Months after being released from an Egyptian jail, Mohamed Fahmy is adjusting to the life of an academic at the University of British Columbia, talking to students about his experiences as a journalist.
“It feels very inspiring that I’m actually lecturing students and getting feedback about various topics,” he said.
He has no shortage of things to talk about. Fahmy spent more than 400 days in prison on terrorism charges after an Egyptian court case that was the subject of broad international criticism.
Fahmy sat down with Global News to talk about his ordeal in Egypt and how he is working to ensure journalists around the world can ply their trade without fear of ending up in a jail cell.
‘The old waiter trick’: Fahmy on his arrest
Fahmy and two colleagues were arrested in Cairo in December 2013 while working for satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera English and faced widely denounced charges.
“We were working at the Marriott five-star hotel in Egypt from a makeshift office,” he said. “My whole team had went home and I was the last one to leave the office as usual.
“Before I left, that knock came on the door. I looked through the door, it was the old waiter trick. I opened the door and then security forces barged in. They had no warrant, they didn’t say who they were. They were filming the whole raid and taking photographs, staging it basically. They broadcast it as this terrorist who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood that has been designated as a terrorist group. It was a very intense situation, and it was reported internationally before we even got to the police station.”
‘A mock radio show’: How Fahmy survived in prison
Fahmy and his colleagues found themselves in an Egyptian prison alongside members of ISIS and al-Qaida.
“The conditions were horrific. There was no way of telling time, no way of knowing it was sun or night time. I wasn’t allowed out of my cell for a month, the food was horrible, the insects.”
In the early days, he relied on his journalism background to make prison life bearable.
“The only way I kept going was by initiating this mock radio show that me and my colleagues started in the terrorism wing. I was in solitary confinement, but there was a hatch in the door, a small hatch. I would look through the hatch and see the eyes and some of the face of the prisoners in other cells.
“We would have a two- or three-hour mock talk show, and talk about poetry and interviewed them about their political stances and their religious ideas. And sometimes you would have people there who were with Bin Laden in the caves in Afghanistan, and it was very interesting to hear them talk and boast about this crazy man…the bars between us is what protected me.”
Fahmy and his colleagues were sentenced to seven years behind bars. During his time in jail, Fahmy remained confident that he would someday be free.
“I was uncertain, but in order to survive prison you’ve got to live on hope. I used escapism to daydream about walking the streets of Vancouver — the scenery, Stanley Park, food. Stuff that keeps you alive.
“To survive a situation like this, you need to step up your ego and show your enemies that you are stronger sometimes than you really are. I had to present myself as this person who will not be beaten.”
‘I’m a proud Egyptian. I am a proud Canadian’
Last year, he started the Fahmy Foundation to support journalists and prisoners of conscience unjustly imprisoned abroad.
He is also petitioning the Canadian government, saying more could have been done to help him.
“I’ve been working with Amnesty International and my lawyers on a charter to enshrine a new law that makes it an obligation for the Canadian government to provide consular services abroad,” he said.
He has also asked authorities in Egypt to restore the citizenship he renounced in hopes of regaining his freedom.
“It’s a matter of principle. I want to get back my Egyptian citizenship. I renounced it under coercion and advice from the Egyptians that I would be released and deported a year before I was actually released.
“Now is the time to get it back. I have property there, I have extended family there. I’m a proud Egyptian. I am a proud Canadian. I want my citizenship back. I applied for it and I will fight for it, and when I get it I’m going to make huge noise about it.”
– With files from Sonia Sunger and The Canadian Press