Surviving 438 Days in a Maximum-Security Prison, Journalist Mohamed Fahmy Defends Iran’s Detainees

By Peyman Pejman

Egypt’s notorious maximum-security Scorpion prison is reserved for terrorists, criminals and high-level political prisoners. And yet that’s exactly where Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy – at the time the bureau chief of Al Jazeera’s English channel – spent a total of 438 days in captivity.

Fahmy was arrested in December 2013 on a multitude of charges ranging from “spreading false news” and “being in possession of communication and broadcast equipment without obtaining a proper permit” to membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is viewed as a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government.

His arrest, along with those of his two other network colleagues – Egyptian-born Baher Mohamed and Australian-born Peter Greste – sparked a media frenzy that brought the case to world attention. Human rights lawyer and activist Amal Clooney, who represented Fahmy, teamed up with his Egyptian lawyers to turn the case into an international cause célèbre .

Fahmy, who was pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in September 2015 and expelled from the country to Canada, has published a riveting account of his months behind bars – as well as recounting other aspects of his journalistic career – in The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom, published by Penguin Random House. He co-authored the booked with Carol Shaben.

Fahmy joined Kayhan London for a conversation from his home in Vancouver, Canada.

Why did you write this book? What is your message?

I wrote the book for several reasons. Although the media did a good job [during the court proceedings] of highlighting the issue of press freedom and the unacceptable jailing of three recognized journalists, there was another angle that was unreported. That was the back story of the geopolitics that led to the imprisonment: the unreported Cold War between Egypt and Qatar, owner of al Jazeera, along with other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which had taken a very clear positon against Qatar [because of Al Jazeera’s reporting of them]. There was an agreement in Riyadh in which Qatar [eventually] agreed to non-interference terms.

We did not know about this agreement while working at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo [which housed the offices of Al Jazeera’s English-language channel]. As it turned out, Qatar breached the agreement [because] the CEO of Al Jazeera and cousin of the Emir, who must have known about this agreement, was pressuring me as head of the Al Jazeera English channel in Egypt to cover the Egyptian street demonstrations [against the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak].

I dedicate a chapter in the book to the geopolitical issue and mention that I could see the political tone change [after my arrest]. I was in a military hospital [being treated for shoulder injuries unrelated to the arrest] and my wife had smuggled a Blackberry to me. [Surfing the Internet] I could see that within days, Al Jazeera was referring to General Sisi as the legitimate elected leader, as opposed to the coup leader – which is what they were calling him earlier. I was caught in a geopolitical battle. [Eventually] President Sisi issued a decree that led to the release of [Australian journalist] Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed and I were pardoned.

The overall message of the book is that press freedom and human rights are facing the most unprecedented threats in a generation. By highlighting a lot of the context behind terrorism – by interviewing leaders of Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others arrested on terrorism charges [while I was incarcerated with them in prison], I could explain in the book this unprecedented age of terrorism, and how we have to find a way to deal with it, but not lose our civil liberties. That is what makes the difference between a good leader and a bad leader.

This book contains exclusive interviews with leaders of the Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and other radical groups. I protested against the Brotherhood in the beginning, but I discovered their views as well when I was in jail. They consider themselves to be the righteous ones fighting the terror of the government.

The other message is to Western countries that are putting their interests before human rights. I suggest that new laws should be adopted. For example, Canada does not have a law to obligate it to defend its citizens when arrested overseas. Many other countries – such as Germany, UK, Brazil, and some other EU countries – do. I am working with partners in and out of the [Canadian] government to change that.

What does your ordeal say about journalism either in Egypt or in the Middle East in general?

My ordeal says that, unfortunately, journalists have become targets more than ever. The word “Press” emblazoned on our chests is not a word that protects us anymore, and the numbers speak to that: 200 detained last year, 800 killed in the past decade, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan throwing journalists in jail, branding them as terrorists, terrorism laws in Egypt being so fluid that the government can put any journalist in jail. We need new laws that protect journalists worldwide. I participated in a press conference in Ottawa two days ago with several Canadian journalists who were spied on by the police and forced to submit notes of their interview with an ISIS member.

I learned that the reason many journalists do the tough job is to tell the story of the repressed and the voiceless. I realized more than before how vital journalism is. Sitting in an infested cell, with no toilet, in solitary, getting no sun, I realized that journalists are the last line of defense. Without the support of the media, I might not be a free man today. [Coverage] became more than a fight about me. It became a bigger fight, and raised my morale at the toughest of times. I learned that family and people who stand beside you are your real friends, because they humanize you before the stigma [that was] put on me [for being an alleged] terrorist.

I took these lessons and established a charity foundation (www.FahmyFoundation.Org) that works with journalists and the families of detained journalists. In Iran, we supported the case of Jason Rezaian, Iranian-Canadian Professor Homa Hoodfar, or web designer Saeed Malekpour, who was forced to confess to crimes he did not commit.

I see similarities between my case and those in Iran, in that these prisoners are not only innocent but also a bargaining chip with a price on their head. It seems that Iran is trying to expedite the establishment of a Canadian diplomatic representation in Iran and also, possibly, to force Canada to deport a Canadian-Iranian citizen they want. It was the same thing with Rezaian.

In my case, we saw that as well. They [the Egyptian government] wanted to shut down Al Jazeera Mubasher [the local Arabic channel for Egypt], which is not only a mouthpiece but also a sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood.

With all that has happened to you, do you regret anything you have done? Would you change anything if you could do it all over again?

I generally do not have any regrets in my own career. I always tried to position myself to report the right stories and be in the right places. The only regret I have is trusting the Al Jazeera management when I took the job, when they told me that we had proper permits [to work in Egypt] when we did not, and when they shared reports produced for English Al Jazeera with the Arabic channel Al Jazeera Mubasher after [the latter] was officially closed by a court order. They [the management] felt it was their business. They were not transparent enough with us.

I was extremely angry when [I learned from] Muslim Brotherhood students [in jail] that they were sending coverage of Brotherhood activities to the [TV] station [in Qatar] and receiving money. Al Jazeera adopted a very incorrect interpretation of “citizen journalism.”

My main argument is that there should have been a difference between what journalists did and what the network did. But the court did not see it that way.

What’s your prediction for the politics of Egypt, or the Middle East in general, and how they might impact journalism in the region?

I think [the election of] Donald Trump as the leader of the free world will change the dynamics of the Mideast – in the sense that it will be harder for us to make the argument to dictators who throw journalists in jail to respect journalists when the leader of the free world spews these unethical and derogatory statements about minorities and others. He has basically empowered them.

Egypt is one of the countries [that is] happy with the elections, and most probably will brand the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Trump will take a more aggressive role in the proxy wars between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite Iran. We will see how far he is willing to go, if he is a great supporter of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. There will be a shift in global politics.

You are suing Al Jazeera and were determined to get back your Egyptian citizenship. Any updates?

I got my Egyptian citizenship back after intense lobbying, because I would never want to lose my identity. I have talked about being a proud Canadian and Egyptian, and both cultures have helped me. I am striving for true democratic beliefs, and those are values I have in Canada. I didn’t want to be branded as an exile.

The lawsuit [against Al Jazeera] is about to start in British Columbia [Canada], and the first part is the jurisdiction battle. My main argument is that I cannot get a fair trial in Qatar because the [legal] system [there] is politicized. I have become almost an enemy of the state because of my reports on corruption in the country and [its] support for terrorism.
Professionally, I am trying to find my way back to journalism but have not decided how that would happen. I am hoping to get back into mainstream journalism soon.