By Katie Pedersen and Mahnoor Yawar
Egyptian-Canadian journalist and author Mohamed Fahmy told a Toronto gathering about his 438-day ordeal as a prisoner in Egypt. Fahmy, who was released on Sep. 23, 2015, said his freedom came thanks to his family, a great legal team, a good PR strategy, and unprecedented public support via social media telling the Egyptian government his story would not go away. “We got more than 141 million people supporting and circulating it and 786 million impressions on Twitter in one month,” he said of the #FreeAJStaff and #JournalismIsACrime social media campaigns that started in his support.
Fahmy said he heard only snippets of news from his wife, but did not quite realize the scale of the support until he was released on bail. “I was just baffled at the unprecedented unity and support from all over the world by the NGOs, by journalists and ordinary people across the globe who had no idea who I was. But they felt the urgency of supporting our cause, because it was very obvious that our case was a real travesty to justice,” he said. Fahmy was freed after being officially pardoned by the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Fahmy earlier had renounced his Egyptian citizenship in the hopes that it would expedite his freedom. “When someone tells you to drop your citizenship, that really hurts. It’s a very tough decision. It’s pulling your heart out, basically,” he said.
Arrested in Dec. 2013
Fahmy was in conversation with Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard at a Canadian Journalism Foundation event held at the Toronto Reference Library on Monday. The day also marked United Nations’ International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. The former Cairo bureau chief of Al-Jazeera English spoke in detail about being arrested on Dec. 27, 2013 with two colleagues, and how he got caught in a larger geopolitical conflict between Qatar and Egypt. He also spoke about losing hope during a month of solitary confinement with a broken shoulder. Fahmy said his wife Marwa became his only link to the outside world, keeping him informed and hiding reading material under the food trays she brought him on her visits. “She became my voice, she became an ambassador, she became an activist. She was everything to me,” he said, gesturing to his wife seated in the front row. Marwa also became the secret keeper of Fahmy’s notes from a weekly mock radio show that he and his colleagues later “hosted” from inside the cell, an activity Fahmy says become the highlight of this dark period.
The audience, made up in large part of journalists and patrons of the library, laughed when he joked about his good fortune in getting exclusive interviews with many fellow high-profile prisoners, including former ministers and leaders of extremist groups. One of the most riveting moments of Monday’s gathering came when Fahmy described watching young teenagers being radicalized in the prison, caught between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists. “These 19-year-olds were brought in to prison because they were in a protest. Now they’re sitting getting these lessons from hardened extremists,” he said. Fahmy said he believes his case was drawn out for so long because of the “quiet diplomacy” of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government which, he said, did not help him.
Urges new approach on dual citizenship
Fahmy said he will be recommending a new approach on dual citizenship to Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who will be sworn in on Wednesday. However, he also said he was looking into legal recourse to apply for his Egyptian citizenship again, if allowed. “It’s a matter of principle, one. Two, I have extended family there. Three, I want to report somewhere in the Middle East in the near future and I don’t want anyone to tell me, ‘you’re not welcome.” Fahmy will be spending time between international speaking engagements as an adjunct professor at UBC in Vancouver and writing a book about his ordeal.