Mohamed Fahmy now forceful advocate for jailed journalists
Former journalist discusses his ordeal in Egyptian prison and his fight to secure press protection
It sounds like a Hollywood script: a journalist is incarcerated in Egyptian prison after being wrongfully accused of having terrorist ties. His wife is then thrust into the role of advocate and crusader as she battles foreign and domestic governments to gain his release.
Watch Our Ottawa Saturday at 12 p.m. and Sunday and Monday at 11 a.m. for Adrian Harewood's one-on-one conversation with Mohamed Fahmy.
But this is no movie. Not yet, anyway. It's the true story of award-winning journalist Mohamed Fahmy and his wife Marwa Omara.
Fahmy, who's now an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, was in Ottawa this week to lecture on the topic of journalism and its role in human rights. On All in A Day Wednesday, he spoke to Alan Neal about his ordeal at the hands of Egyptian jailers in a notorious maximum security prison, as well as his wife's role in securing his freedom.
"When I met Marwa, she was apolitical. She had no Twitter account. She didn't care for revolutions or didn't care for journalism. Her whole life changed ... when I got arrested, she turned into an ambassador. A journalist. A media personality. She was all over the place," says Fahmy.
"She's tipping police officers, she's smuggling a phone, she's knocking on the president's door. She's able to do what the Canadian consular team isn't able to do. She was just incredible."
The couple has begun a foundation dedicated to providing financial assistance to and advocating on behalf of imprisoned journalists and photographers.
Meeting the Muslim Brotherhood
Fahmy scrupulously detailed his time in the prison, and also spoke to accused terrorists and their sympathizers in order to learn more about their motivations. At first they welcomed him because he was accused of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
"When I went in the prison they thought I was one of them. And they were sending me gifts and food and towels and toilet paper. But gradually they started to realize that I'm not one of them. And even though that happened, they didn't treat me any differently because in that prison we are all conspiring against that one enemy, the jailer. And the masks drop and the politics drop and it's just about human beings trying to get an extra loaf of bread, or an extra hour out of his cell or a pen or a piece of paper."
Cell phone Fahmy's 'oxygen'
Fahmy credits his wife for providing him with a lifeline in the form of a cellular phone, something that helped him survive his 400 days in captivity, but something that could have worsened his fate had it been discovered.
I never understood, specifically, why [Harper] took such a mild stance.- Mohamed Fahmy
"It was my oxygen. And the most important thing for me to stay positive was to document what was happening. Because, for one, sometimes people disappear in Egyptian prisons and many journalists have died," says Fahmy, who often had to hide the phone on his body, even clenching it between his buttocks at times.
"It was very important because I was able to start a crowd-funding campaign from prison. I was checking on what the media was saying. I was communicating with very trusted journalists that I knew would not reveal the fact that I had a phone ... I basically was managing my campaign from prison."
Sentenced, then pardoned
Neal asked Fahmy about his reaction in Egyptian court, when the judge sentenced him to seven years in prison for having terrorist connections and fabricating news for his employer at the time, Al Jazeera.
"I'm holding on to the bars and the cops are pulling me back. I could see my mom, journalists, and my wife, they're all in tears in the hall. And it felt like someone punched me and then muted the courtroom, although it was filled with people. And my knees literally felt weak and I just couldn't believe what happened."
Fahmy has said that he felt let down by the Canadian government and then prime minister Stephen Harper, especially in comparison to the actions and words of other political figures, including the prime minister of Australia and U.S. President Barak Obama.
"I never understood, specifically, why [Harper] took such a mild stance. I mean, I do understand he conformed with a lot of the ideas of the Egyptian government at the time, in terms of the way they were fighting terrorism ... But he just didn't understand how complicated the situation was. And he delegated his responsibilities to the very good ambassadors on the ground who were visiting me, and taking care of me, and making sure I'm not tortured.
"But we needed more interventions in the sense that ... speaking to junior ministers won't get the word up to the president of Egypt. The prime minister of Australia called President el-Sisi of Egypt several times to demand the release of my colleague, Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, and he was released almost a year before I was."
Turning to advocacy
Fahmy and Omara created the Fahmy Foundation in 2015. In addition to working to aid incarcerated journalists and photographers, they're hoping Canada will adopt a so-called "protection charter." Currently in Canada, high-level government intervention on behalf of jailed Canadians around the world comes at the discretion of the prime minister, says Fahmy. That's something he wants to change.
"Countries like the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Germany, the U.K., they have it as an obligation, a law, set in stone, to intervene, and Canada doesn't. Which is unbelievable."