Mohmed Fahmy at his desk at CNN. Photo via Instagram.
If there’s anything that usually galvanizes journalists, it’s the mistreatment of one of their own. But more than a month after an Al Jazeera journalist was arrested in Egypt for “broadcasting false news,” most Canadians are probably still unaware of Mohamed Fahmy's case.
Fahmy was the acting Cairo bureau chief when he was arrested Dec. 29 along with Australian correspondent Peter Greste and producer Baher Mohammed. Egyptian by birth, Fahmy was raised in Montreal, has previously worked for the New York Times and CNN and is, by any definition, a respected mainstream journalist, not some ink-stained pamphleteer looking for trouble.
So far, neither Prime Minister Stephen Harper nor Foreign Minister John Baird have said a word about the Canadian citizen currently being held in deplorable conditions abroad. Even journalists have largely ignored the case, with only a handful of reports written about Fahmy in the first weeks of his imprisonment.
Prosecutors have yet to formally lay charges against the three journalists and on Jan. 22 their detention was extended by 15 days, which Fahmy's family says has left them feeling helpless.
“We have contacted the Canadian government and pressured them to take action, hired one of the best lawyers in town, reached out to the media, reached out to the human rights groups, contacted friends working with the Egyptian authorities, etc,” Mohamed's brother Sherif wrote in an email to me on Monday. “After all this we are back to square one again.”
The accusations against Fahmy and his colleagues are as bizarre as they are unbelievable. According to Egyptian authorities, they were collaborating with terrorists, spreading lies aimed at undermining the military regime and using illegal broadcasting equipment—an alleged offense you'd expect to be a simple matter of licensing and not worthy of prison.
In Fahmy’s case, he has also been accused of passing false information about Egypt to CNN, his former employer, for reasons only apparent to the prosecutors.
"He's shocked from the insane accusation that he's been facing,” Sherif said.
Tora prison is a rough place even by Egyptian standards. First constructed more than a century ago, successive regimes have used the massive complex south of Cairo to detain and torture their opponents. Overcrowding, beatings, and electric shocks have been the norm at Tora for many years. Over the last decade, even the United States got in on the game, sending terrorist suspects to Egyptian authorities who could interrogate them more creatively.
For most of Fahmy’s time there, he has been in solitary confinement, kept in the dark for days at a time in a dank, cold cell overrun with cockroaches. He has also been denied all medical attention for a broken shoulder that has left him unable to lift one of his arms. (Al Jazeera just published a letter from Greste further detailing the horrendous conditions.)
"It's pretty shocking,” according to Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, himself a former guest of the Egyptian penal system. Last year, he and doctor Tarek Loubani were en route to Gaza to volunteer at a hospital when they were swept up in a mass arrest in Cairo. They spent 50 days in the same prison without charges until pressure from Canadian authorities finally freed the pair.
“You would think that journalists themselves would be getting this story out and convincing their editors that this is worth covering,” Greyson said over video chat on Sunday.
I asked Greyson if he thinks the government would have been as motivated to work toward his and Loubani’s freedom if his name hadn’t been so waspy, or if, say, he had been a man named Mohamed.
“I was always talked about as the Canadian John Greyson, the Canadian filmmaker, the Canadian professor,” he said.
His companion, meanwhile, was frequently described as Palestinian-Canadian, in a way that seemed to cast the news coverage in a different light, says Greyson. In the same way, Fahmy's dual citizenship may have hurt the "Canadian-Egyptian" in terms of how much effort editors and Canadian government officials are putting into springing him from jail.
"The hyphen is allowed to shadow his case," said Greyson. "He’s a respected Canadian journalist. He’s working for a very mainstream news organization, Al Jazeera. Big surprise it’s not liked by the current Egyptian regime because it’s actually been reporting on what’s happening on the ground.”
Fahmy’s association with Al Jazeera is certainly part of the problem. On the one hand, “the generals running Egypt consider the channel overly sympathetic to the Brotherhood” and on the other, the network tends to fall on the “wrong side” politically in the western world—which is ostensibly leading to a muted wave of media coverage.
Consular officials say they are in contact with Egyptian authorities on Fahmy's behalf, and Canada's ambassador David Drake has even met with Fahmy's parents, who flew to Cairo from Montreal in order to work for his freedom. But rather perversely, the ambassador has told the family that he needs his own bosses in Ottawa to feel public pressure before he can press more aggressively for Fahmy's freedom.
Unfortunately in cases of Canadians imprisoned abroad, it often comes down to how much publicity they get back home. In Greyson and Loubani's case, a nationwide campaign that included prominent media personalities convinced even John Baird to personally intervene, but for every such instance there may be others where Canadians remain behind bars because they lack a high enough profile to force ministers to act.
Dan McTeague, a former Liberal MP, worked as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and frequently intervened on behalf of Canadians detained internationally. He has said the highest levels of government rarely get involved unless there is enough public outcry.
"What often happens is that only when the minister or... the Prime Minister is involved do we get the kind of results we fully expect," McTeague told CBC Radio's The Current back in October, following the success of the #FreeTarekAndJohn campaign.
That leaves Mohamed Fahmy in a dangerous place. If prosecutors do produce charges against him and his Al Jazeera colleagues, it could be years before the creaky Egyptian legal system hears their case. And the longer he remains in limbo, the worse his conditions are likely to get. Jan. 25 was the three-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that led to the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, a momentous event that was to herald a new era in Egypt. But on that same day, Fahmy's brother says guards confiscated food, clothing and his blanket as punishment for something he is unaware of.
"This case is prolonging for a reason none of us is aware of, but what we do know is that the more time this case takes the more dangerous it gets," his brother said in his email.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer once said that when the agency wanted someone tortured as part of the War on Terrorism, they'd send that poor bastard to Syria. But "if you want someone to disappear — never to see them again — you send them to Egypt."