Remembering Shawkan, An Egyptian Journalist Left Behind

The release of Al Jazeera's journalists this week should further highlight Egypt's own local reporters who remain behind bars.

Mahmoud Abou Zeid, an Egyptian photojournalist, was arrested alongside me in Cairo on Aug. 14, 2013. We were covering the start of the Rabaa massacre when police beat us and threw us into a prison bus full of terrified protesters. I was released after a few hours. Abou Zeid, 27, still languishes in prison today.

According to his family, he suffers from a rapidly deteriorating psychological state, sitting alone in a corner of his cell and rarely eating, as his brother told The Daily Beast, describing him as "a dead man walking."

With two Al Jazeera journalists similarly held by the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expected to return to their families — Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, has already and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen, will reportedly follow suit — Abou Zeid is a reminder of the Egyptian journalists who remain behind bars, to far less fanfare. There are 10 of them, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. "He is not in any way considered political," Sherif Mansour, the CPJ's Middle East director, says of Abou Zeid. "As his father put it to us, if his son is being jailed, treated as criminal, then they should just shut the door for journalism altogether in Egypt."

I met Abou Zeid, whose friends call him Shawkan, just that morning. I was standing behind police lines not far from the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters had massed for days in support of the recently ousted president. He walked up from behind me with French photographer Louis Jammes, and we stood there together for a minute, watching as police fired automatic weapons into the crowd. We discussed plans to sneak past the police and into the protest. But Abou Zeid left to take some pictures first, camera in hand.

Not long after, police seized me, punched me in the head and bound my hands, knowing I was a journalist and seeming to relish the fact. Abou Zeid and Jammes suffered a similar fate, and soon we were kneeling together on the floor of the bus as the protesters crowded around us muttered prayers and suffered more beatings. The three of us repeated each other's names under our breath, trying to commit them to memory. I remember Abou Zeid whispering to Jammes and me, despite the risk that this would give the guards an excuse to attack him, trying to calm us as he translated bits of the chaotic scene.

From the van we were marched into a basketball stadium, some of the first prisoners led onto a court soon full of them. Eventually the police pulled Jammes and me to the side, as well as a French videographer who'd arrived in another bus. We sat there for a while before being released, with some apologies. My last memory of Abou Zeid has him kneeling on the court amid rows of other prisoners.

I exited the stadium into a city awash with news of a death toll that would eventually climb past 1,000, according to Human Rights Watch. Among the dead were Sky News cameraman Michael "Mick" Deane and three Egyptian journalists.

Abou Zeid has become another casualty of that grim day and of the Egyptian government's crackdowns on the press — kept in jail then because he isn't a Westerner like me and stuck there now for the same reason.

Mohamed Fahmy has not yet been released, and Peter Greste is an Australian citizen. A previous version of this story misstated this information.

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