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Mohamed Fahmy: Journalist, Habs fan, prisoner

Mohamed Fahmy (left), the Egyptian-Canadian journalist who was sentenced to seven years in prison, is Montreal Canadiens fan, according to his brother, Adel. ‘And he loves poutine.’


A minivan carrying PBS NewsHour correspondent Margaret Warner and her crew stopped across the street from the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September, 2011. It was still smouldering after being stormed by angry Egyptians the night before.

The team split up. Ms. Warner, another crew member, and the Egyptian driver stayed in the van while a cameraman, a producer, and a local female fixer headed toward the building to film the scene. Suddenly, a group of men started banging on the van's hood. The driver jumped out.

Then, Ms. Warner saw another large mob running her way. They were chasing the PBS crew and a Canadian journalist named Mohamed Fahmy, who was carrying the female fixer in his arms.

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Ms. Warner jumped into the driver's seat, Mr. Fahmy threw the woman into van and stood on the running board of the vehicle screaming: "Drive! Drive!"

There was a menacing throng in front of them. But, "he said 'just drive. Get us out of here, I will guide you.' And he guided us through this mob," Ms. Warner said in a phone interview. "He absolutely saved our lives."

Mohamed Fahmy, the 40-year-old Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera's English-language TV network, knows the streets of the Egyptian capital. He lived there until 1991, when he immigrated to Montreal, at the age of 17, with his parents, Fadel and Wafaa, and his brothers, Adel and Sherif.

Today, he also knows the inside of Cairo's prisons. Mr. Fahmy and two of his colleagues have been behind bars since their arrest in late December.

This week, in a decision that prompted outrage from governments around the world, and a less vociferous response from Canada, a judge handed seven-year sentences to Mr. Fahmy and Australian reporter Peter Greste. Baher Mohamed, their Egyptian producer, got 10 years.

The three were convicted, after a prolonged court process that observers decried as a sham, of spreading false news and of being a mouthpiece for the banned Muslim Brotherhood of former president Mohamed Morsi.

"For him to be accused of not being a journalist is laughable," says Lyse Doucet, the BBC's chief international correspondent who often crossed paths with Mr. Fahmy in Egypt in 2011 when the two covered the Arab Spring. "Not only was he a journalist, but he was a very good journalist."

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Ms. Doucet said she and Mr. Fahmy share two important things, their love of reporting and their Canadian nationality. "He was really proud to be a Canadian," she said in a phone interview from Britain.

Mr. Fahmy, who was fluent in English after attending British and American schools in Cairo, quickly adapted to life in Montreal, said his brother Adel. "We were Habs fans and we used to go to the Montreal Forum," he said. "And he loves poutine."

Mohamed Fahmy studied business administration in Vancouver but Journalism was always his passion, Adel said.

Mohamed Fahmy went to Iraq at the height of the conflict there to work as a translator for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote a book about that experience called Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter's Chronicles of the Iraq War.

Mr. Fahmy spent some time with the Red Cross as a prisoners' rights advocate in Lebanon. But In 2011, as Hosni Mubarak's government was being ousted in Egypt, he was hired by CNN and won accolades for his fearless and tenacious work.

Mr. Fahmy's friend David Enders, who now works for Al Jazeera, ran into him on the day after his documentary about the human trafficking in the Sinai Desert won the prestigious Tom Renner award of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization.

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"He didn't really care about the award," recalled Mr. Enders. "The thing that Mohamed was most happy about was that, after the piece ran, the Egyptian government actually started putting some pressure on the traffickers and a bunch of people who were being held hostage and trafficked through the desert were released."

After he left CNN, the BBC hired him as freelancer on Ms. Doucet's recommendation. "He was always at the top of his game," she said.

But Mr. Fahmy was looking for something steady that could help him settle in Cairo with Marwa Magid, the woman he planned to marryin April, 2014. When Al Jazeera English offered him the job of bureau chief in the Egyptian capital last September, he took it.

Mr. Fahmy's friend David Enders, who now works for Al Jazeera, said Mr. Fahmy was well aware that the military government that had overthrown Mr. Morsi a few months earlier, was no fan of the Qatar-based network. "He was expecting to be arrested," he said, and for journalists in Cairo, "it happens all the time."

When the police burst through the door of their Cairo hotel room on Dec. 29, the Al Jazeera team assumed they would quickly be released. They were wrong.

Throughout the months of their trial, the journalists held out hope that they would be exonerated. Mr. Fahmy's family arranged a visitor's visa to Canada for Ms. Magid. "As soon as he was released on June 23, as we all expected, he would take her and go back to Canada. They were going to get married right away," said Adel.

It was with shock and outrage that they heard the judge say "seven years." Mr. Fahmy looked to Ms. Magid from his prisoner's cage and shouted: "When I get out of here, I'm going to marry you!"

Adel Fahmy said his family is proud to be Canadian. "and everything that Canada is about, decency and kindness." But, he said, something more must be done by the Canadian government or the international community to persuade the Egyptians to free his bother and the other two Al Jazeera journalists.

"I am still trying to stay positive," said Adel Fahmy. "I know this [seven-year sentence] cannot happen. We just have to keep up the political pressure."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More


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