The fiancée of jailed Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian citizen, Marwa Omara, broke her silence for the first time last August. Since then Omara has been dedicated to actively seeking Canadian and Egyptian support for Fahmy, in the hope that he will be released.
Famhy has been in prison since December 2013, alongside fellow Al Jazeera journalists Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, on charges of aiding a terrorist group, tarnishing Egypt’s image abroad, and threatening Egypt’s national security. The three were sentenced to seven and ten years imprisonment.
Fahmy was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison, five of them for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, one year for unlicensed equipment, and one for fabricating news.
Omara spoke to Daily News Egypt during the weekend, in an interview in which she revealed that she is no longer the woman she used to be after circumstances left her with a heavy responsibility, especially as Fahmy’s parents’ intermittent presence in Egypt left her as all the family he has left in the country. In the interview, Omara spoke about the life-changing journey she embarked on with Fahmy, and how the events turned her life upside down.
Omara, who has a professional background in telecommunications, said her job helped her considerably in dealing with people regarding this case, and how to properly convey her message to local journalists, bearing in mind the challenge of changing public opinion, which she was very well aware was not in favour of Fahmy, or any other defendant in the Al Jazeera case.
“I am a very simple person, a normal Egyptian woman,” Omara introduced herself saying. “I was not even slightly interested in politics. Even when I used to see protests, I didn’t care. Until I met Mohamed at a Christmas dinner in 2011, as he was signing his book ‘Egypt Freedom Story’, and it started from there. The first time I ever took part in a protest was on 30 June , for my country; it was a time we felt Egypt was under threat.”
Can you give us a little background about you and Mohamed?
Our first date was on New Year’s Eve of 2012. When Mohamed and I got engaged, I accepted the adventure of dating a journalist. I found myself involved in politics, active on Twitter – Mohamed was the one who encouraged me to create an account – engaged in his work, always on top of the news to make sure he is up to date with everything that is going on. I remember very well those dinners interrupted by Mohamed having to go cover breaking news, when he worked for CNN at the time. I also remember that his mind was always elsewhere, worried about breaking news, which was the most important thing for him. Yes, it annoyed me sometimes that his job was so important to him, but I came to understand and respect that.
Did you anticipate what happened to him as a potential risk related to his job?
No, I never saw this one coming. I was always very scared for him, worrying he was in the middle of heated incidents, especially as Mohamed suffered from a breathing problem once or twice because of the tear gas used in protests, for which he had to go to the hospital. Besides, Mohamed and I supported President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on 30 June and 26 July , when he called for the people’s support to fight terrorism.
What are Fahmy’s latest health conditions? Medical reports indicate he has a long journey ahead to be cured. Can you tell us more on what will need to be done once he is released? Is he currently receiving any treatment?
He is better now, thank God. He had already undergone an operation in his shoulder, which he broke a couple of days before his arrest after falling on the stairs. However, he needs another surgery. That is why we hope he will be deported. We are hoping for the president to consider his health condition. Mohamed also has Hepatitis C. He knew, but his job kept him from seeking treatment. He had kept the information discreet, but now our personal lives have been exposed. Well, you know Hepatitis C patients must eat certain foods, so he is currently following a diet, but it is difficult inside prison. We manage to get him the necessary foods, but he needs to get out to be treated.
What happened with Al Jazeera?
When Mohamed was first offered the AJ English job, he asked them if their work was legal, and was assured it was, and had a license by the channel, on the grounds that AJ Mubasher Misr and AJ English were two different managements. Still, Mohamed’s only condition was that his work does not run on AJ Mubasher Misr, because it was banned and closed by court order.
Maybe AJ English seemed to be a good opportunity at the time, because as a foreign correspondent, his chances were scarce in comparison to local reporters in matters of media institutions. Mohamed also had friends working for the channel. We were skeptical, but they kept reassuring us they had it under control. I encouraged Mohamed to take the AJ job. Let’s try and see, we said. If we find anything wrong, you can always leave them. But unfortunately he got arrested during his first three months.
During that short period, has Mohamed ever complained to you about being subject to harassment or any sort of crackdown in Egypt?
No. The challenge for him was that the people in Egypt did not differentiate between the Arabic and the English AJ versions. He understood that, and insisted on asking the AJ office about their legal status. “Don’t worry we’re handling it, and please focus on the editorial,” was AJ’s reply. He believed them. At the very least, he never expected that their equipment was not licensed.
How did AJ handle Fahmy’s arrest?
They’re in contact with the family, but we have our own lawyers. They have lawyers, whose performance was a failure. At first, a lawyer friend of Mohamed’s took his defense, while the AJ lawyer was in charge of Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. The AJ lawyer, Farag Fathi withdrew from the case after insulting the channel and accusing it of falsification in one of the court hearings. We were forced to pay for our own legal team after AJ refused to pay for our lawyer. We could not access Fahmy’s bank account so family members donated toward the fees. I urged Fahmy to start a crowd-funding campaign. He was hesitant at first, then he accepted to do so and it came in handy in paying the discounted fees of our lawyer, Amal Clooney.
The night of the arrest, how did you react?
I think I didn’t sleep for a month. The video of his arrest was painful, insulting. In a half-hour TV report, they were telling me my fiancé was a criminal. I don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood arrests themselves have been covered in this way; it was too much to handle. Except for seeing him once upon his arrest, I had no idea of his whereabouts for 15 days after that. Then I was informed he was taken to Aqrab Prison, a high security prison near Tora Prison in Cairo. I struggled a little to be able to visit him at first.
How are Fahmy’s prison conditions, visitations, and dealings with Egyptian authorities?
My first visit to the prison was horrific for me. Mohamed was held in a high security prison designated for terrorists, and they kept him in the ‘terror wing’. His shoulder was broken, he was put in a solitary confinement, left to sleep on the floor with no blankets, and no treatment. Before the verdict I saw him once a week; after that twice a month. It was hard seeing him twice a month after I had been seeing him every day for years. It was extremely hard for him and for me. He was my best friend who suddenly disappeared. I was very scared because I felt they wouldn’t understand what’s going on.
How would you describe your experience in trying to help Fahmy’s case?
At the beginning I was in shock. I was panicking and didn’t know what to do. Then gradually, I got stronger, learned to turn the situation into something positive. I didn’t have time to waste on sadness or grievance. I became determined to move forward and deal with the situation. Bad news didn’t break me anymore. I also learned that you have to speak up to make people understand where you’re coming from and that you have to listen to find out how they think. You know what people thought of AJ. But on the personal level, Mohamed’s jailing really affected me. I went through an inner conflict and started asking myself how much I loved this country and what have I done for it? I’ve always loved Egypt, and was okay with the system and authorities. Suddenly the arrest made me wonder what was really going on with the country. I am very confused.
Who supported you and who did not? What about the Egyptian citizens? Some comments by Canadian citizens left on articles related to Fahmy seemed to be against a Canadian intervention in his case, disliking the idea that after choosing Egypt you were using the Canadian identity “when convenient”?
Many supported us. Journalists united to defend Mohamed as one of them. The Press Syndicate also called on the Prosecutor General to release Mohamed. High-profile public figures such as business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, Egyptian American space scientist Farouk El-Baz, former Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, and head of the Coptic Assembly in Egypt Sherif Doss, and TV host Hala Sarhan were on our side. Our lawyers Negad El-Borei, Khaled Abu Bakr and Clooney were extremely supportive. On another level, my good relations and experience helped me. I started dealing with local journalists covering the news in court, they began sympathising when I explained and I realised that all they needed was information. For people in the streets, I chose to remain backstage and keep it low profile. I don’t know about what Canadians think, but my work was focused inside Egypt and I cared about making change happen here. But we’re going to Canada after his release.
Have you been in touch with the relatives of Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste? What do you think will happen to Baher Mohamed, who only holds the Egyptian nationality?
Yes, we are in touch with the other families. I know Baher personally; he is a young passionate journalist. Maybe Peter and Mohamed are to benefit more from the new deportation law, but I am hoping this case would be resolved as a whole, as I don’t believe any of the three committed crimes.
But it seems that there are more hopes to be put on the president himself rather than courts?
Look, it is not that I don’t trust the court. But fact is the court didn’t have evidence. In the hearings, they displayed personal photos to the extent that I was afraid they would display our personal photos. They did the same with Peter and put up family photos. Among the so-called evidence there was also a song. There was also mixed up information on Mohamed’s ties with some pro-Muslim Brotherhood students whom authorities thought were working for AJ. We didn’t know who they were or what they had to do with Mohamed’s case. Eye-witnesses testified that Mohamed worked for AJ Mubashir Misr! I understand that any Egyptian citizen is affected by public opinion, and public opinion is against AJ, so I don’t think the court will sympathise with them due to the political circumstances. The court put AJ on trial and the case was a mistake, but it doesn’t mean it is too late to fix it. The court of appeals did. This case is hurting Egypt more than anything, because AJ turned it personal and took advantage of it in every way possible. Mohamed cannot change or improve his conditions. It’s political between Egypt and Qatar. So I hope this correction path ends up with an approval for his deportation, especially now that people got a clearer picture and understood that Mohamed, Peter and Baher do not fit into “that” AJ category. Mohamed didn’t do anything wrong or exceptional in comparison to his fellow foreign correspondents. Whether AJ had another agenda in mind, this is not his problem; he was not aware of such a thing.
What is the lesson learned from this experience?
Mohamed learned that family and friends mattered much more than an exclusive story or breaking news. One of the most important things the experience taught us was how to turn suffering into positive achievement, no matter how much suffering and pain, you must remain positive to deliver his voice, his message to the whole world, and get the support of people everywhere. And of course, tough times really do teach you who your friends are.
We were supposed to get married last April. But we will do it soon, maybe in a week or two. This way I will be able to represent him officially here and in Canada. Mohamed did not want us to get married in prison. This was my decision and I told him prison bars will not stand in our way.
How do you feel about the future? What are you going to tell your children?
I wish we could continue living in Egypt, but we don’t have a choice. We learned to go with the flow and face any obstacle. Things eventually get better. I will raise my children as Egyptians, of course, and will introduce them to family and friends, but most importantly I will teach them about acceptance, how I think God does everything for a reason, to deal with your problems and not escape them. I will tell them that they have to be strong and independent. Patience is also very important.