Donning a long overcoat to fend off the winter chill, the prison official led the way down some stairs, through an underground parking garage, then back up a short set of steps to the goal: a dingy, barren room where a uniformed guard sat at a desk, a ledger in front of him listing the names of the prisoners held there.
“No visitors!” the guard said.
“They are just going to see him for a minute,” the prison official responded, not stopping to persuade the guard.
The official opened a door into an adjacent room. Inside, at least a dozen prisoners stood, all wearing white shirts and pants. The walls were covered with graffiti, some of it paragraphs long. Some of the men, it turned out, were deposed President Mohammed Morsi’s former bodyguards.
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“Mohamed Fahmy!” yelled the prison official. Another man peered out, desperate for a visitor. “They are not here for you,” the official told the lonely prisoner.
Then Fahmy – who has dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship, once worked for CNN and the BBC and is the acting Egypt bureau chief for Al Jazeera English television – emerged, wearing his prison whites and with a dark brace on his right arm. He looked shocked; it was hard to know whether from his imprisonment or from the unexpected visit. Prison guards hovered over Fahmy and his visitors throughout the two-minute visit.
Fahmy, whose @repent11 Twitter account is followed by more than 18,000 people, was arrested by Egyptian authorities Dec. 29, and he hadn’t been seen by friends or family until Monday, when two McClatchy reporters accompanied another friend to the basement cell where he’d been transferred to undergo questioning by prosecutors.
Fahmy hasn’t been formally charged, but his arrest along with the rest of Al Jazeera English’s team has raised fears about whether foreign journalists face arrest for reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood and those who still support Morsi. Thousands of Brotherhood members have been detained since Morsi’s ouster, as well as members of his government, including former Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, who wasn’t a Brotherhood member.
The seizure of Fahmy, correspondent Peter Greste, an Australian, and the rest of the Al Jazeera English staff, however, was particularly public: They were pulled from their informal offices in Cairo’s Marriott Hotel and then became the subject of news accounts that accused Fahmy of running “the Marriott terror cell.”
On Sunday, McClatchy learned that Egyptian authorities planned to move Fahmy on Monday 16 miles from the Scorpion section of Tora prison, reserved for Egypt’s worst criminals, to Cairo’s Fifth Settlement in the eastern outskirts for interrogation by the state prosecutor’s office. After questioning, he was to be returned to Tora. To visit him at the Fifth Settlement, McClatchy reporters didn’t identify themselves as journalists, but as friends, for fear of being arrested.
In Egypt, the legal system is strict until it’s not; every rule, it seems, can be broken. At first, the guards said Fahmy could not be seen. But then they were unusually accommodating, not checking IDs or searching bags.
“We are doing you a favor,” a guard said, looking at the three female visitors with pity. Said another, “I don’t know Mohamed’s case but I hate Al Jazeera. Anyone who works for Al Jazeera deserves whatever happens to him.”
Fahmy looked haggard and confused but healthy. He had the early signs of a beard and he hadn’t combed his hair. He rarely looked his visitors in the eye, seemingly confused. “I am fine,” he said.
He said prison authorities had refused to give him a sleeping bag and pillow that had been sent to him in prison after lawyers reported that he was sleeping on the floor. “They didn’t allow it,” he said.
He said he was being held in solitary confinement in Tora, with no light and with “insects.” He asked for food – Egyptian prison food is notoriously bad – and his friend turned over a duffle bag and four other bags filled with food, toiletries, clothing, water, towels, notebooks, a pen and cigarettes.
“He can trade favors from the guards with the cigarettes,” a lawyer had explained earlier.
Fahmy only glanced at the bags. “I’m being held the worst of everyone,” he said. “Why are they putting me in a highly secured prison?”
Whether he meant he was being treated worse than other prisoners or worse than Greste and the other Al Jazeera English staff members was unclear.
He said he hadn’t yet received medical treatment for a shoulder injury that he’d suffered before his arrest but that had grown worse since. “I am trying to get to the hospital, but it is slow,” he said, pointing to his shoulder.
Then the visit was over, and he was sent back to the room. A guard guided his visitors back through the garage, upstairs and outside again.
“You are lucky,” the prison official said as he escorted the visitors out.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.