FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Inside the Scorpion: a Journalist’s Ordeal in Egypt’s Most Notorious Prison

by

Photo by tiffany terry | CC BY 2.0

Photo by tiffany terry | CC BY 2.0

To interview a jihadi is one thing, to live among jihadis quite another. To share their prison cells and their jail trucks on the way to a dictatorship’s trials is both a journalist’s dream and a journalist’s nightmare. Which makes Mohamed Fahmy a unique figure: in a prison bus, he hears his fellow inmates rejoicing at the beheading of a captured journalist in Syria. “They won’t let us out,” a voice shouts at Fahmy in Egypt’s ghastly Tora prison complex. “We haven’t seen the sun for weeks.” And he hears the rhythmic voices of prisoners reciting the Koran.

Fahmy, who is an Egyptian with Canadian citizenship, is the Al Jazeera English TV reporter who spent almost two years in his native country’s ferocious prison system, as a guest of President al-Sisi, locked up with two colleagues for being a pro-Muslim Brotherhood “terrorist”, fabricating news and endangering the “security” of the state.

The charges were lies and the trials that followed were a mockery of justice. And when Fahmy was eventually released to travel to Canada, he took with him an extraordinary account of life among those dedicated to the West’s destruction.

I should say at once that Fahmy is an old friend of mine, and his story is not as straightforward as it may seem. He and his wife-to-be first welcomed al-Sisi’s military coup, which overthrew the elected Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, and Fahmy uses the word “terrorist” quite often – rather too much in my opinion – and when I last spoke to him this week, he was back in Cairo, preparing for a New Year holiday in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

But in the fastness of Canada, he has written The Marriott Cell: An Epic Journey from Cairo’s Scorpion Prison to Freedom – a frightening account of his years of imprisonment, which should be a footnote in future history books on the jihadi struggle in the Middle East. (Why it has not been picked up in Britain or the US is a mystery.)

For Fahmy found himself both appalled by the self-righteousness of his fellow prisoners, but trusted and admired by scorpionthem, because he too had fallen foul of the same cruel dictatorship. You can understand how this affects him. The Koranic recitations echo through Tora Prison’s verminous “Scorpion” section, and as Fahmy mumbles “half-remembered verses, my rational, Western educated mind rises up in protest – it is, after all, a group of incarcerated Islamists with whom I pray. I feel self-conscious. Silly almost… But a few of the prayers I learned as a young boy return and wash over me, drawing me along in their tide.”

On arrival in his cell, an army of mosquitos descending upon him, Fahmy discovers that he is imprisoned with men whom he was interviewing only a few months earlier as members of the Morsi government: Essam al-Haddad, Morsi’s executive aid who had met President Obama; Khaled al-Qazza, Morsi’s foreign affairs adviser.

But there are others. “I am Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary,” a voice calls to Fahmy down the corridor. “I am a Salafist jihadist who fought alongside brother Sheikh Osama [sic] bin Laden against the Soviet and the American devils in Afghanistan, I have been married three times and I have many children. I don’t allow any of them to visit me to avoid humiliating them… This is all a play, a political performance by these pigs… Stick to the Koran.”

Murgan was a member of Islamic Jihad in Palestine with strong ties to the Taliban, twice sentenced to death by ex-President Hosni Mubarak. On an Egyptian television talk show, he had called for the destruction of the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx – a true follower of the Buddha-smashing Taliban and the antiquity-exploding Isis. Fahmy notes that Murgan is known as “an angry and murderous radical”. Fahmy is appalled. “What a nut! Now I am living with him and he is giving me advice, too.”

Much to Fahmy’s distress, a number of other prisoners shout their support, praising Al Jazeera which had, at the time – to Fahmy’s horror, because his own reports were subtitled and used without his knowledge on the same channel – been carrying pro-Brotherhood material on its live Egypt network broadcasting out of Cairo. “You journalists have been sent here to see the truth,” a man shouted. “There is a reason why God led you here!” And then Fahmy discovers that some of his fellow Islamist prisoners had been filming for the Al Jazeera live channel. No wonder he was in his cell.

The “Scorpion” unit of the prison is a “concrete tomb”. When Fahmy is taken for further interrogation, he finds himself in a police truck amid the Cairo traffic, and his companions whoop with delight when the driver’s radio tells of three policemen killed at a checkpoint. And they begin to sing: “Brandishing our guns along with our explosive belts… we will cut off the head of the snake.”

Fahmy’s neighbour, to whom he is handcuffed, is puzzled. “Brother, why aren’t you singing?” Fahmy manages to reply calmly: “I make jihad with my pen.” The man, Ammar – a boxer and bomb-maker, he admits – has just returned from Syria to make “jihad in Egypt against al-Sisi and his illegitimate regime”.

Fahmy meets Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of Ayman, the man appointed al-Qaeda’s leader after the assassination of bin Laden. “We are not bloodthirsty merciless killers,” he assures Fahmy. “We merely defend ourselves… demand our rights of establishing a governance based on Islamic sharia.” When Fahmy asks whether his connections in Sinai, where Islamists have been attacking police and troops along the Egyptian-Gaza border, might have led to his imprisonment, a man beside al-Zawahiri shouts: “What Sinai! Those are legitimate resistance fighters. Whose side are you on?

Whose side, indeed? In August 2014, Isis released a video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. In another prison truck, the radio news is greeted with a cheer from Fahmy’s fellow prisoners. Isis promises to kill another reporter, Steven Sotloff, if the US continued to bomb their positions in Iraq. Fahmy was a friend of Sotloff. “He must be a spy,” the prisoner handcuffed to Fahmy spits out. “Why would an American put himself in such danger otherwise?”

Fahmy knows why: risking one’s life to get the story, “to show the suffering, to try to make a difference, to stop the madness”. He listens, aghast, as another man says that “he’s just one American. What about the thousands of innocent Iraqis killed by the US?”

Then it is Sotloff’s turn. Fahmy sees the next video. “Steven, head and beard shaved, wears an orange jumpsuit… His small glasses, the round curves of his warm face, and the kind smile… are nowhere to be seen… He has the fortitude to hold himself upright…. I pray that his mind and heart were calm…” Fahmy is enraged “that this hideous man who killed Steven and I are being labelled with the same name: terrorist.”

But as Fahmy’s freedom draws near, he can barely contain his emotion at the thought of leaving his fellow prisoners – even though he will soon fly to Canada, marry his young Egyptian fiancee, take up a journalism professorship and then return as a correspondent to the Middle East. He shakes hands with a man under sentence of death. “For the past six months, these men, some of them jihadists who call death and destruction down on the world for an inhumane ideology, have generously shared their food and meagre possessions.”

Fahmy remains convinced that the torture and prison regimes of the Middle East are universities for future jihadis. He also fears for the future of his own profession. He quotes Adel Iskandar, a Canadian professor of Egyptian origin, on Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt during the military coup. “Al Jazeera picked a side in the conflict and ran with it,” he told Fahmy, “and when the station was unable to deliver coverage from the ground, they relied on footage and reports produced by Islamist opposition groups and armed militia factions. This technique became their modus operandi in Syria where the stakes and the costs are extremely high – particularly to journalists.”

Now what, I wonder, does that remind us of?

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail