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Egypt's exiled journalists watch COP27 from afar

'The reality is miserable': Egypt's exiled journalists watch COP27 from afar
7 min read
10 November, 2022
In-depth: With all eyes on Egypt for the UN climate conference, journalists who were forced into exile share their stories and put a spotlight on the Sisi regime's violent repression of civil society.

As activists, politicians, and media from all over the world flock to Egypt to cover the annual United Nations COP27 summit, Egyptian journalists and dissidents in exile remain unable to return home, either for work or to see their families.

For many of them, it was both dangerous and difficult to escape in the first place.

Egypt is ranked 168 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Index, which calls Egypt “one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists.” The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) considered Egypt the world's third worst jailer of journalists in 2021, counting 25 in custody.

As of October 2022, the total number of journalists behind bars was 45, according to the Arab Observatory for Media Freedom, while there are an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in total.

"Press freedom in Egypt has a tiny space, not more than 5% [of the media landscape], because of the military regime's control over all the media elements," said exiled Al Jazeera reporter Abdullah Elshamy in a conversation with The New Arab.

Elshamy himself spent 309 days in prison after he was arrested while covering the Rabaa massacre of August 2013, in which Egyptian security forces killed nearly one thousand anti-government protesters following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup. While in prison, he went on a hunger strike and lost 40 kilograms before he was finally released in June 2014.

Elshamy decided to leave Egypt once he was informed of his release. He needed to be issued new identification papers after his were confiscated upon his arrest. The bureaucratic procedures were not easy for an ex-prisoner journalist, but he received his passport after six weeks. Within three days, he was on a flight to Nairobi.

He booked a return ticket to avoid raising the suspicions of the Egyptian security services. Nevertheless, he was detained for an official investigation at the airport, where security asked him about his reasons for travelling, his plans to return, and if he was still in touch with Al Jazeera. Just half an hour before his flight, he was finally released.

Even though he continued to work for Al Jazeera overseas, it wasn't easy to cope with the many obstacles that exile brings.

Al Jazeera's Egyptian journalist Abdullah Elshamy speaks to the media upon his release from jail in Cairo, Egypt on 17 June 2014. [Getty]

At first, he needed some time to process the extreme political events he covered and heal from his ordeal: counting 400 bodies in Rabaa hospital, his arrest, spending 11 months in prison, countless investigations, a hunger strike, and finally leaving his home country without any hope of returning and starting a completely new life in an unfamiliar environment.

Before his ordeal, Elshamy was a reporter in West Africa and travelled to Cairo in late June 2013 to cover the events following the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi. A field reporter by training, after his release he started afresh in a newsroom in Qatar, before he took the "proudest step in [his] 12-year career" and went back to the field. He is currently still with Al Jazeera as a reporter covering the European Union.

The challenges Elshamy has faced as a result of his exile affect both his professional and personal life. In August, his bag with his passport was stolen in Vienna. He requested that a new passport be issued by the Egyptian embassy in Brussels but, after waiting for two months, he was informed that his application was rejected and that he could only get a travel document to return to Cairo.

In September 2018, Elshamy was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison. Going back to Cairo is not an option.

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When asked what he is seeking beyond obtaining a new passport and expanding his work within the European Union, Elshamy said, "Stability itself. Being a traveller for the past years has created a feeling of instability”.

For journalist and researcher Heba Zakarya, returning to Egypt is not an option either. With the new experiences and knowledge she has gained after nine years abroad, she believes she could improve the abysmal state of press freedom in Egypt. 

"Have a quick look at the ownership pattern in the media outlets. You’ll see that it's under the direct control of state agencies," she told The New Arab.

Zakarya was a senior editor in the Middle East office of Anadolu Agency. She went to cover the Rabaa sit-in and the anti-government protests and was arrested for 24 hours. Still, because the security forces searched her workplace and home three times, she took the advice of the agency's legal advisor to leave Egypt. Within a month, she was back reporting from the agency's main office in Istanbul.

"I didn't prefer to deal with the situation as a forced exile, even if it is," she said. She made the move to academia, writing her thesis about women's psychological and social developments in the Muslim Brotherhood during the military coup, and is now a lecturer at universities and has written several books.

To support other female journalists facing threats, Zakarya established the Association of Arab Women Journalists in Diaspora and Conflict Zones.

Unlike Zakarya, Osama Gaweesh had a more challenging experience finding opportunities abroad. Originally a dentist, Gaweesh became a target of the regime due to his political activism and participation in the Rabaa sit-in. Two days after the massacre, he found himself in a security pursuit that ended when he heard a rumour that his name was on a security list shaded in red, which meant there was an intention to kill him.

He left his wife and children behind and went to Istanbul. There, he tried to work in his primary profession as a dentist but found difficulties related to language and the required certifications. So, to live and provide for his family, Gaweesh worked as a tourist guide, surviving on tips. Then he found another job in a nut shop in Taksim Square, working 12-hour shifts, six days per week for about $380.

"I was glad that I could bring my wife and children safely with me," he said. Then, he heard that a group of Egyptian activists were establishing an opposition channel and needed politically aware activists to work there; he interviewed and was accepted.

Journalists and photojournalists hold banners as they demonstrate in front of the journalist's syndicate in Cairo against repeated attacks on members of the press in Egypt on 4 April 2014. [Getty]

Gaweesh quickly gained fame after his program exposed leaked audio recordings of prominent leaders in the armed forces talking about the detention of Morsi during the coup against him.

On a visit to London, he was stopped by Turkish airport officers, who cancelled his exit stamp and detained him. He was informed that his name bears a terrorism code and his only ticket would be to Egypt with Interpol. After human rights activists and political figures intervened, the Turkish authorities allowed him to travel anywhere but not remain in Turkey. He had no option but to travel to London and once again leave his wife and children behind.

He confirmed that he was on the Interpol list during his first days in London, so he sought asylum as his only option. Living in a pest-infested house for a year and a half, he has lost his work, his family, and his hope.

"I lost everything, I suffered from depression, and the Home Office was obstinate, despite my case being crystal clear," Gaweesh told The New Arab.

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Gaweesh volunteered for six months at BBC Radio in Ipswich. After getting his asylum approval, he studied journalism at the University of London as part of the Refugee Journalism Project.

"It was a big shift that made me a more comprehensive journalist," Gaweesh said. He is now a writer with several English newspapers, the editor-in-chief of EgyptWatch, and the host of his own podcast, where he interviewed prominent figures like Julian Assange's wife and British politician Jeremy Corbyn.

Speaking about COP27, Gaweesh believes that the Egyptian authorities are treating the summit as a festival “in which the politicians are taking pictures on the red carpet, but the reality is miserable," he said.

"The arrest campaign against any opposing voices increased before the summit, as a result of the lack of freedom of expression,” he added, referencing the sharp rise in arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists, and those speaking out against the Egyptian regime ahead of the international climate conference.

Shaimaa Elhadidy is an Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights defender based in Istanbul.

Follow her on Twitter: @salhadidy