Egyptian hopes son cleared of U.S. explosives charges

Father says the case is a misunderstanding.

By SARAH MISHKIN, Times correspondent
Published December 26, 2007

CAIRO, Egypt - The name of Ahmed Mohamed's American attorney does not translate easily into Arabic, and Mohamed's father has trouble pronouncing it.

But as he waits half a world away from Tampa, the father is hoping the man with the tricky name - John Fitzgibbons - can clear his son of criminal charges that have brought widespread attention and accusations of terrorist intent.

As Mohamed's father, Abdel Latif Sherif, works at Egypt's Ministry of Transportation, his son is in solitary confinement in Tampa on charges that he and a fellow suspended University of South Florida student illegally transported explosive materials.

"Me and his mother are dying," Sherif said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

Mohamed, 26, was charged along with Youssef Megahed, 21, after authorities found the two in South Carolina with a trunk full of what prosecutors describe as incomplete pipe bombs. Mohamed drew extra scrutiny and a charge of demonstrating how to make an explosive device because authorities said his laptop contained a tape of him explaining how to turn a toy car into a detonator.

Sherif, however, describes his son as very normal. He's not overly religious. He married a few years ago, but it didn't work out. He found USF online and decided to come to America to study engineering, the profession of both his father and brother.

Mohamed's father contends the case against his son stems from a misunderstanding. The low-grade explosives in the trunk, he said, were similar to those set off in Cairo at parties outside soccer games. His son, an engineer, was probably trying to show off his cleverness by building them himself.

"The fireworks were, as he told us, to celebrate the day of his birthday. ... His intention was to do nothing against anyone," Sherif said. "If it is forbidden there, he did not know."

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At one time, Mohamed was in love and married to a beautiful Christian woman from Russia, his father says.

Mohamed met the woman in Hurghada, Egypt, a popular resort town on the Red Sea. Their marriage lasted only a few months, until the woman returned home to Russia about three years ago.

"He was in love with her, but, unfortunately, she could not stay in Egypt," Sherif said.

His son moved on with his life - graduating with a university degree in engineering, working as a consultant in Abu Dhabi, and then traveling to Tampa to pursue graduate work at the University of South Florida.

Ahmed's father works as the vice chairman of Egypt's National Authority for Tunnels. He says he is frustrated with reporters who have described him as a powerful government official; he is not such a person, he says.

He gestures around his office, a plush but quiet room looking out over Cairo's central train station. A small TV showing local news on mute sits to the side of his desk, next to a boxy desktop computer.

Sherif is concerned that his son is in "very bad condition" because of his isolation.

"To keep him safe, okay. But give him something to keep the condition he is living in better," he says. "He is not yet guilty to be punishing him like that. He's innocent until proven guilty, right?"

The evidence introduced in the case so far, however, paints a picture of a young man with anger at America. An FBI agent said in a sworn statement that Mohamed admitted making the laptop video "to assist those persons in Arabic countries to defend themselves against the infidels invading their countries" and that "the technology which he demonstrated in the tape was to be used against those who fought for the United States."

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The story Sherif tells is much less sinister. Tampa's August heat was too much like Cairo, and his son wanted to escape it, as he would do in Egypt with trips to popular beach resorts by the Red Sea. So he told his father that he and a friend were planning to head north to celebrate his birthday.

The last Sherif heard from his son was a text message sent when Mohamed and Megahed stopped for lunch somewhere in South Carolina.

His son, he said, had never expressed anti-American sentiments, either before or after his departure for Florida.

"He is looking for better opportunities for life. All of us were happy, but unfortunately this strange matter happened," he said. "Egypt is a friend to America now; we have good relations. He was happy to go to America."

Mohamed found USF online, and applied to it and other engineering programs. Sherif said he had not heard of Sami Al-Arian, the USF engineering professor sentenced to 57 months in jail after pleading guilty to helping associates of a terrorist group with nonviolent activities.

He said his son sent him pictures back from Florida, pictures of him out with American friends, including one picture that showed Mohamed out in a rowboat with a female friend from USF.

He had been planning to return to Egypt for a bit in August, but moved his ticket before his arrest so he could stay in America until the end of the academic year. He was not planning to try to move to the United States permanently, his father said; he was going to come back to Egypt upon graduation.

In Cairo, the Muslim call to prayer rings out five times a day, every day, and businesses often close Friday afternoon for the week's most significant prayer. Mohamed, his father said, is Muslim, but not always particularly observant.

"He was praying sometimes, not praying sometimes," he says.

Sherif said he, like his son, goes to a mosque occasionally. Their home is near one of the small mosques that dot every other block in many neighborhoods, and he will sometimes go there when it is convenient. But often, he said, he is so tired from work that it can be a struggle: "If I go to the mosque, I am sometimes not able to keep open my eyes."

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Sherif said he and his wife are planning to visit their son in prison in Tampa. The American legal system is vastly different from Egypt's, and hard to negotiate when halfway around the world.

He has spoken with Megahed's father - who had been a peer of his at engineering school in the late '60s - and wishes he could, like Megahed, be near his son. Even when he visits, though, he will not likely be able to take more than a week or two off of work.

He said his son, on the advice of his lawyer, will not be pleading guilty to the charges. He has confidence that his son will prevail.

"He was very normal," he said. "And not looking to be a hero."