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Journalist Mohamed Fahmy on ‘brutal’ experience in Egyptian supermax prison

Before his release in September, Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy spent more than 400 days locked up in the terrorism wing of “Scorpion” prison in Egypt. He had no way to tell time, and was sleeping on the floor of a freezing cell. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner traveled to Toronto to speak with Fahmy about his experience.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Journalist Mohamed Fahmy returned home to Canada this week, the end of a long saga that began in Egypt almost two years ago.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner sat with him for his first American interview.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    This din of everyday life in downtown Toronto is new again for Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and his wife, Marwa Omara, three weeks after his sudden release from an Egyptian prison.

    The Canadian-Egyptian journalist was pardoned September 23 by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, ending a nearly-two-year ordeal.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY, Former Cairo Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera English:

    Our families have suffered so much.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Fahmy, a longtime CNN producer and Los Angeles Times writer, was the new Cairo bureau chief for Al-Jazeera's English channel, when he and two colleagues, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, were arrested in their Cairo hotel on terror charges December 29, 2013.

    The raid was quickly broadcast on Egyptian television. Thus began a Kafkaesque journey through Egypt's judicial system, just months after then-General Sisi's ouster of the elected president, Mohammed Morsi's of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    The three were initially charged with aiding and promoting the Brotherhood, which had just been branded a terrorist organization. Al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, which continued to back the Brotherhood even after Morsi's ouster.

    Caged in court, Fahmy emphatically denied the charges.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Evidence? I don't even see it. Do you see it? I don't see it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    They were convicted and sentenced in June 2014. After a retrial was ordered in January, the Australian Peter Greste was deported. But Fahmy and Baher were retried and convicted again this summer, sentenced to three more years.

    Finally, amid worldwide pressure, and with the help of noted human rights attorney Amal Clooney, President Sisi pardoned them.

    In Toronto yesterday, I began by asking Fahmy about the conditions in which he was held.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    The Scorpion super maximum security prison is probably the worst prison in the Middle East. And there, I was in the terrorism wing with Mohamed al-Zawahri, the brother of the Al-Qaida leader, and ISIS fighters and extremists who had just arrived from Syria and Libya to topple the Egyptian regime and members of the senior Muslim Brotherhood group.

    And it was just surreal, because I am a journalist. What am I doing with these people? And there was no outing, no sunlight, no way of telling time. It was pretty brutal and it was really, really freezing in that cell. And I had a broken shoulder. I was sleeping on the floor, lots of insects.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, this latest State Department human rights report talks about torture, beatings, isolation. Were you subjected to any of that?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    I wasn't. I had been to three prisons throughout my 438 days in detention. I didn't see any torture. I was not ill-treated or abused in any way.

    Of course, it's psychologically unbearable. You can't see your family. You don't have any more writing material. The food is very limited. No, it's pretty, pretty harsh.

    And the fact that you are living with these terrorists, it's seriously insulting. Of course, we tried to do what journalists do, and we were interviewing them and trying to understand why — what they're doing there. It was very interesting to dig into their minds especially. It represented a mirror image of what's happening in Egypt now, that many of these people are in prison, including some secularists as well, who….

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You mean the secular activists, the pro-democracy activists.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Yes, who started the revolution in 2011, when we worked together.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Were the jihadists among them as extreme still in their views and beliefs?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    They were as extreme as can be. They were — they have no respect to democracy, humanity.

    Unfortunately, I was incarcerated during the time of slaying of my friend Steven Sotloff, who had visited me in Cairo before going to Syria, and just seeing them celebrate.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When he was beheaded?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Yes, when he was beheaded.

    And it was really awful. And, again, it was just really weird seeing them and living with them for a year and realizing that there is no hope for these people. They twist the meaning of Islam to suit their unacceptable actions.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Did the Muslim Brotherhood members who were in there, were they cheering at the beheading of Sotloff?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    No, they weren't. There is a clear distinction between how the Muslim Brotherhood were viewing these extremist actions and what these hardened extremists were saying.

    We sort of had a radio mock show to keep ourselves entertained. And we had like a hatch in the door of our cell, because you were in solitary confinement. You could only see the eyes of the person in front of you in this other cell.

    So we'd call everybody to come up to the hatch, and we'd have like a one-hour show. So, I would play the devil's advocate and put the extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood on the spot and compare of how they view things.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Were you able to take notes?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    I did. And I took notes, and I smuggled them out during family visits with my wife.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, did you manage to communicate with people on the outside somehow?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Well, my family, when they visited me, my wife used to smuggle in inside the food printouts of articles that had been written outside.

    And I realized there is a serious movement across the globe, and people were fighting for us. And I — this is what kept me going.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, why do you really think you were arrested? What were the reasons behind it?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    It was hitting two birds with one step. Egypt was sending a message to journalists that if you don't toe the government's line, this could happen to you.

    But it was also a message to Qatar, who are die-hard supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You and I both covered the Egyptian revolution. We know that there were middle-class people, people of all classes in Tahrir Square. And the one thing that united them was, we don't want to live with autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak.

    Yet now they're acceding essentially to what many say is an equally repressive kind of rule. Why do you think that is?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    I think people were just fed up after three years of intense protests and killing and chaos on the streets. And they decided to make sacrifices and accept this new atmosphere.

    I believe the Muslim Brotherhood should have been removed and that they were a cancer of political Islam and extracting them was very important. But I don't agree with what happened after that, which was a clampdown on civil liberties and human rights and press freedoms.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What do you think the prospects are now for Egypt to ever realize the promise of the Arab spring?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Now, I think the Arab spring is dead and buried.

    In order for Egypt, the country that I love and where I grew up and where I had that dream in Tahrir Square, wants to reach this true democratic state, a lot of work needs to be done.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    How has this experience changed you?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Oh, I'm a new man. I'm completely a new man.

    I have also learned to look at the big picture. I forget about the essential things like family and just living a peaceful life. And I think it will take a while before I go back into journalism.

    But I do want to reflect on what I have seen inside the prison.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    From there, we took the new man and his wife, Marwa, out to lunch.

    You're less than a week here. How does it feel?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    It's perfect. We're just happy all the time. We're like little kids.

    It's surreal, because you come from the Middle East, and the scene there is very charged all time. And there's talk of war. And politics are in your face. And, here, you're just allowed to relax.

    MARWA OMARA, Mohamed Fahmy's wife: I remember the first time I see him smiling in two years was once we landed in Toronto. He was like a young kid.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Because there are so many people giving us hugs and saying hello and asking for photos. And so I do feel a lot of warmth and love.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When you — the two of you go to Vancouver, start your new life?

  • MARWA OMARA:

    I'm looking for some stability, do the simpler things like dance, listen to music.

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    Go to the movies.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Are you a good dancer?

  • MOHAMED FAHMY:

    I'm not bad. Not bad when I'm happy, when I'm happy. There was nothing to dance about for the last two years.

    But we're excited to start all over and just have a normal life and just put it all behind us. It's therapeutic as well to help others. I feel that's the way of dealing with it, and I think that will help us move forward, and we do want to help, because we are here because of all the help that we got from others.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mohamed and Marwa have begun their own foundation to help other journalists held behind bars. They describe it as a healing process.

    I'm Margaret Warner for the PBS NewsHour in Toronto.

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