Together with two colleagues from the cable news channel Al Jazeera English, I have spent more than a year in jail. We were accused of joining a terrorist group conspiring against the Egyptian state and reporting “false news.” In reality, we were simply doing our job as journalists.
Then, on Jan. 1, Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and I learned that our appeal had succeeded and that our case would be retried. We had hoped for more: to be released on bail pending the new trial, which will take months to convene. But we took heart from the court’s ruling. It was official confirmation that our original trial was seriously flawed and that our convictions, in June, were erroneous.
We have been pawns in a geopolitical game that had nothing to do with our work as impartial professionals. The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi chose to view us as agents of a malicious political agenda. In reality, we are closer to being hostages.
I started work as chief of the Al Jazeera English bureau in Cairo in September 2013. That month, an Egyptian court banned the Arabic-language TV channel Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, an Egyptian affiliate also owned by Qatar. In issuing the ruling, the judge said that the Arabic service was biased toward the Muslim Brotherhood and had become a threat to national security.
Despite the banning of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, I accepted the challenge to run the Al Jazeera English bureau because I trusted the professionalism of its journalists and because I believed the Egyptian government would respect the difference between the two channels.
From Day 1, I made that distinction clear in every communication and whenever we interviewed people. We conducted our own booking and news-gathering. The reports my team produced for Al Jazeera English were well sourced, fair and balanced.
I also emphasized to the management in Qatar that none of our reports should be dubbed in Arabic and broadcast from the Doha studios where Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr continued to defy the Egyptian ban. With no crews on the ground in Egypt, the Arabic service relied mostly on footage from citizen journalists and agencies like Reuters.
On Dec. 25, 2013, the Egyptian cabinet designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates followed suit. Four days later, we were arrested.
The Egyptian authorities had decided to ignore the difference between the English and Arabic channels. Yet prosecutors at our trial failed to produce any convincing evidence.
A lead investigator testified under oath that I worked for Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, testimony that was demonstrably false. To add insult to injury, the bulk of what was presented as video evidence against me listed reports that dated back to 2011-13 — a period when I was working for CNN.
In reality, the court was trying Qatar — which the former head of the Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal in 2013 as describing as “nothing but 300 people ... and a TV station.” We three journalists had unwittingly been dragged into a cold war between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on one hand and Qatar and its allies, including Turkey, on the other.
It’s no secret that Qatar supported the government of President Mohamed Morsi politically and financially. When millions of Egyptians, with the support of the military, ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule on July 3, 2013, Qatar retaliated by withdrawing $10 billion in investments. The Saudis stepped in, soon joined by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and pledged $12 billion to support Egypt’s interim government.
Finally, on Nov. 16, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to reinstate their ambassadors to Qatar. The Saudi-led coalition brokered a reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar, and the Riyadh Agreement was signed — signaling an end to the monthslong spat.
In return, Qatar agreed to stop meddling in the internal affairs of other Gulf Cooperation Council members and Egypt. The closing of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr was part of the price.
Qatar’s decision to end the Arabic service was a cause of celebration for millions of Egyptians, as well as for us journalists behind bars. I believe I speak for my colleagues at Al Jazeera English in saying the decision could not have come soon enough.
Qatari and Egyptian newspapers have quoted government officials from both countries saying that a pardon for us would be forthcoming within days. I welcome Mr. Sisi’s recent statement suggesting an intention to free the Al Jazeera English journalists.
Instead, we now face a further trial, with no guarantee of a just verdict. Mr. Greste and I have foreign citizenship and have applied to be transferred to Australia and Canada, respectively. My lawyer Amal Clooney is advising me on the legalities of a possible transfer to Canada under a new presidential decree allowing foreign nationals to stand trial or serve their sentences abroad.
The questions haunt us: How might the laid-back citizens of Canada and Australia perceive these warring parties as they settle scores in legal no-man’s-lands at opposite ends of the globe? Is Mr. Sisi using us to continue to smear Al Jazeera as a propaganda machine for Qatar? Is Qatar exploiting our case to damage Egypt’s reputation on human rights? As long as we’re still in jail, we remain pawns.
This is part of a larger pattern. The hysteria of the “war on terror” has become, in part, a war on journalists. Covering the shifting geopolitics of the region is like walking into a minefield.
Journalists have been kidnapped and killed, even beheaded. Others have been injured or jailed. My arm has been permanently disabled because a shoulder fracture I received before my arrest went untreated in prison for so long.
I would like to remind Mr. Sisi that in the war he is waging against the cancer of political Islam and its violent offspring, journalists are not enemies but allies. We expose the truth about the terrorism he is striving to defeat.
Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, an Egyptian- Canadian journalist who was the Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, is the author of Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter’s Chronicles of the Iraq War.