Abanoub Emad: Eye Witness to the Horrors of Street Clashes From Behind the Lens of a Camera [Faces of Egypt]


A note by the authors: When we first met Abanoub, he was still in college, studying journalism. One of our first conversations with him was about his frustrations with journalism in Egypt. Today, it remains a difficult profession to break into, and while many people write, very few young journalists are given an opportunity to make a name for themselves. 

A few months later, we ran into Abanoub during the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud. Since we had last met him, he had joined Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm’s (AMAY) video journalism team. He was standing near the field clinic, wearing a gas mask, camera in hand, a calm look on his face, welcoming us into the chaos. When asked what the situation was like, he answered "It’s pretty bad up ahead, some guy next to me got shot in the face, he was standing right next to me."

While most nights in Mohamed Mahmoud are splintered into fragmented memories, the memory of  Abanoub putting his mask back on, and waving to us as he made his way to the front lines, through the sirens and the motorcycles carrying corpses and the dense clouds of tear gas, is as clear as day.

Later that week, watching Abanoub’s videos from Mohamed Mahmoud, one was filled with pride and a surreal realization that we had watched him, as he had simply walked through the line of fire with his camera and went to work.

The sight of Mohamed Mahmoud soon became a familiar one. Less than a month later, clashes broke out in Mansour Street. It was almost a reenactment: more injuries, more blood on the streets of Cairo, all dismissed by the media and the government. Once again, we bumped into Abanoub, who was happy to have upgraded his mask, "This is great, now I can stand for longer inside without having to come out for some air.”

It’s not that he’s an adrenaline junkie, because when you watch captured footage of the clashes, you realize that Abanoub had gone so far past the front line, that he was actually filming in no man’s land. You watch his footage and it takes you to another reality altogether. You forget to look at the byline, you forget the man behind the camera, whose life almost ended several times.

I’m not a revolutionary. I’m a journalist

As Egypt revolted for 18 consecutive days, Abanoub Emad was in Tahrir Square, like thousands of Egypt’s brightest and bravest. Back then he was writing for a limited distribution weekly newspaper. The world celebrated the young Egyptian revolution and its success in ousting long-term dictator Mubarak. Soon after international media moved on to news of Libya and Syria, however Egypt’s fight was not over.  As early as the beginning of March, 2011 torture, military trials of civilians, virginity tests and outbursts of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces continued until February 2012. These were the chaotic aftershocks of the January 25 Revolution, and Abanoub was present in most of them, ready with his cameras to document history being written in tear gas, bullets and blood.

When asked how he defines himself, Abanoub says “I’m a video journalist. At times I refer to myself as a multimedia journalist, a backpack journalist. I film the incident, I edit it, I produce it. It’s more than just a reporter or anchor, it’s an actual wholesome profession…No [I’m not a revolutionary], I am a journalist.”

As the initial sparks of the January 25 revolution enflamed the Egyptian street, Abanoub was still a university student, studying mass communications with a journalism focus. The beginnings of his passion for video journalism came from his love for art and creativity. “The way I saw it was that photography was a form of art, and instead of drawing, I am putting a picture together,” Abanoub explained.

At the beginning of his university career, he wasn’t particularly interested in media, but that all changed when he met his role model and mentor, Dr. Wael Kandil, one of his college professors, who coincidentally shares the name of one of Egypt’s famed journalists. Kandil motivated him to read, explore and simply know more. 

While still a student, Abanoub landed a job at a small daily newspaper. His first article, about sexual harassment in Egypt, was well received, and he started writing more, with continued support from Kandil. By the time he graduated in 2012, he had won various local awards and certificates, and his graduation project won second place in a nation-wide evaluation of 58 media institutions. 

The chaotic aftershocks of the revolution

In May 2011, he joined the AMAY team, where he was given the opportunity to cover major events in the aftershocks of the revolution: clashes like the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud, Ministry Cabinet, Kasr El Einy, the various Syrian Embassy clashes, Abbasseya and the Maspero Massacre.

His first video was published on 27th May 2011, in Tahrir square, footage of what was dubbed The Second Revolution of Rage. Abanoub recalls, “It was one of the first times that Tahrir square was full, yet no Muslim Brotherhood members were there. It was an important moment for me.”

The video that left its mark on him came during the Maspero Massacre. “I was not present when the violence broke out,” he says. “All the media headed straight to the State TV building, and I was the only one inside the hospital…I also captured clashes that broke out later outside the hospital.” (Warning: Graphic video)

The events Abanoub describes led to tens of deaths and hundreds of permanent injuries and arrests. Abanoub recalls these incidents collectively, “There was so much blood . . . I don’t feel fear [anymore]. These moments killed my fear.” He argues that fear of injury and death are the biggest enemies of his job. It is because he was able to let go of them, he can now cover stories effectively, “I saw death so many times. I saw so many fall beside me. On one of the Mohamed Mahmoud nights, it was pitch black and all you could see from the CSF truck headlights were silhouettes and shadows. Of course it was too dark to film anything, until someone sparked a flare that lit up the entire street. Suddenly we could see everything, and just as suddenly, we heard a shot, and the guy who had lit the flare was on the floor, his blood gushing around my feet.”

One of the moments Abanoub recalls clearly is on the 4th day of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. Unlike most of the other news channels broadcasting from an aerial view, his footage set itself apart, with Abanoub shooting at the street level. “I wanted my angle to be parallel because it’s important that the viewer sees it from that point of view, it’s just more effective that way. It’s different to see shots fired at someone from above than seeing it shot straight at you.” In the footage, viewers can see shots fired directly at the camera. “This was one of the toughest moments I experienced,” he explains. 

Abanoub goes on to recall another day in the week leading to the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, during which he was attacked while covering the forced eviction of Tahrir Square. He recounts: 

“I was filming soldiers as they were arresting and beating protesters and taking them to an armed central security forces truck. Suddenly I was grabbed by the shoulder violently, by a man who looked so generically like an informer, you know the leather pants, the coat, the mustache. I yelled that I’m a journalist, wrapping my camera around my wrist, but I was being dragged towards the truck even as I kept yelling, and eventually another man grabbed my other shoulder and they dragged me on till my clothes tore.  They asked me to let go of the camera, but when I didn’t, they surrounded me and beat me continuously…throwing punches and kicks to my face, my chest, my stomach, my sides, until eventually the camera was taken and the beating stopped. I continued yelling of course, "My camera!!  I’m a journalist, how can you do that, I’m going to expose all of you, my camera!!" I was furious, yelling, until I was asked to calm down and wait, my camera will be returned. I did wait, and my camera did return, only it was completely formatted, reset to factory settings"

I believe the revolution is an idea, and the idea changed people’s minds
Over the span of just a few months, Abanoub has witnessed and covered some of the most graphic and violent of clashes in Egypt. Despite that, he insists that he was never scared. “I know I have the right to be there..and as long as I know that I’m not afraid. They can come at me with whatever they’ve got, but I’m not scared." He goes on, “I want to cover the truth..If it was just a job for me I wouldn’t risk my life, but this is what I want to do…and this is what differentiates the quality of work. You can tell who’s doing it for the sake of doing it, and who’s doing it because it’s what they love to do”

With such a blatant overuse of force, even the most disinterested bystander can easily get emotionally and physically involved, for Abanoub, it seems almost inevitable that this would affect him. Instead, the confusion and shock of it all had led him to feel numb more than anything else. “I became conditioned. I would hear the CSF siren and immediately wait for the blasting sound of the tear gas being shot. I had several sounds stuck in my head for days, the ambulance, the sound of shots being fired, the single headlight on the motorbike that carried the injured. I felt shocked, until I just became cold.” 

For Abanoub, he had to remain objective, to at least remain balanced in his coverage, to  capture the situation from both ends. “I see myself as a professional, and the only truth I wanted to highlight was the killing, the shots, the injuries, the blood. That’s really what I wanted to do”
With more than 58 documented accounts of violence and abuse against journalists under SCAF, Abanoub had to resort to some trickery to get his job done safely. “At some point you have to pretend to take sides” he says.  During the Abbasseya clashes, residents had set up a community watch, angry at the protesters, so in order to get past them, Abanoub pretended to be on their side, never mentioning that he is a journalist, and even using his mobile phone to film the infamous dancing soldier.

“Sometimes I tell the soldiers that all the media is focusing on the other end and people need to see things from their end too. They would actually end up helping me. During this time I would realize that at the end of the day, they’re both just simple Egyptians, they’re both just stuck in this vicious cycle, moved by something larger than them.”
It is without a doubt the revolution fast forwarded Abanoub’s path to success, yet he believes that he would have amounted to something big sooner or later, “I had faith that I will do something big with my life. I don’t know what would have happened or where I would be now if the revolution had never happened, but I know I would have done something considerable eventually.”  With a full realization that the revolution gave way to increased creativity, Abanoub believes that creativity was always there, but was given more space to flourish. “It has it’s drawbacks of course, like all the unprofessional TV channels and news outlets now, but it’s not the revolution’s fault obviously. I believe the revolution is an idea, and the idea changed people’s minds.”

Yet walking away from all this, it is difficult for Abanoub to highlight one paramount moment within his experiences. “All that I have covered represents one moment to me – whether it was a protester with a political cause, or a sports cause like the Ultras, or a sectarian cause, like in Maspero – it was a protester with a cause getting killed. Getting killed for an idea.”

When asked if he had developed any ill feelings towards the revolution, he assertively explains that he sees the revolution as a news event that he is waiting to read more about so he can form an opinion. It is too early for hate or love. 

Equally as assertive as he is about hating the revolution, Abanoub harbors no hate towards the police or the army, whom he views as individuals; “I saw ugliness on both ends, and I was unbiased, which annoyed me. I was unable to distinguish between their ugliness and it angered me. For me it’s not so absolute, I believe someone is giving the orders. One of my biggest idols is Khalil Gibran, who taught me humanity, and at the end of the day I perceived them as humans, and I think hatred is inhumane. You can perceive them as wrong, but hate will not solve anything.”
Yet Abanoub is no revolutionary, as he explains, nor does he believe he has given up his role in the revolution to maintain his objectivity as a journalist  “We all have roles. This is my role. On my first day in AMAY I made the decision that I will not be anything other than a journalist. It is my role and as long as I’m holding my camera, I’m nobody else.”
With countless significant moments captured by Abanoub, he remains hidden behind his lens, unknown to the hundreds of thousands who view his videos, an unusual phenomenon in this period of social media upheaval in Egypt, where names become brands and twitter accounts become podiums for public speech. 

“This was my choice,” Abanoub says. “At some point I decided I don’t want to become famous. For example I had stopped tweeting, because if my followers increase and my interaction with them decreases then it’s useless. I only use Twitter to spread my work. Perhaps other video journalists gained more fame because of their other roles, and perhaps serious injuries, but I’m more concerned with my message being delivered than with my fame. I don’t want fame to affect my work and my credibility. I don’t want to be defined by that fame.”

His aspiration comes down to a simple desire to become a professional, a state which he defines as one where there is continuous learning.  Abanoub wishes to work for a news agency like AFP or Reuters, out of the respect he has for their professionalism, “Everyone and every institution has an agenda. Mine is professionalism and that’s the agenda I want to belong to.”

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