After nearly two years in prison, Mohamed Fahmy is finally free after being pardoned by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was imprisoned by Egyptian authorities on widely denounced charges of spreading false news.
Speaking with CANADALAND from Egypt, Fahmy reveals that upon his return to Canada, he plans to speak at Liberal and NDP political rallies before the federal election.
In this candid conversation, Fahmy discusses the Canadian government’s mishandling of his case in more detail than he has previously offered.
Jesse Brown: Why are you a free man?
Mohamed Fahmy: I am a free man because of two women. Marwa, my wife, and Amal Clooney, who were basically the nail in the coffin in what was a huge campaign by you guys — the journalists who supported me across the world, armies of diplomats, social media gurus, and so many Canadians that I need to thank when I get back home who were constantly for two years fighting, calling for my release.
At the end, Marwa, my wife, and Amal continued for weeks and weeks to advocate and push on the Canadian and Egyptian governments to just get me out of this crisis. And I was pardoned and here I am. A newborn man, very happy, excited, and just ready for life again.
JB: We can’t wait to have you back here but as much as you know of those efforts, what worked? What got you the pardon? Why now and not months ago? Or years from now, god forbid, but why did it happen when it did?
MF: You know, to be sentenced twice in two years and go back to prison, I think the second time around the Egyptian president realized how bad the situation looks. There were so many people fighting for me and the president realized, I think, that it’s better to get rid of this whole headache and this whole case and pardon me and Baher, my colleague.
There’s no way of getting a definitive answer on what happened exactly, but being inside this whole hurricane, and at the centre of this hurricane, I could easily tell you, it was a collective effort of everyone calling for my release. NGOs; you guys; the journalists; my family; Marwa — my wife; Amal — my lawyer.
I hope the president pardons the rest of my team who were sentenced in absentia, and Peter Greste and the rest of my colleagues. Because if we are pardoned, they should be pardoned and allowed to clear their names and live without a criminal record on their file. And here I am, getting ready to get back to Canada, and meet you all in person and I’m very excited about that.
JB: We’ve been covering this from when John Baird said that your release was imminent and there’s been a lot of criticism about the government’s response. But now the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rob Nicholson, is asked if the Harper government can take the credit, what they had to do with your release. He said, “Well, this has been a priority of ours for some time,” and the Minister of State, Lynne Yelich, gave a similar answer. She said ,”The government here has been calling consistently for Mohamed Fahmy’s release.”
We’re in the middle of an election campaign and the Conservative Party of Canada — I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say they’re taking credit for your release in the hopes that that might influence some voters. I think everything is political at this point. Do they have a right to take the credit for your release?
MF: Look, this is not just about my release.
When a Canadian citizen is in prison and caught up in a case so complicated, related to terrorism, the most efficient and senior officials in the Canadian government should intervene from day one. My intention when I go back to Canada — and I will be arriving before elections — will be speaking in several rallies without pledging allegiance to any specific party to constructively highlight what the Canadian Government could have done in a better way in order to protect me while I was in prison. In solitary confinement in a terrorism wing for one month with a broken shoulder. And what they could have done to benefit from the deportation decree that allowed my Australian colleague Peter Greste to be deported while I was left behind to suffer for another year.
[I want to talk about] what could have been done and should be done in future cases so that the Canadian Government could learn from these lessons — the Conservative Government that has been handling this case. Here, I have to give credit to the Canadian ambassador, Ambassador Troy in Egypt and his team here have been very helpful and supportive, visiting me in prison and bringing me maple syrup and chocolate and newspapers; making sure that I’m fine and coordinating with my family and my lawyers and taking care of all that. However, claiming that the Government has been successful in reaching a pardon — I believe that’s a bit of an overstatement.
I personally wanted to speak and requested to speak to Mr. Harper and he didn’t welcome this initiative. My lawyer Amal Clooney wanted to meet Mr. John Baird while he was in office and he refused to meet her at a time when it was very important because the deportation decree had just been announced and it was a new law. No one knew what it meant. And here’s one of the best lawyers in the world coming to advise the Canadian government for free on how to benefit and they refused. They’re very minor issues that need to be highlighted.
I intend to meet many politicians and officials when I head back to Canada, in Ottawa and other places, and I cannot say that one camp or the other could get credit for my pardon or for my release. All I know is that indeed it was a collective effort and I honestly think that in the past two weeks my wife and Amal Clooney have done immense lobbying that can only be explained in a very extensive interview on what they have done to get me out of this prison.
So, I’m thankful to everyone who has supported me, including the Conservative Party and our government back home in Canada. But I will definitely start a debate when I get back to Canada on how to protect Canadian citizens who vote for you and expect the government to preserve their rights in the Constitution — protect them while they’re abroad — and that’s my goal when I get back home.
JB: You bring up one thing John Baird didn’t do. There are some things he did do — he did say that, back when you were still in prison, that if you were released and sent back to Canada you would not face trial here, which a lot of people were critical of because that created a very embarrassing situation for the Egyptian government.
He didn’t have to say anything of the kind, in fact it would have been more diplomatic to say nothing. At least if that possibility of you facing trial was open, then Egypt could release you without being rebuked in that way. Furthermore, John Baird said your release was imminent, as mentioned, and then he quit his job.
MF: Jesse, thank you so much for following the nitty gritty details of the case. I do remember it like it was yesterday when Mr. John Baird said that. I was jumping with anger. My family was emailing the ambassador at his comments that Canada would not put me on trial. Well, Australia wasn’t going to put Peter Greste on trial, but they didn’t say that because that would embarrass the Egyptian government. All the journalists who attended the press conference where Mr. Baird announced that were shocked that he said it. That immediately kills what the Egyptians were trying to do, which is get rid of me in a face-saving manner.
I did point out this diplomatic mistake, as I called it. So many lessons from this case to be understood. When he announced the word that I was going to be released imminently, the emotional rollercoaster that me and my family went through was just unbelievable. You cannot do this to any prisoner anywhere in the world — give them such high hopes when there is nothing concrete in your hand. So again, thank you for this support.
JB: He was successful in some of his efforts in Egypt. His last day in Egypt, he promised that Canadians would be supplying millions of dollars to Egypt. Specifically, they’d be helping in training the Ministry of the Interior. When we were covering your case, we spoke to Tarek Loubani when he was beaten and his ribs were broken by officers of the Ministry of the Interior who, I suppose, are now being trained by Canadians. I’m wondering what your thoughts are in Canada’s aid to Egypt and specifically the support and training of Egyptian police?
MF: Mr. John Baird, when he came here, he was taken on a tour to Luxor and he promoted tourism in Egypt and then he pledged $60 million — as far as I understand, from taxpayers money — to train the Egyptian police, which were my captors at the time. So when I read all of that I was a little bit shocked that with all the support that Canada was giving Egypt, even political support — Mr. Harper is supporting Mr. Sisi’s political approaches — so, I was hoping that, ok, you are giving them all this support, can’t you nudge them to release the innocent journalist who’s in prison? I was in complete shock that they were not able to seal the deal knowing the kind of support they’re giving the Egyptian government. So, many questions and no answers yet.
JB: I mean, you’re still speaking to me from Egypt, yes?
MF: That is correct, sir.
JB: When you return to Canada, will you have a bit more to say about what you know about the Canadian government’s handling of this? Just going over it piece by piece, John Baird saying that bullhorn diplomacy was not the answer for you. He obviously bungled the case in that he thought your release was imminent and it was not.
Other journalists — we mentioned Tarek Loubani and John Greyson — bullhorn diplomacy was used in those cases. They were released much sooner than you were. I appreciate that you might not be in a position to say everything that you know. Can we expect you to be a bit more expansive when you return and you’re safely home in Canada?
MF: Of course, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a whole book to be written about what happened here and so many details that have not been announced yet. In the case of Tarek Loubani and Jason, they’re good friends of mine and they sparked the Harper Call Egypt Campaign in Canada. Cecelia Greyson was leading this campaign in Canada. They are good friends and I was reporting their story before I got arrested, which is very ironic.
I mean, there’s so much I’m going to reveal and there are so many details I have not announced yet and the backstory of this case. There’s a lot of context behind the arrest, there are a lot of diplomatic issues that happened behind closed doors. It wasn’t a party that led to my arrest, of course. They are not part of the main story, but our government in Canada had an excellent chance to extract me a year ago when that decree was announced and they didn’t take advantage of it.
There will be other Canadians who will get caught in the political turmoil in the Middle East. It could happen any day to doctors, journalists, anyone, and we need to be ready to deal with it. My case is not going to be the last one, I assure you on that.
JB: If your masthead was not Al Jazeera, but CBC or the Globe and Mail — and I appreciate the politics of Al Jazeera in Egypt had a lot to do with your arrest, but there are cases of CBC journalists being arrested abroad — from the Canadian government’s point of view, do you think that would have made a difference? Do you think you’d be home sooner if you were not an Al Jazeera journalist but with some other news organization?
MF: If I wasn’t an Al Jazeera journalist, I may have spent very little time in prison and this whole international crisis would not have even been sparked. This is putting Al Jazeera on trial in Qatar, not the journalists. We were victims and they used us to get back at the network and the country.
To be very straight, this case would not even have happened to a CBC crew. If it was a Canadian crew, and Canada has excellent bilateral relations with Egypt, there are no grudges, there is no vendetta between the two countries. I think the situation would have been much more different and simplified than where we’re at now.
JB: I appreciate that you’re not going to endorse any of the parties that are running for office here in Canada, but you mentioned that you will be speaking at rallies that are hosted by some of them. Can you tell me if one of those parties is the Conservative Party of Canada?
MF: I can tell you it’s not. I’m invited. I’ll be meeting Mr. Justin Trudeau and Mr. Thomas Mulcair separately and I’m very excited to meet them. These people stood beside me and called my family and emailed my family. They helped me, they questioned our prime minister in Parliament about my passport. I lived for two months with no Egyptian IDs and no Canadian IDs. The joke in town here in every newspaper was, “The man with no citizenship.” It took away from the intensity of the trial itself here. Because of an issue of citizenship and Canadians and C-51 and C-24, and everybody forgot about the case here. It was unbelievable.
In the grapevine here in Egypt, many people — because of this case — are very doubtful of what Canada can do to their citizens. We need as Canadians to improve this image. We need to have leaders who will promote what Canada stands for. As a person who moved to Canada in 1990 and spent his college years, more than 12 years in Canada and paid my taxes, just lived a Canadian life and understood the values there… I respect both values of Egypt and Canada and loyalty to all rules and the Constitution—
JB: I hate to interrupt you, it’s so embarrassing for me that you should be in a position — you’re a Canadian citizen. You don’t have to read a list and that you’re loyal to Canada and follow our laws and pay your taxes. Either you’re a Canadian citizen or you’re not and if you’re a Canadian citizen, and you’re imprisoned abroad, I would hope that that would mean certain things about what your government would do for you. It’s crazy. I understand the atmosphere that you have to go through that list, but—
MF: It’s representative. It’s really exactly what I go through here but I also go through this on both sides of the world right now. Yeah, it is weird. It is very weird that I have to go through that list and this is part of the psychological torture I’ve been through. In Egypt, I had to raise the Egyptian flag in court to convince the judge that I’m not a traitor, that I’m not with the Muslim Brotherhood, I’m not Qatari, and that even though I dropped my Egyptian citizenship doesn’t mean I am against Egypt. I was trying to send a very clear message. A photo is worth 1,000 words to the judge — who is judging me if he’s going to put me in prison or not. And at the same time I have to fight to convince the Conservative government in Canada that I am just as Canadian as anyone else and I need their full support. So it is a very weird rollercoaster, to be honest.
JB: I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do to make arrangements to get home. Are you off the no fly list yet?
MF: Not yet, but we’re in the process, there are no issues and no complications. As soon as my name is removed, I will be flying to London to meet my lawyer Amal for a day or two maximum and then heading right straight to Canada. I should be in Canada the end of the first week to October to embrace the last two weeks before the Elections in Canada. To meet some of the opposition members and thank a lot of the people that helped me, to speak at several rallies, and thank so many people, and meet you.
JB: I was going to ask, can we have another conversation once you’re safe at home?
MF: For sure, definitely. At your studio, I will be very happy to come to your studio and meet your team. You can meet Marwa. Marwa is very excited to see Canada, I want to see Canada now from her eyes. I’ve been telling her so much about Montreal, and Toronto, and Vancouver and what to expect and whatnot. How friendly Canadians are. So she’s gotta see it now.
JB: We will be friendlier than Egypt was to you, I can promise you that.
MF: I have no doubt, trust me.
JB: Thank you for everything that you’re doing on behalf of journalists and the next journalists who’s imprisoned. I wish you a safe trip home. Get home soon and safe.
MF: Thank you Jesse, thank you very much.
Interview condensed and produced by Katie Jensen firstname.lastname@example.org
Reported by Jane Lytvynenko email@example.com