Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian injustice and Canada’s spineless response: Neil Macdonald

The government of Canada, on the day that one of its citizens was sentenced to a long prison term in Egypt for the crime of committing journalism, was moved to note that Egyptians are, after all, “progressing toward democracy,” writes Neil Macdonald.

Avoiding ‘insult’ to Egypt, Canada expresses mild concern about Mohamed Fahmy sentence

Al-Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian, stands behind bars at a court in Cairo. He was among three journalists sentenced to seven years on terrorism-related charges, in a case that has brought an outcry from human rights groups. (Reuters)

The government of Canada, on the day that one of its citizens was sentenced to a long prison term in Egypt for the crime of committing journalism, was moved to note that Egyptians are, after all, “progressing toward democracy.”

And, added our prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, “We don’t want to insult them.”

Because, you know, that would just be rude.

Instead, the government in Ottawa, which runs around the world, chin out and elbows up, lecturing other governments about respecting human rights and democratic self-determination, prefers soft-spoken diplomacy toward the regime in Cairo, which has:

  • Attacked and toppled the country’s first democratically elected government.
  • Crushed, imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered members and supporters of that government.
  • Criminalized criticism of its rule and stamped out what little press freedom Egyptians enjoyed.
  • Installed a general as president in a rigged election without real opponents.

It’s probably best, the Harper government has apparently concluded, to remain largely silent as a journalist who carries a Canadian passport is sent off to some hellishly violent Egyptian prison for doing his job.

Lynne Yelich, Canadian Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), issued a somewhat tepid response to the seven-year sentence handed down by an Egyptian court to an Egyptian-Canadian journalist. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Best to have cabinet members avoid cameras on this sensitive and unsettling day, instead sending out Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Paul Callandra, to advise against giving any insult to Cairo.

Well, not entirely silent. Lynne Yelich, who is actually a junior minister (of consular affairs) in Stephen Harper’s cabinet, did post a written statement in which she declared Canada “is concerned that the judicial process that led to his verdict is inconsistent with Egypt’s democratic aspirations.”

“Judicial process.” Seriously.

What evidence?

To be quite clear: Egyptian prosecutors didn’t bother introducing, or even trumping up, any real evidence against Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, along with Australian citizen Peter Greste and Egyptian citizen Baher Mohamed. (Fahmy also has Egyptian citizenship.)

They didn’t need to. Trivialities like evidence are unnecessary; what the military wants is what’s important. One presumes, for example, that rigorous evidence was not introduced in the trial of 183 people whose death sentences were confirmed a few days ago for attacking a police station during a single incident. (A judge had originally ordered nearly 700 people executed.)

No, it was enough for the regime to simply allege the journalists had “falsified news” and aided the Muslim Brotherhood, the principal target of the Egyptian military’s campaign of persecution.

In reality, of course, the three are going to prison for being employees of the Al Jazeera TV network, which is owned by the government of Qatar, which generally supported the elected Brotherhood government, and which the Egyptian generals (along with many other Middle Eastern despots) utterly despise.

Calling the trial a “judicial process” is the sort of pusillanimous drivel conservatives scorn when they hear it from the mouths of liberals expressing patience with oppressive Arab regimes elsewhere in the Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Iraq, told journalists he was extremely dismayed to hear about the seven-year sentences handed down to three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. Kerry said he immediately phoned the foreign minister to register his 'serious displeasure.' (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters)

So why such forbearance for the likes of Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi and the rest of the junta in Cairo? Especially when other world leaders are expressing unqualified disgust? (British Prime Minister David Cameron set aside his English reserve to declare himself “completely appalled.”)

The most charitable explanation is one offered by a Canadian I know with deep diplomatic expertise in the Middle East.

He posited that the government of Canada, lacking the raw power of Washington — which ensured that American citizens facing charges were quietly allowed to leave Egypt — has perhaps been conducting back-channel talks with the Egyptians, and has secured some sort of face-saving deal to free Fahmy once the uproar has died down.

If that is the case, good for Canada. The current government was a tremendous help when CBC journalist Mellissa Fung was kidnapped in Afghanistan back in 2008, and that was all behind the scenes, too.

If this is happening again, it might explain the bit of praise Fahmy's brother had for the Canadian government's efforts after the verdict was delivered.

The other possibility my diplomatic acquaintance suggested was less palatable: that Canada’s government, like the far-right American politicians who cheered as the Egyptian generals grabbed power, has concluded that military oppression is greatly preferable to any governance by Islamic fundamentalists, even elected ones, and the regime’s excesses are the price to be paid.

'Chilling and draconian'

Like the U.S., Canada’s primary concern in the Middle East is Israel’s security. That is the anchor of Canada’s Middle East policy.

The deposed government of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was sympathetic towards and helpful to the Hamas government in Gaza. The current regime in Cairo has pleased Washington, and Canada, by blowing up the tunnels into Egypt used by Hamas in Gaza and has generally cracked down on Muslim extremists within Egypt.

Hence the visit to Cairo last week of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with el-Sissi.

Kerry basically declared that Washington’s reservations about el-Sissi have evaporated now that he’s taken off his military uniform and won what can only loosely be described as an election (not a difficult feat when you’ve jailed all your opponents).

U.S. military aid, partially withheld out of concern over human rights violations, will resume, Kerry announced. The regime will be getting all those Apache helicopters and other hardware it wants so badly, the better to keep its citizens obedient.

But Kerry at least had the bottle to stand before a microphone Monday and denounce the sentencing of the journalists as “chilling and draconian.” As soon as he heard about it, he said, he made an angry call to Egypt’s foreign minister.

And none of the journalists is even an American citizen.

Canada’s Yelich, meanwhile, used a press release to “call on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists.”

I suppose members of my craft should be grateful we merit inclusion in that broad category. But you’d think Canada could do better for one of its citizens.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?