On December 29, 2013, Egyptian security forces arrested award-winning journalist Mohamed Fahmy in a dramatic raid on Cairo's Marriott Hotel and imprisoned him on charges of being a terrorist, fabricating false news, and undermining state security. The opening of his recently-released memoir, "The Marriott Cell," below, introduces readers to a compelling true story of injustice, political intrigue and one man's inspiring fight for freedom.
The night I am incarcerated, as I stand shivering and exposed, surrounded by half a dozen prison guards, I cannot fathom what losing my freedom might mean. Understanding will come later, stealthily, like the cold that creeps into my body from the concrete floor beneath my bare feet.
Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national, stands in a metal cage during his trial in a court in Cairo, Egypt on March 24, 2014. (Photo: Al Youm Al Saabi/Reuters)
I am in a dingy foyer clad in only my undershorts and a thin, long-sleeved undershirt. Pain lances through my right shoulder, broken two weeks before my arrest and now cradled in a black canvas sling. I brace it against my chest as a prison guard approaches and tosses a set of white, pajama-like garments at me.
He gestures for me to put them on and I step awkwardly into the bottoms using only my good arm to pull them up to my waist.
"Take off the sling," he orders.
"It's broken," I say, but his face remains impassive.
I reach into the pocket of my jeans, which lie discarded on a nearby wooden bench and fish out a half-full pack of cigarettes. I hold it out to him, and he slides it into the pocket of his uniform.
I am struggling to pull on the top when I see my colleague Baher Mohamed escorted into the foyer. Our eyes make quick contact. Then I watch him suffer the same humiliation, stripping to his underwear as the guards look on.
This is how I enter Scorpion, Egypt's notorious maximum-security prison.
A guard hands me two rough grey blankets and orders me to wait for the prison doctor. I drop onto the wooden bench, my shoulder throbbing. The doctor, when he shows up, is wearing a training suit and slippers, and strides aggressively towards me.
"Why are you wearing a sweater under the prison shirt?" His tone is sharp. "Take it off and give it to the guard."
The guard to whom I've given my cigarettes kicks me in the shin. "Get up when you're spoken to!"
"Sir," I speak directly to the doctor, "my shoulder is broken."
"Fine," he says, relenting unexpectedly, as if already bored with our conversation, "keep the extra shirt."
"May I keep these?" I ask, opening my left hand to show him the container of painkillers I have been clutching since my arrest 24 hours ago. He takes them from me, checks them over briefly, then hands them back without a word.
He looks at Baher with an indifferent eye, and then turns to the guards. "Send them in."
Soldiers guard outside of Tora Prison in Egypt on June 23, 2014. (Photo: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
This is how I enter Scorpion, Egypt's notorious maximum-security prison. Reserved for terrorists, criminals and high-level political prisoners, Scorpion is one of seven blocks that make up the vast Tora Prison complex, a sprawling, foreboding and heavily fortified conglomeration of drab, desert-coloured buildings surrounded by seven-metre-high, barbed-wire-topped walls and watch towers, and located twenty kilometres south of Cairo.
Little is known about Scorpion, but it is nicknamed "the Cemetery," and some of the region's most dangerous figures are incarcerated here. The bearded face of Mohamed al-Zawahiri, the younger brother of the United States' "most wanted man," Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader who succeeded Osama bin Laden, floats into my mind. I had interviewed Mohamed al-Zawahiri eighteen months ago for CNN, following his release after ten years in this same prison where he had been tortured and confined in solitary.
Mohamed, who was a member of the violent Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organization in the '90s, a group that formally merged with al-Qaeda in 2001, had insisted he was targeted mainly because of his brother Ayman. He had been accused of participating in the assassination of President Sadat and acquitted, but eighteen years later the CIA apprehended him in the United Arab Emirates and extradited him under the United States' extraordinary rendition program. Returned to Egypt, he was sentenced to death this time on charges of plotting to overthrow the state.
The door slams shut behind me and I hear the sound of the key turning the lock.
It had taken me weeks to land the interview with al-Zawahiri-- the first one he granted to foreign media after his brief release following President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. He would soon after be rearrested by the interim government and thrown back behind bars on new charges of "forming a terrorist cell" linked to al-
Qaeda and plotting attacks against targets in Egypt.
"Is al-Zawahiri inside?" I ask my guard.
"Yes," he answers sarcastically, "he and his friends are all waiting for you in this seven-star hotel."
An entourage of guards march Baher and me through a maze of decrepit concrete hallways and metal gates. There is a stale, fetid smell that intensifies as the guards lead us deeper into the prison. Two mangy, underfed cats appear in one corridor and follow us. After five minutes we arrive in what the guards announce is the terrorist wing. Its dim passageway, littered with broken chairs and other discarded furniture, is lined with solid, gunmetal-green doors. The guards stop in front of a door marked with the number "7" in heavy black paint. One swings it open and I walk into a solitary confinement cell.
The door slams shut behind me and I hear the sound of the key turning the lock. I am imprisoned.
This is all a big mistake, I tell myself. I will be out in the morning when my family and the network create an uproar.
Excerpted from The Marriott Cell by Mohamed Fahmy with Carol Shaben. Copyright © 2016 Mohamed Fahmy. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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