The Al Jazeera Journalist Left Behind
Peter Greste has been freed from his Cairo jail cell, and soon Mohamed Fahmy may be too. But there’s no one coming to save Egyptian journalist Baher Mohamed.
CAIRO — It started as a late-night Saturday rumor on Twitter spread by eccentric Egyptian journalist Mostafa Bakry, best known for peddling elaborate anti-American conspiracy theories on TV: Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera journalist jailed in Cairo for over a year on terrorism changes, would be free in the morning.
The rumor was quickly dismissed by many, including the veteran correspondent’s lawyer and Australian family. Tired of having their hopes raised and dashed after Greste had been sentenced to seven years in prison in June for allegedly assisting a terrorist group, they suspected foul play.
“Until @PeterGreste butt is on a 747 outside of Egyptian airspace the campaign to free him continues. We’ve been let down before,” Andrew, Greste’s brother, wrote on Twitter. Greste’s lawyer, who was kept in the dark until the very last moment, told me he feared it might be a regime trick to chip away at their psychological state.
Greste had just smuggled out a letter penned in his jail cell to mark his 400th day in Egypt’s Tora Prison. The 49-year-old wrote of how “incredibly emotionally draining and infuriating” it was to be innocent and incarcerated and how he yearned for freedom.
But as the idle speculation morphed into well-sourced reports, it became apparent the rumor might be true.
Greste appeared at Cairo’s airport at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 1, flanked by six police officers and looking “exhausted but happy,” airport staffers told me. He flashed the check-in desk a “huge smile” and boarded an EgyptAir flight to Cyprus en route home to Australia.
Greste wasn’t free on a presidential pardon — technically, the Egyptian state still considers him a convict. The authorities had enacted a new decree, ratified by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last November, allowing foreigners to be deported back to their home countries for trial. Once he makes it back to Australia, all the charges against him will almost certainly be dropped.
“We’re ecstatic that Peter has been released,” Greste’s brother, Andrew, said from Brisbane, calling for privacy to allow him “to decompress.”
But elation was muddled with despair. Greste left behind his two imprisoned colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera’s Cairo bureau chief, and Baher Mohamed, a freelancer producer. Police officials told me to expect the impending release of Fahmy, who is Canadian-Egyptian. Fahmy is being forced to give up his Egyptian nationality in exchange for freedom: As a Canadian citizen, he can be deported as a foreigner, like Greste was.
The deportation option, however, will not be applicable to Mohamed — he is not a citizen of another country onto which the Egyptian government can pass him off. In effect, he is being punished for being Egyptian and will have to go through the rest of the retrial without the others.
Mohamed is serving a 10-year prison sentence — three years more than his colleagues — for possessing a single bullet casing.
The ordeal began exactly 400 days before Greste’s Feb. 1 release, on Dec. 29, 2013, when police officers burst into Greste and Fahmy’s Marriott hotel suite and makeshift TV studio to arrest them.* In the ensuing months, the Egyptian media would drum up fears of a “Marriott cell” plotting with terrorists to churn out fake news reports to tarnish Egypt’s image and destabilize the state. The trial itself was a fiasco, featuring random footage found on the journalists — such as trotting horses and a taped press conference from Kenya — as evidence of their supposed complicity with the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the face of crushing disappointment and years in prison, the three took up various vocations inside their cells to keep themselves sane: Greste started studying for a master’s degree in international relations, Fahmy began to write a book about their experiences, and Mohamed attempted to launch an NGO to protect journalists.
The imprisoned journalists appealed their convictions, and this January, the Court of Cassation granted them a retrial, but no bail. Sisi refused to give them presidential pardons, invoking his regular mantra of not wanting to interfere in the affairs of the judiciary. Without Sunday’s deportation order, there would have been no hope of an immediate release.*
Because Fahmy holds Canadian citizenship, his release could proceed in a similar way to Greste’s. The journalist’s deportation “is in the final stages,” his fiancée, Marwa Omara, said Sunday evening. The family then went quiet, presumably fearing too many statements to the media might upset the process.
The office of Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who visited Egypt a few weeks ago, issued a statement that appeared to back Omara’s comments, saying it “remain[s] very hopeful” that Greste’s case will be resolved quickly. On Monday, officials within the Egyptian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Fahmy was renouncing his nationality and that the processing of the deportation request was nearly finished.
The process will only be complete once Fahmy renounces his Egyptian citizenship, which will allow the Egyptian authorities to treat him as solely a Canadian national and deport him to Canada to see through the legal process there. Privately, the family admitted it was a tough decision for Fahmy, who was born in Cairo to two Egyptian parents.
On Fahmy’s official Twitter account, the journalist appeared to be doing some soul-searching. “Polling: Would you drop your nationality for freedom? Is the identity confined to a piece of paper?” one tweet read. Then later on he wrote: “Egyptian Citizenship VS Freedom: Take Your Pick?”
Such a choice, however, is not an option for Baher Mohamed, who only holds Egyptian citizenship. This has made the freelance producer the least likely of the Al Jazeera journalists to be freed.
Mohamed reportedly gave a statement upon his arrest in which he admitted his father was in the Muslim Brotherhood and that Al Jazeera had asked him to alter TV reports to burnish the image of former President Mohamed Morsi. This was perhaps a bid to distance himself from the network he never properly worked for — but if so, it backfired. The transcript of the testimony was read out in court during one of the few sessions journalists were barred from attending, and a transcript was widely quoted in local pro-government media, damaging his case even further.
The father of three, whose youngest son, Haroun, was born while he was in prison, has almost no political clout with a regime that seems willing to spare foreigners but not its own citizens.
“It’s been very tough on Baher’s wife, Jehan, and their kids,” Mohamed’s brother, Assem, told me. “They told their mother today, ‘Tell Daddy this is enough. We don’t like the joke; we want to play with him.’ They always cry when they go visit him in the prison.”
Assem also noted the plight of other Egyptian journalists still in prison, like Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a 27-year-old freelance photographer who has been detained without charge since August 2013. At least a dozen reporters, most of them locals, are still behind bars in the country, making Egypt one of the top 10 jailers of journalists in the world last year. No one expects them to be released soon.
There is also likely to be a backlash against Al Jazeera once the dust has settled. The network, which launched an international social media campaign to free its employees under the hashtag #FreeAJStaff, had forced its correspondents to work without accreditation — despite warnings from the authorities and from their bureau chief, Fahmy.
When the lawyers the network provided failed to secure an acquittal, Fahmy requested the hiring of a new defense team that would emphasize the divisions between the journalists and the news network. When the Qatari-owned channel refused to pay, Fahmy’s family launched a crowdfunding campaign and hired celebrity-rights barrister Amal Clooney and local lawyer Negad El Borai.
But when Fahmy leaves prison, the celebrity lawyers and blanket media coverage could depart with him. That’s precisely the worst fear of Mohamed’s family, which believes that the media circus is necessary to keep the pressure on the authorities. If the attention dies down, they fear that Mohamed will be left to rot in prison.
“We are worried he will be left behind and what that will do his physiological state,” Assem said, sounding very tired. “We just hope the media will stay tuned into the story and help release him.”
*Correction, Feb. 2, 2015: Peter Greste was arrested on Dec. 29, 2013. An earlier version of this article mistakenly had the wrong date. (Return to reading.)
**Correction, Feb. 2, 2015: The deportation order for Peter Greste was issued on Sunday, Feb. 1. An earlier version of this article mistakenly had the wrong date. (Return to reading.)
Photo credit: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images