“When I first got to prison, all my friends had already been there for two months. I saw Shady for the first time with them,” says Emad*, a former prisoner. “He was like us — we’re not political, we like football, movies, music, and television series. A friend introduced me to him, telling me he had directed that Rami Essam video. When I went up to say hi to him, I saw him tearing up. I tried to kid around with him a bit, but my friend told me that since he’d been imprisoned, he’d become very depressed and barely spoke.”
In mid-2018, Emad met director Shady Ashraf Mohammed, known as Shady Habash, then 23 years old. He lived alongside Shady for several months on the same cellblock in Tora Investigation Prison, and after that first meeting, he knew that he and Shady would friends. During the next day’s exercise period, he headed to Shady’s cell to wake him up, and they went for a walk together, drank tea and talked at length. When they spoke about his case, Shady told his new friend, “I didn’t know they’d get so pissed. It’s just a song!”
With time, a friendship grew between Emad, Shady Habash and blogger and satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who was held in a different cell block in the same prison. Their visitation times overlapped and they were brought before the prosecution on the same days.
“The first time he went to a hearing there, he had high hopes for release,” Emad says. “When he got 45 more days, he came back shocked and wouldn’t leave his cell for two days, until we managed to drag him out. He wanted to get out so he could fix the tooth the police detective broke when he arrested him. He’d joke that he would crack a Hollywood smile and get a four-day massage when he got out.”
Shady was friendly and gregarious, Emad says, but his time in prison appeared to begin to take a heavy toll on his mental health. In contrast to the images online showing Shady smiling or carrying a camera, Emad remembers his friend in prison coveralls and anxious most of the time.
“He often told me that he felt he was going to die here,” Emad says. “But at the same time and despite his depression, he clung to anything that would make him laugh or give him hope. During one visit, he heard that someone had written a post about him and Shady Abu Zeid, saying they were talented artists and it was a shame for them to be rotting away. The post got more than 20,000 likes. He was elated and kept saying that everybody’s in an uproar about this on the outside and for sure there will be some response.”
They maintained contact after Emad’s release. In Shady’s last letter to him, he wrote, “So what’s the story? You told me I’d get out after you — did you forget or what? It looks like I’m going to die here.”
Shady’s mood swings between despondency and optimism were obvious to Lama Ahmed, his childhood friend who stayed in touch with him in prison through letters sent with his family on visits. The last thing she received from him was a drawing he had done in prison and given to his family in January. In their last communication, he asked about her young daughter and told her he was forgetting what the sky looked like, seeing it only through thick metal bars.
“I need your support so I don’t die.”
At about 2 am last Saturday, the prison administration called Shady’s mother to tell her that her son was sick and she should come to the prison the next morning, according to lawyer Ahmed al-Khawaga. Khawaga said he heard through unofficial channels about a half-hour later that Shady had already died in his cell.
What happened in the hours preceding his death remained vague for three days. Unofficial stories about the cause of his death circulated while the Interior Ministry released no official statements about the incident. Then on Tuesday, the Public Prosecution released the findings of its investigation of the incident, concluding that Shady had ingested a quantity of ethyl alcohol — currently allowed to prisoners as a hygiene product to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — perhaps intentionally or maybe in error. He suffered varying degrees of pain for two days, during which time he was taken to the prison clinic more than once and given anticonvulsants and antiemetic medication, neither of which stopped the pain. He died in prison before he could be moved to a proper hospital.
The prosecutor’s said that investigations would continue to determine the cause of Shady’s death and assess the rectitude of the medical procedures taken before his death.
The next day, several of Shady’s fellow inmates in his cell block launched a hunger strike protesting the neglect that led to his death. The prison administration responded by revoking exercise time and other measures. The prisoners decided to unofficially suspend the strike, according to sources that spoke to Mada Masr.
On Saturday afternoon, Lama reached Zeinhom Morgue, where Shady’s mother and sister were waiting near the gate. His uncle was inside viewing his remains. Lama waited with the others until the body was released at 5 pm, then everyone made their way to the family cemetery along the Cairo-Ain Sokhna Road.
“We buried him right before sunset and started walking until his mother and sister felt ill. When I got to the cemetery, there were a lot of people, more than 150. There were friends from his neighborhood in Maadi, work colleagues, people from art and media circles — lots of familiar faces,” Lama says. “It shouldn’t be Shady who goes like this. We can’t see him or even say goodbye. He didn’t deserve to go in the first place.”
“I didn’t know they’d get so pissed. It’s just a song!”
Prior to his arrest in February 2018, Shady was a student at the Cairo University Faculty of Commerce. He was trying to transfer to the Cinema Institute so he could focus on a field in which he had more than ten years of practical experience.
Shady started working in film in 2006, a year before he began producing commercial images and videos as a professional photographer, filmmaker and art director, providing his services to independent music acts and celebrities. While building a successful local brand, he aspired to become global, according to his Facebook page, which described him as a filmmaker and graphic designer.
In 2018, Shady became more health-conscious, giving up smoking and thinking about settling down and maybe even marriage, according to Lama.
“In 2007, when we were still in preparatory school, he would film artists with his Nokia phone and then bend over backward to contact them,” she says. “He looked older than his age and he didn’t tell them how old he was, so they put him to work. The first thing he did was film a concert for Tamer Hosni in 2008. After that, he learned how to do everything by himself — all he needed was a computer and the internet. He worked as an art director, graphic designer, photographer, and videographer and filmmaker. He learned to direct and edit and worked with big-name groups like Sharmoofers, Wust El Balad, Masar Egbari, and Cairokee. Outside Egypt, he worked with El Morabba3, Mashrou’ Leila, and Souad Massi, and he worked on films and documentaries.”
On February 26, 2018, as the Egyptian presidential election approached, singer Rami Essam released a video for his song “Balaha,” which criticized the president. Though filmed outside Egypt, Shady helped edit and direct the video, or, according to a legal source who preferred to remain anonymous: “All he did was put the sound to the picture.”
Shady’s childhood friend says that he worked on the song “on a lark, as a favor to someone he knew. He did a lot of favors, for people he knew or didn’t know. He thought it would blow over and that his name on the song wasn’t a big deal, because Rami didn’t have a big fan base. Shady had no political background — his whole life was music and art.”
Three days after the video was released in early March 2018, security forces arrested Shady in the street. He turned up four days later at the State Security Prosecution headquarters in Fifth Settlement, which ordered he be held in remand detention and added him to Case 480/2018 on charges of “joining a group established in violation of the law and spreading false news,” according to Khawaga.
Security forces arrested seven people in connection with the video from March to May 2018: poet Galal al-Beheiri, who wrote the lyrics; director Shady Habash; digital marketing specialists Mustafa Gamal, who had verified Rami Essam’s Facebook page three years before the song’s release, as well as another young man who administered the page; a singer and a guitarist who had worked with Essam years earlier. The seventh defendant had nothing at all to do with the song: he had simply played it inside his car in Kuwait, where another Egyptian heard it and reported him, after which he was arrested, deported, and charged in the case.
According to a legal source with knowledge of the case, the prime target was the writer, who had originally written the song as part of a poetry collection, titled The Best Women on Earth, which had not been published due to the lack of the requisite approval from the censorship board. While the State Security Prosecution remanded Beheiri to custody pending investigation, the Military Prosecution questioned him as well and he was tried in a military court as a separate case. In July 2018, he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of insulting the military establishment and publishing and disseminating false news and statements.
The State Security Prosecution, meanwhile, continued to detain the six other defendants in connection with the original case. “There was insufficient evidence in the case and there were no real grounds for prolonged pretrial detention,” the legal source says, adding that “the primary defendant was punished, so if there was enough evidence against the other defendants, they would have been referred to trial.”
Between September 2018 and March 2020, four of the defendants were released. A release order was also issued for the writer, but he remains in prison serving the military court sentence. Mustafa Gamal and Shady remained in prison, their remand orders regularly renewed for more than two years.
Remand renewed for 45 days — so the court ordered in Shady’s case in February, although his lawyer argued that the order was illegal since Shady would have served the legal limit in pretrial custody as of March. His remand was again renewed in mid-April, without the court convening, according to Khawaga.
Since March, the Interior Ministry has stopped bringing detainees to court for remand hearings, as part of its measures to counter the coronavirus. These measures also meant that Shady was denied family visits, which adversely affected Shady’s mental and physical health, his lawyer said.
Last October, Shady had sent a letter from prison describing the mental toll that prison had taken:
For the last two years, I’ve tried to resist everything that’s happening to me alone, so that I can come out the same person you all know. But I’m no longer able. The meaning of resistance in prison is: you fight and protect yourself and your humanity from the negative impacts of what you see and live every day, the most basic being that you might go crazy or die a slow death from being tossed in a room for two years and forgotten, and you don’t know when or how you’ll get out. The result is that I’m still in prison and every 45 days I go before a judge and it’s the same result: another 45 days, and he doesn’t even look at me or the case file, where everyone else involved was released six months ago. Anyway, my next hearing is Tuesday, November 19. I need your support. I need you to remind them that I’m still imprisoned and that they forgot me. I die a little every day just from knowing that I’m up against all this alone. I know I have lots of friends who love me and are scared to write about me, or they think I’ll get out without their support. I need you and need your support now more than ever.
At the beginning of this final message, Shady wrote, “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does. I need your support so I don’t die.”
*The name has been changed at the interviewee’s request to protect their anonymity.