Mohamed Fahmy: Reflections on prison, press freedom and the protection of Canadians abroad

With the release of his new book, Fahmy speaks to OpenCanada on the many shades of the word ‘terrorist,’ how Al Jazeera kept him in the dark and why he is calling for a ‘Protection Charter’ for Canadians abroad. 

By: /
November 18, 2016
Mohamed Fahmy takes part in a news conference calling for the creation of a 'Protection Charter' for Canadians imprisoned abroad, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

It might surprise some to learn that Mohamed Fahmy, the 42-year-old Egyptian-Canadian journalist whose imprisonment became a cause célèbre for media colleagues, human rights workers and press freedom advocates around the globe, wasn’t the first in his family to end up behind bars.

When Fahmy was a teenager, his father was arrested for writing articles and petitions protesting the government of Hosni Mubarak. “I visited him in prison,” Fahmy recalls, “so I have always had this upbringing of questioning the authority of the country.”

After years spent reporting from abroad, Fahmy found himself back in Cairo in January of 2011, electrified by the growing anti-government protests in Tahrir Square aimed at the removal of the very same leader his father had railed against.

Fahmy threw himself into covering the fall of the Mubarak government, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent coup against Morsi, for “three years, non-stop, seven days a week.”

But on Dec. 29, 2013 – three months after taking on the job of Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English – Fahmy and his colleagues Peter Greste and Mohamed Baher were arrested at the city’s Marriott Hotel and charged with being “pro-Muslim Brotherhood terrorists,” fabricating the news and undermining the security of the state.

Fahmy’s new book, The Marriott Cell – An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom, co-written by journalist Carol Shaben, is Fahmy’s account of his Arab Spring coverage, the politics at work behind his arrest, and the forces bolstering the #FreeAJStaff campaign that led to his eventual pardon on Sept. 23, 2015.

“I felt obliged that those millions of people who supported us, and the journalists who were out there, should get the entirety of the story of the #FreeAJStaff campaign, not just [the story of] the Egyptian government throwing people in prison,” he told OpenCanada during a recent sit-down interview in Toronto. “Yes, this is a case about freedom of expression, but also a score-settling between Egypt and Qatar in their underreported ‘cold war.’”

Inside Cairo’s notorious Scorpion Prison

Fahmy, kicking off his book tour this week, is in good spirits – quick to laugh, and to remove a stifling necktie, necessary for a previous appointment. This proclivity towards positivity – buoyed by a steely determination – kept him going while he was held in a dingy, cockroach-infested cell for over 400 days, largely cut off from the outside world and denied medical attention for a broken shoulder.

In The Marriott Cell, Fahmy, with gratitude and awe, describes the numerous family members, friends and colleagues who united to keep his case front and centre – none more so than his then-fiancé (now-wife) Marwa, who pushed tirelessly for his release, banging on the doors of senior Egyptian officials and being Fahmy’s voice in the media.

“People would ask me in the cell, in many of our conversations, who’s your hero in life, and I didn’t have a hero – I didn’t know how to answer that,” Fahmy says. “But she’s my hero.”

Fahmy also has high praise for his international lawyer, “game-changer” Amal Clooney (“When I signed the contract with her, her name was Amal Alamuddin…halfway through she turned into a Clooney!”) 

In contrast, Fahmy reserves his harshest words for Qatar-owned Al Jazeera – the managers of which had erroneously assured him that Al Jazeera English was fully licensed to operate in Egypt, despite Al Jazeera Arabic – a separate entity known for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood – being banned.

Fahmy has previously described himself and his colleagues as “pawns” in a larger geopolitical battle between Egypt and Qatar, and lays out his research to that effect in The Marriott Cell. At the moment, Fahmy has a lawsuit pending against the network, alleging that it was negligent in its conduct towards him. “They kept us in the dark on so many things,” Fahmy tells OpenCanada, including the network’s operating status. “When I found out in prison, through my research, I was very angry – I should’ve known about these things as bureau chief, and I didn’t.” He adds that Peter Greste is about to launch his own lawsuit against Al Jazeera from Australia.

Ironically, Fahmy’s time in prison ultimately allowed for a more nuanced understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood – the very group he was falsely accused of supporting. He shakes his head when recalling the absurdity of being incarcerated in the same wing as senior Muslim Brotherhood officials, al-Qaeda members and ISIS sympathizers – for a journalist, it was like being handed a group of exclusive sources.

Together with Baher Mohamed, Fahmy started a nightly mock “Al Jazeera Live” radio show. “It was our oxygen – you waited all day for that show to start, because you’re in a cell that’s almost as small as this place,” gesturing around to the interview room at the offices of Penguin Random House Canada.

“Many of these people I had tried to interview on the outside, and I couldn’t get to them. So now you have them here, under one roof: the former prime minister, the speaker of the parliament, Morsi’s aides that travelled with him all over the world. But also there was, in the same wing, some of the extremists who were with Osama bin Laden, for example. You’d see the difference in the rhetoric; a lot of these extremists are very open about their stance on beheading people, killing people, while the Brotherhood [supporters] were more pragmatic…they say, we’ll use the ballot box.

“As much as I do believe that many of the Brotherhood supporters were involved in violence that led to the death of many people on the street, a lot of these guys in the prison didn’t pull the trigger. These are political prisoners, and I tried to show the distinction in the book. I explain very clearly that there is no universal definition of the word terrorism.”

Making noise in Canada

"I wonder if I am not Canadian enough in the eyes of my government, if my skin is a shade too dark, or my name a tad too ethnic sounding.”

Fahmy now makes his home in Vancouver, running the Fahmy Foundation with his wife and teaching at the University of British Columbia. He doesn’t let the campus’ idyllic setting detract from his determination to champion civil liberties, press freedom and positive public sentiment towards multiculturalism here in Canada.   

Fahmy’s disappointment with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s “mild stand” on his imprisonment is well-known. He describes feeling abandoned and betrayed at the lack of pressure applied by former foreign minister John Baird, musing: “Is it perhaps that I’m an immigrant, an Arab who fits all too easily into the ‘terrorist’ stereotype? I wonder if I am not Canadian enough in the eyes of my government, if my skin is a shade too dark, or my name a tad too ethnic sounding.”

“I think Canada is the best country on earth, and the safest country on earth. The main reason for that is the sort of diversity that we’re allowed, or privileged, to experience here,” Fahmy says. “[Marwa and I] were very depressed, like so many people, when Donald Trump won. I think we just need to keep raising awareness of the importance of acceptance and allowing people to feel at home here.”

Over the last year, Fahmy has met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau twice, and says that, compared to the previous government, the Trudeau government is “much more responsive to civil liberty groups, NGOs, former prisoners…I think they’re listening more, I think they’re more active, more aggressive, and that’s what Canada needs at the moment.” 

In partnership with Amnesty International Canada, Fahmy has crafted a 12-point “Protection Charter” aimed at reforming Canada’s consular laws and practices for dealing with Canadians imprisoned or detained abroad. Fahmy cites recent instances where the Liberal government has been able to bring home Canadians detained abroad: Kevin Garratt, accused of spying and stealing state secrets in China; Homa Hoodfar, who spent 112 days imprisoned in Tehran; and Khaled Al-Qazzaz, arrested alongside ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

But, Fahmy says, more needs to be done, including enshrining Canadians’ right to consular assistance in law: “Canada doesn’t have a law that obligates [the government] to intervene when a Canadian is detained. That’s something that most people will not know about, but I had to learn this the hard way. Many other countries have it as law, written in stone.”

Fahmy also encourages the repeal of Bill C-24, introduced last year by the Conservatives, which allows the government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens guilty of terrorism or other serious offences. “There’s no oversight, no due process when you’re in a situation like that, and I think it’s very dangerous. I’m happy that [the Liberals] are considering just getting rid of the bill.”

The issue of press freedom and journalists’ rights is another Fahmy is keen to raise awareness of – though he didn’t quite anticipate having to tackle it here in Canada. “During Mr. Harper’s time, Canada dropped 10 points in the Press Freedom Index, according to a Reporters Without Borders study,” he says. “I think Mr. Trudeau should visit this file and concentrate on the protection of journalists’ rights. I think he should allow more oversight of CSIS and some of the intelligence agencies here. When you wake up in the morning and realize 10 journalists in Québec have been spied on by the police, it’s really dangerous – it basically [sounds like] what’s happening in undemocratic countries in the Middle East that Canada has been criticizing vigorously.”

Fahmy reiterated these views in a press conference held at Ottawa’s Parliament Hill earlier this week with VICE national security reporter Ben Makuch, La Presse reporter Patrick Lagacé and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s Tom Henheffer.

Fahmy’s call for Trudeau to uphold the rights of journalists extends to media overseas – unsurprising, given his experiences in Egypt. “There are more than 200 journalists in prison worldwide; dozens are killed. I have joined many organizations calling for the appointment of a special envoy to the United Nations, who is dedicated only to the file of the safety of journalists. Someone who wakes up in the morning and all he deals with are those 500 emails about journalists in prison.”

As for Fahmy himself, he doesn’t rule out returning to a career abroad, though the journalist has now undoubtedly become an activist as well. But perhaps a melding of the two was inevitable, given the strong beliefs instilled in him by his father and grandfather before him – men, he writes, “who believed in justice, discipline and the civil liberties that make countries like Canada great.”