Terrorism, Free Expression, and Social Activism: An Interview with Mohamed Fahmy

Aidan Campbell, 1L

Mohamed FahmyAward-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was arrested in Egypt and imprisoned for over a year on charges of reporting false news and conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group designated as terrorists. Many saw the charges as unjust and a campaign was launched to free him and his Al-Jazeera colleagues, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste. This effort, along with international diplomatic pressure, was believed to have contributed to his pardon in September. Since being released he and his wife returned to Canada and started the Fahmy Foundation for Free Press, which uses the experience and exposure he has gained through his ordeal to agitate for the release of other imprisoned journalist around the world. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You have credited your release to an “unprecedented global campaign” – #FreeAJStaff – pushed by your employer, Al-Jazeera, civil society groups, your wife, and your lawyer, Amal Clooney. How will your foundation provide the same exposure to the numerous imprisoned journalists who do not have the weight of a multinational media organization standing behind them?


When I was out on bail for six months, before I was sent back to prison again, I took over part of my media campaign as well my legal and advocacy campaigns being held for me and my colleagues. I learned there is quite a big and organized network of organizations that work quite closely with NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and I joined them.

I created the Fahmy Foundation because I wanted to take advantage of the media spotlight and incorporate a lot of the trust I have gained and the many contacts I’ve nurtured in the Middle East and abroad with the European Union, the United Nations, and different officials in different countries. My family and I became experts in understanding which strategies work and which do not; when to apply them and when not to; when to apply pressure and when to step back so you do not aggravate the government that’s imprisoning someone even more. We developed a system where we are in regular contact with the family of the person we are fighting for, or their lawyer or both. 

So this is what I do now; I depend on this behind the scenes advocacy. I use social media platforms and I am interviewed regularly on the Arabic networks on the radio, TV, and on English networks as well. I try to mention these people and highlight their plight: that they are like me, victims of vague terrorism laws or of politics gone sour between nations, which was what happened to me, caught between Egypt and Qatar and the owner of Al-Jazeera. It is very, very important to keep the public engaged because that keeps their names out there.


Could you comment on the case of Raif Badawi (a Saudi writer and activist who created the website “Free Saudi Liberals” and was subsequently imprisoned in 2012 for “insulting Islam.” His family was granted political asylum in Canada while he remains imprisoned in Saudi Arabia)? Just the other day Stéphane Dion, the Foreign Minister, was pressed on whether or not he brought up the case of Raif Badawi in meetings with Saudi officials. Though he wouldn’t say exactly what happened he did say he pushed for his release.


I have read his case very carefully. I’ve spoken to Saudi Arabian lawyers and with his wife. The issue with Raif Badawi is such a disgrace because he was not criticising Islam; he was criticising some of the Muslim clerics, who are criticised by so many and in so many ways. It just happens to be that he took it a step further and created this website. The Court’s order also holds him responsible for the comments made by others on the site.

Canada, through its Foreign Minister and the way Trudeau is handling it, is trying to be as diplomatic as possible. The self-interest of the government always comes before human rights. This is what we’re witnessing across the globe. This is what happened in my case as well; Mr. Harper didn’t want to push the Egyptian government because he put their interests before human rights. Although he’s not Canadian, I think Canada should do more for Badawi, especially because his wife is almost Canadian and now has asylum in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Badawi has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; he just won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which is one of the most recognized awards in the world for democracy. From my understanding, there is this split among the Saudi officials: some believe he should be freed, others think he’s done a lot of damage. But the situation is just unacceptable.


What would it look like for Canada to take more action?


I think there needs to be separation of responsibilities and duties. There should be a line between human rights approaches and the importance of dealing with allies to fight this unprecedented wave of terrorism. They should not be related. I don’t see why people are always linking them both together.

It could be quiet advocacy, diplomacy behind closed doors. It doesn’t have to be an embarrassment to the Saudi government, where for example, Canada issues a public statement condemning them. They could try to meddle quietly behind closed doors.


You say that we should be careful to draw lines between counter terrorism and human rights but it seems that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working to intentionally blur these lines. Is there a danger that they’re using the recent international pressure against ISIS and terrorism more broadly to curtail press freedoms at home?


We are now witnessing the worst attack on press freedoms and human rights in a generation and the so-called “War on Terror” is being used to imprison journalists, and it is being used with little to no transparency. This “War on Terror” has partly become a war on journalists. It is very dangerous to allow this to happen but at the same time we need unprecedented approaches and schemes to fight terrorists. I lived with them for a year. I know how cunning and tech savvy they are. 

It’s tough, but governments need to understand that they have to strike a balance between security measures and implementing civil liberties. If we lose that balance, we lose what democracy means and what we stand for. Until this balance is settled in Saudi Arabia and Egypt the security apparatus will continue to infringe our civil liberties in these countries.  The West has a duty as well. But it’s not a simple line. It’s not that we cut the arms deal with Saudi Arabia because of Raif Badawi; I don’t see it that way. There needs to be new approaches and jurisdictions and treaties that protect journalists from prosecution, for example.

The Fahmy Foundation is my way of helping others. While I was in that prison cell, knowing so many people out there were fighting for me and keeping my plight alive, it raised my morale and reminded me that I wasn’t alone. Your mind can be your worst enemy inside and you can quickly go down and become hopeless. It’s tough. You don’t know what time it is, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, you’re living in a tiny cell, dirty with insects, you’re sleeping on the floor. Knowing that you have not been forgotten helps. The people I’m fighting for with the Fahmy Foundation, even if they’re in solitary confinement in the worst prison in the Middle East, somehow, through the grapevine and inside the concrete walls you get information. Whether it is from a guard, from somebody’s family visit, or otherwise, you find out that there are people protesting for you in Canada, or that that there is a day of action for you, or your name is trending on Twitter. That keeps you going. My wife was smuggling in printouts inside the food she brought me and I was reading and seeing all these pictures of people fighting for me. That got me really, really excited. My role became writing messages from inside the prison and smuggling them out so that these people fighting for me could also see that what they were doing was important, and to continue fighting. 

Photo Caption: Mohamed Fahmy (photo credit: Marwamagid, Wikimedia Commons)