As the sixth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution came and went, I found myself listening to Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. It is my friend Mahmoud Abu Zeid’s favorite song, a photojournalist who has been in prison in Egypt since August 2013 for documenting the Rabaa Square massacre.
When the Egyptian military brutally cleared Rabaa’s anti-coup protesters on August 14, 2013 killing over 1,000 people, Mahmoud (popularly known as “Shakwan”) made his way to the square to take a few photos. He did not expect to be rounded up with the protesters. Even after it happened, he thought he would be released quickly. Four years later, I can only hope, he is “comfortably numb” in his prison cell, but I know better.
“Hey, I missed you, how’ve you been?” he said to me when we spoke recently. I remember hesitating before replying. Was this the same person who had an outburst on the phone only days before?
There were days when Mahmoud would send me charming selfies of himself in his white prison garb, and we would talk for hours on end. Then, there were moments when he would only speak curtly, almost with anger, treating me like a stranger. As frustrating as his capricious attitude was, I had to remind myself this was a consequence of being imprisoned for so long.
Mahmoud often goes weeks without seeing any sunlight. His only connection to the outside world is the small smart phone he managed to smuggle into the prison (which was recently confiscated). Normalcy cannot thrive under these conditions. Over time, his smiling selfies have lessened, his voice has softened, and it has become harder for him to hope for a better future, as his detention continues to be renewed without any end in sight.
Mahmoud is among an estimated 40-50,000 political dissidents who have been imprisoned since the coup—alone, forgotten, and isolated. “People will tell you they haven’t forgotten you,” Abdullah Alfakharany, another imprisoned Egyptian journalist, wrote to me in a letter. “But life goes on. People get married. People travel. People grow old, have children…while you remain in an unknown dark place, unable to even open the door.” Abdullah was arrested while visiting his friend Mohamed Soltan August 25, 2013. Security forces stormed in and arrested everyone in the house without warrants. Like Mahmoud, Abdullah expected to be freed quickly, believing the world would rise up to defend him and a free press.
Abdullah often tells me about the girl he hopes to marry—“she’s the reason I miss freedom”—and how he prays to be reunited with her someday soon. “I see my friends getting married, and I wonder when will it be my turn. The door of the cell was slammed on my dreams of being with the girl I love,” he told me. “If you are engaged, or in love, leave the girl, and let her live her life, so you don’t screw someone over waiting for you,” he said to me, painfully.
Abdullah, who is generally very happy and high-spirited, has had his spirit utterly crushed by his imprisonment. He recently wrote on Facebook that he dislikes those who tell him “that prayer will get you out of jail.” Just hours after he posted this statement, however, he deleted it. “Why did you delete it Abdullah?” I asked, wondering if there had been security reprisals. “People weren’t happy,” he replied quietly. “They told me it’s wrong to lose hope.”
Not only are Egypt’s prisoners expected to bear the isolation, torture, and physical and psychological pain, but they are also expected to refrain from expressing the agony of their struggle. No matter what they are going through or how alone and hopeless they feel, these prisoners are told they must be strong by those privileged with freedom. If they falter, they are hung out to dry, as punishment for failing to persevere through a fight they never asked to be part of.
Even after they are released, the suffering does not end. Mohamed Soltan, an imprisoned American-Egyptian activist who went on a hunger strike for over 420 days, was finally deported back to the United States in May 2015 after falling into several comas, over the course of his twenty month detention.
“The physical torture, that goes. But the psychological torture? That never leaves you,” Soltan told me. “When I first came out, I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified of waking up back there.”
Survivor’s guilt is a constant companion to Soltan. “It eats at me every morning when I wake up and before I go to sleep,” he says.”There’s a constant feeling of why me and not them. If I survived, they should too. That somehow, my freedom skimmed their chances of theirs.”
Indeed, it is a lot for a twenty-nine-year old to carry. “But, it’s also what fuels me to work harder and more creatively, to make sure that they too survive,” he said.