EXCLUSIVE: “A living nightmare for a crime we did not commit” is how Egyptian-Canadian journalist, Mohamed Fahmy described an almost two-year long ordeal under Egyptian detention. The award winning reporter was arrested in Cairo on the 29th December 2013 alongside fellow Al Jazeera staff members Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, after the trio were accused of reporting “false news” in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the former leadership of Egypt that has since been banned by the current regime. Greste was released and deported in February this year, while Fahmy and Mohamed were officially pardoned by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week.
The presidential pardon has come as a major surprise for followers of the case, but not more so than for the accused themselves. Speaking on Wednesday, Fahmy highlighted the point that he and fellow detainee, Mohamed’s names were effectively the last two on a list of 100 political prisoners favoured with the pardon; possibly suggesting the decision was a last minute one on the part of President el-Sisi.
“I don’t think I would have survived this ordeal if it wasn’t for the many journalists that were fighting for our release. I realise we were fighting for a bigger cause, not just our release but for freedom of expression and a free press. There was an unprecedented unity across the world, and we are grateful for that support,” he told VOC Drivetime in an exclusive interview this week.
Fahmy recounted that upon arrest the trio were effectively oblivious to the seriousness of the case, expecting to be detained for no more than a few days. But what looked like a simple misunderstanding turned out to be part of a much bigger political scenario, with prosecutors blatantly stating that the arrest was based on Al Jazeera’s affiliation to the state of Qatar, a known support of the Brotherhood.
“It became clear that this was much bigger than the three of us, and this was a political battle between Egypt, Qatar and the owner of Al Jazeera. It was also a way of sending out a message to other journalists in Egypt that if you don’t tow the government’s line, you will be arrested,” he explained.
Attempts to persuade the presiding judge in Cairo that the journalists were acting with no malice or political agenda proved fruitless when the remaining two, Fahmy and Mohamed were sentenced to three years imprisonment in August.
There was a hint of criticism from Fahmy towards his own network, acknowledging its failure to inform the trio of the fact that the agency had seen its licence to report in Egypt cancelled 4 months prior to their arrest. He blatantly described the situation as criminal, but on the part of the network and not the journalists themselves.
“I was also very angry when Al Jazeera sued Egypt one month before our verdict, asking for a $100 million compensation claim in the international courts,” he said, suggesting the move had sabotaged any attempts of a lenient sentence or let off from the courts.
Fahmy remains in Egypt due to certain complications which are expected to be resolved, and he is set to return to Canada where he will be embarking on an intensive campaign in promotion of free speech, as well as fighting for other journalists who are suffering the same fate. While has had previously renounced his Egyptian citizenship during his detention in a bid to force his deportation, the famed reporter is fighting to re-attain that citizenship.
“I have also been working on sort of a charter that I will be submitting to the Egyptian president, through the Egyptian syndicate to try to improve the protection of journalists on the ground. I do understand now what happens; this war on terror has been used as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties and freedom of speech. I do want to see a better Egyptian,” he stressed.
Fahmy is currently involved in a legal wrangle with Al Jazeera, having launched a $75 million lawsuit in May over ‘negligence’ on the part of the network, this in relation to its failure to inform him or his colleagues of the company’s lack of any licensing to report in Egypt. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)