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World Stranded between prison and liberty, Fahmy dreams of Vancouver future

Mohamed Fahmy, speaking at his family’s Cairo home on Friday, expressed displeasure with Ottawa’s handling of his case.

Amir Makar/The Globe and Mail

Mohamed Fahmy may have left prison but he isn't free. In fact he says he is "caught in limbo" between prison and liberty, between conviction and justice, and even between Egypt and Canada.

A Canadian journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt for more than 400 days before finally being released on bail last week, Mr. Fahmy is now fighting to clear his name, to be released from prison or to be deported from the country – whichever comes first.

Last June he was convicted, along with two colleagues from Al Jazeera English, of "spreading false news" to help the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The trial was widely considered to be a sham. The conviction was overturned by Egypt's supreme court. Mr. Fahmy, who was the Qatar-owned media outlet's bureau chief in Cairo, is now to be re-tried. His next court session is scheduled for Monday.

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"Everything is still surreal," Mr. Fahmy told The Globe and Mail from his family's home in Cairo on Friday. "Of course it is great to walk in the streets and not have a police officer watching you 24 hours a day, but I don't sleep well. I'm up thinking, turning things over, strategizing – it's emotionally draining.

"The smallest things have become an obstacle," he added. "I have to check in at a police station every day, I can't drive a car, I can't rent a hotel, and I can't get married."

Although Mr. Fahmy has been using his time on bail to meet constantly with lawyers and Egyptian officials, his fate remains uncertain. "This uncertainty is a black cloud hanging around me and my family," he said.

It hasn't been all darkness however. Mr. Fahmy has also reunited with old friends at a "freedom party" in his honour and has met with the Canadian ambassador for help in arranging to marry his fiancée, Marwa Omara.

Over the past year he has had a thorough taste of Egypt's penal system. For more than a month he was held in solitary confinement in one of the country's most notorious jails, known locally as "the scorpion."

"In a word the prison was medieval," he said. "I was held in a cell without sunlight, and with only sewage, insects and mosquitoes to keep me company, never mind access to water to shower with."

Mr. Fahmy spent weeks imprisoned alongside people he called "hard-core terrorists" who were pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in the cells. He slept on cement in conditions he described as "not fit for humans."

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"One of the most striking things was the silence," he says. "In solitary confinement there was no sound whatsoever, it was very unnerving. Sitting in the darkness feeling the anger, the fear, the uncertainty, while trying not to let resentment eat you out."

Over time, he was moved out of solitary confinement and held in a small cell with fellow Al Jazeera reporter Peter Greste, who has since been deported to Australia, and the station's Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed.

There the conditions were slightly better and there was some opportunity to socialize with fellow detainees.

"In prison I would inhale books," Mr. Fahmy said. "I would read Nelson Mandela's Road to Freedom and then a book on Auschwitz – which at least made me feel like I was in paradise. Then after that I'd read George Bush's book Decision Points or Hillary Clinton's autobiography."

Like many other Egyptians, Mr. Fahmy was on Egypt's streets on Jan. 25, 2011, for the popular revolt against long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak and was hopeful for democratic change in the country. Four years later he believes his imprisonment is symbolic of Egypt's own state of confusion and political limbo.

The country's many problems must be corrected, he said, but he still praises President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's economic planning while noting that there are many people in jail who should not be.

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"There has to be a review of the judicial system and the regulations that judges should abide by because a lot is wrong," he says. "And someone needs to check out what's wrong with judges like Nagy Shehata" – the sunglasses-wearing judge who originally convicted Mr. Fahmy along with many others, and who has a notorious reputation in Egypt.

While Mr. Fahmy said he has had productive meetings with high-level Egyptian officials, he isn't getting any firm answers and much to his frustration no one is willing to commit to saying what will happen to him.

He is confident his case for acquittal is solid but he holds no real hopes because he believes the authorities want the history books to show that the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was working against Egypt. "It is impossible that I'll be acquitted completely. My sentence may be commuted to time served but there is no hope for justice," he said.

When Mr. Fahmy thinks about the possibility of his future liberty he has a clear picture of where he wants to go. "It's Canada – specifically Vancouver. I see Vancouver as a kind of utopia, its friendliness, its skyline, its healthy lifestyle. It's everything that's the opposite of the cell I was held in," he said.

Mr. Fahmy says he still wants to be a journalist, but perhaps less on the front lines. He wants a relaxed life, a family and to finish writing a book about his ordeal.

"When I'm free I also plan to do advocacy for prisoners of conscience," he said, adding that he has already set up a non-governmental organization in Canada that will be called the Fahmy Foundation for Free Press, and will advocate for prisoners of conscience and also support them financially.

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In December, under pressure from the Egyptian authorities, Mr. Fahmy gave up his Egyptian nationality in order to be eligible for deportation under a recently passed law that allows the President to deport foreigners held in Egyptian jails.

Now he has neither Egyptian nationality nor has he been deported to Canada. Mr. Fahmy has long said his best hope for freedom lies in the Canadian government's ability to pressure the Egyptian authorities to deport him, but he says a great deal more must be done in order to make this happen than the administration is currently doing.

"The Canadian government has not been very aggressive in its efforts and has made serious errors. In fact, they had a golden opportunity to get me out after Peter Greste was deported and that opportunity was wasted."

In early February Mr. Fahmy was promised release by both the Egyptian government and Canadian officials, but the promises fell through. He now says Prime Minister Stephen Harper must change his standoffish policy and get involved personally, as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott did.

"Canada has a strategic relationship with the government of Egypt, and when the foreign minister visited recently he pledged millions of dollars in taxpayers' money to Egypt and agreed to train the Egyptian police," Mr. Fahmy said. "You would think, given all this the Prime Minister could at least call President el-Sissi when an innocent Canadian citizen, a journalist, is in an Egyptian prison."

Mr. Fahmy also bats away allegations that he is somehow a Canadian of convenience. "I have property in Montreal, I pay taxes in Canada, and I very much hold the values and the constitution of Canada," he says.

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"I raised the Egyptian flag in court at the last session to make it clear to Egyptians that I haven't forgotten my Egyptian side. I'm a man in a critical situation – and a judge controls my destiny."

So he remains in a tenuous and contradictory position. He has some limited freedoms but the next session of his retrial hangs over him like a cloud.

"When I was in prison I would sometimes dream that I was walking around freely on the streets except I was wearing my prison garb," he said, "which in a way I suppose is exactly what I'm doing now."

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