Free from prison, Mohamed Fahmy fears for journalism and says it's time to take a stand for freedom of the press
During the 438 days that Mohamed Fahmy spent as a prisoner in Egypt, he drew strength from the words of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Freedom is not the last word,” Frankl wrote. “Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.”
In a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight, Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist and teacher who lives in Vancouver, said the same words have continued to drive him since his release, in September 2015.
“When you are inside a cell, sleeping on the floor, with no access to the Internet or communication, and when you don’t know what time it is…” he said, trailing off. “So what do you do with this freedom? Viktor Frankl says if you go and sit on the beach and do not make use and do not turn this suffering into an achievement, then your detention becomes arbitrary, in every sense of the word. So I felt like it’s a responsibility.”
When Fahmy and his wife, Marwa Omara, landed at Vancouver International Airport, “I immediately went to work,” Fahmy told the Straight.
One year later, the result is The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey From Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom, which Fahmy wrote with Vancouver author Carol Shaben.
It begins with a thrilling account of Fahmy’s reporting on the Arab Spring as it played out on the streets of Cairo. The book takes its title from the events of December 29, 2013. After just three months as the Egypt bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, Fahmy and two colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, were working out of a room at the Cairo Marriott Hotel. Police rushed in and the trio was accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which had very recently been deemed a terrorist organization by the new government of Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. From the hotel, they were taken to Scorpion Prison, nicknamed “the Cemetery”, and Fahmy’s old life came to an end.
The Marriott Cell recounts Fahmy’s farcical trial and time in prison against the backdrop of Egypt’s sad descent from revolutionary democracy to thinly veiled dictatorship. It also lays bare brutal mistakes made by Al Jazeera that likely compounded the severity of Fahmy’s situation, as well as the failure of the Canadian government to help to secure his release.
“It’s almost like a how-to for others who get stuck in a situation like that,” Fahmy said of the book. “I hope I can inspire people, because I’ve been inspired by so many.”
There are a thousand questions to ask about what it was like facing an unjust judicial system and living in prison alongside both murderous extremists and top members of Egypt’s deposed political classes who were imprisoned following Sisi’s July 2013 coup. But the night before Fahmy’s interview with the Straight, America elected Donald Trump president of the United States.
During the Republican candidate’s divisive campaign, he routinely attacked journalists, threatened to sue media outlets, and encouraged supporters to express hostility toward reporters covering his rallies. On February 26, Trump said that if elected, he would "open up our libel laws" to make it easier for people to win lawsuits against the news media.
Asked what a Trump presidency will mean for press freedom, Fahmy struggled to remain optimistic.
“If this is how he actually deals with the press and if this is the derogatory approach he is going to use in dealing with the press, then we’re in big trouble,” he said. “After he won, I had these feelings of helplessness similar to the feelings I felt when Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, when he won the elections in 2012 in Egypt. But this is worse because Donald Trump is leader of the most powerful nation of the free world and his decisions affect every corner of the world. So I am still in a state of shock.”
Fahmy predicted that the implications will extend well beyond the borders of the United States.
“We are witnessing today a more dangerous environment for journalism,” he explained. “There is no neutral ground. We are being targeted by oppressive governments and extremist groups.” Outlets therefore need to do a better job protecting their reporters, he argued.
This is where the second half of Viktor Frankl’s quote refuses to let him sit idle, Fahmy said.
After Fahmy was let down by Al Jazeera English, Egypt, and Canada, he and his partner also found time during their first year in Vancouver to create the Fahmy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to press freedom that works for the release of journalists imprisoned around the world.
Closer to home, Fahmy is lobbying Ottawa to adopt something he’s called the Protection Charter. Among other provisions, it would enshrine into law an obligation to intervene when a Canadian citizen is detained abroad.
On top of all that, Fahmy revealed he’s anxious to get back to his first passion.
“I am hoping that I can start working in the new year, either here in Canada or in the Middle East, representing a Canadian agency,” he said. “I am itching to head right back into journalism.”
The Vancouver Writers Fest presents Mohamed Fahmy at UBC's Frederic Wood Theatre on Monday (November 21).