While Western Journalists Finally Walk Free, Egyptians Are Left to Rot
Despite the best intentions of their liberated colleagues, it is likely that local journalists jailed by the regime in Cairo will soon be out of sight and out of mind.
CAIRO — It has been over 400 days since Jehan Rashed’s world stopped when the police stormed her suburban Cairo home in the middle of the night, shot her dog and took her husband.
Now the wife of jailed Al Jazeera journalist Baher Mohamed sits at home waiting for him to return, surrounded by crazy sculptures he has made her from bits of trash in prison. There are animals fashioned out of soap, a cardboard name plaque stuck together with honey and a piece of plastic decorated with sticks.
The 30-year-old Egyptian was charged alongside 17 others, including his Al Jazeera colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian, and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian dual national, for allegedly assisting a terrorist group and fabricating news. The trial was a Kafkaesque nightmare where pop songs, footage from other networks and family photographs were presented as evidence against the staffers from the Qatar-based satellite television network.
In June last year they were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail, a verdict which horrified the world and was blamed on a growing diplomatic row between Egypt and Qatar, which had continued to back ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi after the 2013 military takeover.
Baher Mohamed was handed the heftiest sentence: a decade behind bars because he had a single bullet casing on his person. The sentence was eventually overturned by the Court of Cassation in January and a retrial ordered without bail.
But, unlike last year, it is probable that Baher Mohamed will face the new legal proceedings alone.
On Sunday, Greste walked free from Cairo’s Tora prison and flew to Cyprus, leaving his family and lawyers almost as amazed as they were delighted. Governments across the world—including the U.S.—had lobbied the Egyptian authorities to drop the case. As an apparent compromise, the authorities enacted a newly ratified presidential decree allowing foreign detainees to be deported back to their home countries to face trial.
Canadian-Egyptian Fahmy, the network’s Cairo Bureau Chief, is set to follow suit, provided he drops his Egyptian citizenship and agrees to leave to Canada for good.
But with no other nationality, Egyptian Baher Mohamed has no get-of-jail card.
“I collapsed when I first heard the news Peter had left and Fahmy would follow,” said Jehan, holding her youngest son Haroun, born while his father was in jail. “We are excited for the families but it isn’t a good thing for us,” she said.
“Peter—the Australian—was out first, Mohamed [Fahmy] has to sacrifice his identify for freedom, and Baher is stuck,” said the mother of three. “The message is: being Egyptian doesn’t give you anything. It keeps you in jail.”
Baher Mohamed’s family is terrified that with the “foreigners” out of the picture the media hype surrounding the case will die down, international governments will give up and their loved one will be forgotten, buried under the region’s other depressing headlines.
They are not alone.
There are currently 10 reporters languishing in the country’s jail cells, all of them Egyptian and most of them virtually forgotten, placing Egypt among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
One of the longest serving inmates is Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a 27-year-old freelance photographer nicknamed Shawkan, who was arrested in the summer of 2013 and held since then without charge.
I briefly met him just before he was detained during the deadly police dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa sit-in on August 14 that year. We were taking a breather from the angry chatter of machinegun fire and the shriek of high-velocity sniper bullets zipping through concrete.
The enthusiastic hippie-looking photographer, who was working for Demotix, a London-based photojournalist network, said he was determined to get inside the field hospital, at the center of the gunfight, where mangled bodies were being piled up in corridors.
Wearing little protective gear, Shawkan slipped back toward the fray and— as it turned out—into a waiting police van. No one, except prison guards and his direct family, has seen him since. Without a trial, he is rotting in his cell stuck in the endless loop of detention renewal sessions.
“After he heard the two foreign journalists would be freed he crashed—he thinks because they are foreigners they are free to leave, proving all Egyptians will be locked up forever,” said Shakwan’s brother Mohamed Abou Zeid, who spoke to him shortly after the news broke of Greste’s release.
“Mentally he has collapsed, he sits in the corner of his tiny jail cell alone refusing to talk to the other 11 inmates squeezed in there with him. He barely eats, he doesn’t do exercise, he is a dead man walking,” Abou Zeid added.
Shawkan is in the same prison complex that held Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed but in a less pleasant wing. As he was arrested as an alleged rioter, not a journalist, conditions are harsher. Prisoners are not allowed books, newspapers or any form of stimulus, so for the last 540 days he has had absolutely nothing to do.
“It’s like someone has kidnapped him and shoved him in a box,” his brother added.
Back in northwest Cairo, a tearful Jehan described how her kids begged her husband to “stop working and come home” during the last prison visit this week, where they were given just 45 minutes to play with their father.
The conditions and crushing boredom of Tora, Egypt’s modern day Château d’If, can be bad or they can be horrible.
“For the first month they were put in solitary confinement: a tiny two meter by two meter insect-ridden cell both could barely stand in,” Jehan explains. They were stripped of their clothes and made to sleep on the freezing concrete floor. Some mornings the guards would randomly throw icy water on them.
It was only after intense pressure from foreign governments and international rights groups that they were transferred from the maximum security unit to a more comfortable part of the sprawling prison complex and reunited with Greste.
But even there—like most Tora inmates—they were only granted half an hour out of their cell for “exercise,” which consists of running up and down a narrow corridor.
“My husband hasn’t seen the sky for a whole year,” said Jehan. “Whenever the sunlight peeps through the one window they fight for who can have a bit of time in the spot. So he is busy creating his own world, to make up for it.”
Baher Mohamed, an avid basketball fan and horse-rider, has fashioned a basketball hoop from a cardboard box, fixed with a stick in a crack in the wall. He takes the tin foil off the prison food and makes it into flowers for his wife. He also trying to set up an NGO based in America to protect journalists.
Otherwise, as the tidiest of the three jailed Al Jazeera employees, he dedicates weeks to making the room look “nicer,” Jehan said.
“Peter once joked the cell was so clean they could eat off the floor,” she laughed, adding they were close.
And it is this camaraderie and friendship forged in jail that Greste spoke of in his first interview after his release on Monday afternoon.
Describing Baher Mohamed as an “amazing family man,” Greste singled out the Egyptian saying he had suffered the most because of his wife and children.
“[Mohamed] was excited that I am out but also concerned because we need to keep the focus on him,” said Greste, talking to his employer on the phone from Cyprus.
“I also feel incredible angst for my colleagues, leaving them behind… Amidst all of this relief I still feel a sense of concern. If it’s right for me to be free, then it’s right for all of us to be free,” said Greste.
There is hope. Al Jazeera has vowed to continue a global campaign until all of its staffers are out of jail and the charges dropped. The European Union, which applauded the freeing of Greste, also called for their release.
But little is being said of 10 other jailed journalists like Shawkan, and the anxiety of not knowing what fate holds for them is killing families that are tired of empty promises.
“What is the price we have to pay because we are Egyptian?” Jehan said quietly, as her children played around her, apparently oblivious to it all. “It should be the opposite, our country should take care of us, not abandon us.”