Writing by Patrick Keddie
JAMMES AND SHAWKAN were in trouble. A police officer was standing on Jammes’s toes and a line of police trucks had arrived. The officer stared into Jammes’s face for several minutes. He slapped him when he tried to speak. Jammes was advised to keep looking down at his feet, half obscured by the officer’s boots. His friend Shawkan, just behind him, endured the same treatment.
Louis Jammes, a French photographer, and “Shawkan,” the nickname for Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, had arrived early that morning, August 14, 2013, at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in of mostly pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi had been ousted by the military in early July, following huge protests against him. Rabaa square, east Cairo, had become an encampment of at least 80,000 overwhelmingly peaceful protesters calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. The authorities had lost patience with the six-week old sit-in; most people knew that it would soon be cleared and that it was likely to happen at the end of Ramadan.
When Jammes and Shawkan arrived that morning, they watched the camp awaken. There were many families there — men, women, and children. The photographers were shown a new field hospital that had been set up to care for the anticipated casualties of the coming clearance. It was not long afterward that the security forces made their advance into the camp.
Jammes wanted to stay with the sit-in but Shawkan preferred to be behind military lines. “Shawkan was a little afraid of the Brotherhood,” recalls Jammes. “I was really afraid of the military myself but Shawkan trusted them.” Jammes asked Shawkan a couple of times if he was certain it was the right decision; he was sure the armed forces would not allow them to photograph the clearance.
When the security forces began to fire on the sit-in, Jammes and Shawkan crossed behind them. They were perhaps 10 or 20 meters behind the frontline, crouching behind cars, running between armored vehicles and taking photos alongside the military as they pushed forward against the ranks of protesters defending the camp.
“The atmosphere was like we were in a war,” wrote Shawkan in a letter smuggled out of prison and published earlier this year in the Independent: “Bullets, tear gas, fire” — and a mass of police, soldiers, and tanks.
“It’s the worst thing I ever saw, this kind of shooting on people so close,” remembers Jammes. “I have been to war — I was in Sarajevo, Chechnya, Iraq — I never saw shooting so close, directly on people. In war you don’t see the enemy — the enemy is quite far, you shoot but you don’t see him. But at Rabaa they shot people directly at maybe 200–300 meters.” Jammes didn’t see any weapons on the Brotherhood side at Rabaa, although multiple independent reports confirmed that a small number of protesters were armed; eight members of the security forces died that day.
After a couple of hours the military cleared part of the camp. Jammes and Shawkan noticed that the police — Special Forces perhaps — were arresting anyone they could get their hands on, including bystanders. Jammes saw soldiers beating Mike Giglio, a reporter for Newsweek. When Shawkan identified himself to police as a photojournalist he was beaten and arrested. Jammes’s protestations that he was a French photographer were answered with slaps. “So they arrested everybody,” says Jammes, “None of them were fighters.”
Their hands were bound so tightly that the plastic cuffs bit into a nerve in Jammes’s hand, numbing part of it for several months afterwards. Their cameras were confiscated and never returned. The detainees were then loaded onto trucks. Jammes and Shawkan exchanged few words, afraid, as most were to speak. They were taken to the Cairo Stadium complex, and lined up in a sporting arena — the foreigners separated from the Egyptians. The foreigners were asked some questions and after two hours were tossed back into the streets of Cairo. The Egyptians were held.
Hundreds of people died that day in Rabaa. Jammes thinks Shawkan’s decision to stay alongside the military may well have saved their lives. But it also cost Shawkan his freedom. It would be a while before Jammes heard from him again.
[Read the rest of this piece published by the LA Review of Books here]