an hour. Some days they get half an hour. One time they got just five minutes. Every week they come, and every week it might be different than the last. The only thing that remains consistent is that the family is forced to wait for hours before each visit even begins.
“Visiting at Tora, at first, we had to stay [waiting] from eight to ten hours to enter the visit and [the visitation] was only 30 minutes,” says Gehad. “But now it’s cool, we are waiting just for three or four hours, and [the visit] is from 30-45 minutes,” she adds with the bite of sarcasm in her voice.
Despite his arrest, Abdullah’s apartment in October 6th City remains unblemished. The front room is still awash in crisp white and blue. Whitewashed walls around a blue couch, white tile flooring covered by a blue carpet, and blue pillows with white Arabic lettering on them. The room’s back wall is even a white and blue pinstripe, looking like something straight off a Yankee’s jersey.
The second of the four ElShamy boys, Abdullah was given the third floor of the four-story family compound for himself—the first belongs to his father, the second to his older brother, Anas, and the fourth, which is still under construction, is for his younger brother Mosa’ab. Due to building restrictions only allowing for four-story houses in this area, Mohammed, the youngest, doesn’t have his own apartment, but since Abdullah lived in Nigeria most of the year, he’d stay in Abdullah’s apartment most of the time.
In the back corner of the bedroom, sits a collection of stacked luggage, gathering dust. The EgyptAir luggage tags indicate they belong to Gehad, coming from Abuja, Nigeria, where Abdullah lived, and arriving in Cairo on July 1st. The bulging pockets, shuttered tightly by a myriad of zippers, haven’t been opened since they were dropped off here many months ago.
Gehad and Abdullah had gone to Nigeria on June 29, the day before Morsi’s overthrow. Gehad had yet to formally move to Nigeria, and when she went to Abuja with Abdullah on the 29th, she had planned to finally move in with him full-time. However, after only a day back, Abdullah’s bosses at Al Jazeeracalled to say they needed him back in Egypt to cover the fall-out from Morsi’s ouster. Gehad came with him, bringing many of her belongings back with her. And then, everything was put on hold by Abdullah’s arrest. “Our luggage is in October or in Abuja,” explains Gehad, who currently stays at her parent’s house in Nasr City, just off of Raba’a Square.
Abdullah grew up in Nigeria, where his father runs an NGO. He was raised to be a member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s now-banned political party and the group Al Jazeera is accused of abetting through its news coverage. “We mostly grew up with people sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the families of the Brotherhood, and you know they all grew up to be just like their parents,” says Mosa’ab. Abdullah and his two younger brothers are not affiliated, nor do they support, the Brotherhood in anyway, though. “[T]hey would take the other side,” Mosa’ab says of their friends growing up, for example, “and I’d take that middle, trying to keep things as they are with the two other camps [military, pro-military versus anti-military]. It’s ridiculous trying to think about it.” Plus, adds Gehad, “If Abdullah was Ikhwan [the Arabic term for a Brotherhood member] I wouldn’t have married him.”
Abdullah isn’t the only ElShamy whose life has been uprooted due to the crackdown on journalists. His younger brother Mohammed fled the country several weeks ago. First he headed to Juba, South Sudan, covering the ongoing crisis there for Anadola, and then, onward to Nigeria. A much safer climate for him and his work. Indeed, just a few days before he left, Mohammed was arrested for the third time in as many months, while riding in a friend’s car. The police stopped him and his friend, asked them what they were doing, and then, Mohammed says, proceeded to bash in the back window when the door wouldn’t open. They took both Mohammed’s Macbook and camera, though Anadola has replaced his equipment since then. Now he’s back home in Nigeria, after posting selfies of himself with members of the South Sudanese military. While the arrests seem unrelated, even according to the brothers, they are both indicative of the general anti-journalistic sentiment that has been adopted by the Egyptian security forces in the months following Abdullah’s arrest.
Mohammed became a journalist because of Abdullah. Before he went to university in Egypt, he saw his brother’s work for Al Jazeera and wanted nothing more than to be his cameraman. He started taking photographs while he was still a schoolboy in Nigeria and then when he went to university in Egypt he kept it up, eventually getting a job with Anadola and winning a national photography contest along the way. To congratulate him on his victory, Abdullah gave his little brother an expensive rubber safety band for his Ray Ban sunglasses. Mohammed now wears it at all times, remembering the moment with pride.
To tear families apart because people do their job requires something more than whispered rumors and political vitriol. Something much more. The journalists in Egypt, able to be locked away at the faintest whiff of unsanctioned opinion, are constantly at risk of being the victims of such separation. “The entire atmosphere is that, wherever you go, whether you’re working in the street or you’re just going out of your office, if they see a camera on you they’re going to stop you,” says Mosa’ab, “And eventually you’re going to languish in jail if you’re not lucky. So it’s terrible to say the least.”
Twelve hours before his brothers found out about his arrest, at around 6:30 am, Abdullah had called Gehad to tell her what was happening in Raba’a. Half awake, in her bed, she tried to remain cognizant as she talked on the phone. “The police are here,” he told her, “It’s like a small war.”
“Abdullah, I’ll be with you,” she said, trying to reassure him. Ten minutes later, Gehad made it to Raba’a where she teamed up with a friend to look for Abdullah.
Once inside the camp, Gehad says, she was enveloped by a thick cloud of tear gas. She and her friend started roaming through the camp even as others were trying to escape. During their search, someone collapsed on the ground near them, shot by a bullet from the raiding forces. Instinctively they helped carry him to the makeshift hospital for treatment. When Gehad saw the inside of the hospital, brimming with the dead, she couldn’t stop herself from helping. She stayed there for three long hours, trying to call Abdullah repeatedly to no avail. Then he coincidentally stopped by the hospital on his own.
“Oh my god,” he said, when he saw her in the thick of the chaos, “Are you okay?” She was fine, she said. The two spent most of that day doing their respective work: Gehad trying to save lives in the hospital, and Abdullah doing live shots and phone interviews for Al Jazeera. “That day, every two or three hours I saw him by luck at the hospital,” recalls Gehad, “At maybe 4 PM he was at the hospital, in the same hall as me, trying to call Doha [where Al Jazeera is based] because it was the only building [the security forces] weren’t shooting. They were shooting the glass, but they hadn’t entered it yet.”
Then the security forces, dressed in all black with gas masks and automatic weapons, finally stormed the hospital and ordered everyone out to the “safe” exit, forcing them to leave the injured and dying behind, Gehad says.
On the way out, Gehad says she saw a man pointing at Abdullah and talking to various police officers. She wonders if he had a role in targeting Abdullah. She’ll probably never know. When Abdullah was stopped and asked for his ID, Gehad also wonders if things would have ended differently were he to have had a standard Egyptian ID instead of a passport. She’ll probably never know that either. But she does know one thing: one day she will move to Nigeria, she will start the life she had tried to start back in August, and they will go on the anniversary trip they had planned for last September. “When Abdullah is free,” she says, “inshallah.”