Fahmy: We needed Harper to call the President of Egypt

The journalist says the lack of governmental action turned him into an activist.

Mohamed Fahmy at UBC
Mohamed Fahmy at UBC. Photo by V. Saran Photo

Mohamed Fahmy continues to make headlines.

This week, the Canadian journalist was awarded with the Freedom to Read award from the Writers' Union of Canada.  

Less than a month ago, his Fahmy Foundation partnered with Amnesty International to launch a Protection Charter. The document outlines 12 practical steps that -they say- the Canadian government should follow to reform and strengthen the mechanisms to protect Canadian citizens, permanent residents and individuals with close Canadian ties from serious human rights violations when detained or imprisoned abroad.

But previous to these two new developments, on January 19, 2016, he sat down for an honest talk with alumni and guests at the University of British Columbia. Guided by CBC’s Margaret Gallagher, Fahmy answered the audience’s questions about his two-year imprisonment in an Egyptian jail under terror-related charges and the role that the Canadian government should have played to help his case.

Mohamed Fahmy at UBC with CBC's Margaret Gallagher. Photo by V. Saran

On Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lack of action

“The case was so politicized that we needed Mr. Harper to call the President of Egypt, like the Australian Prime Minister did,” he said, making reference to the actions that -according to him- allowed his colleague Peter Greste to be deported to his home country.

“The Canadian government didn’t understand the urgency of the situation. A phone call from him [Harper] could have extracted me from that prison where I was sleeping on a cold floor with a broken shoulder,” he added.

Fahmy said that his lawyer, Amal Clooney, wanted to visit Canada to talk to the Conservative PM, but it was impossible to arrange a meeting. “Ideally, there should have been a mix of hard diplomacy and other negotiations. That’s why I’m advocating now.”

What really helped

Fahmy recalled how he spent years covering wars and, within those wars, the stories of activists who spent years in prison for things they didn’t do. He never thought that would be his case. “When you go into this job you know that you can get shot, but I didn’t think that you could be sitting in your office and someone could come and grab you.”

After that incident, he was sentenced first to seven years and then to three years in prison for airing what a court described as "false news'' in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I didn’t give up hope, but it was pretty bad when I was sentenced for seven years,” he said. “Knowing that journalists out there were fighting for me kept me going. Canadian media did impeccable work.”

Mohamed Fahmy at UBC. Photo by V. Saran

Giving back

Mohamed Fahmy now wants to return the favour. That’s why he established the Fahmy Foundation in Vancouver and is trying to help other reporters facing human rights violations. “I get their stories right,” he said.

His idea is to use his own experience to advocate for the right combination of resources when trying to free a colleague who has been unjustly jailed. He repeated how important it is to talk to the lawyers and to the families. “You have to take charge of the situation; if you don’t involve your family to humanize you, if you don’t fight for your freedom, you won’t win.”

Postscript: On Bill C-51

Fahmy remembered how the Egyptian authorities took his cellphone and used his recording of an interview with Al Qaeda's leader as evidence to incriminate him. “I said: ‘Yes, that’s called an exclusive’,” he laughed.

Jokes aside, the journalist compared that reaction to what could be expected from the enforcement of certain sections of the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015. He explained how in some Middle Eastern countries website owners could get arrested if security forces think their pages threaten national security, “but they don’t explain what constitutes a threat to national security. Something like that happens with Bill C-51.”

Fahmy was particularly worried about how social media posts could be interpreted under the new legislation. “Democratic countries need to strike a balance between a security approach while allowing civil society and journalists to speak and do their work freely”

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