Egypt may have put Mohamed Fahmy in prison, but Canada’s policies under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper are keeping him there.
Fahmy is the Egyptian-born Canadian journalist who, along with his two Al Jazeera colleagues, was arrested in Cairo in late 2013. Last month, he and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were both sentenced to three years in prison after a retrial found them guilty of “broadcasting false news” and “aiding a terrorist organisation”. Australian journalist Peter Greste – who was released and deported from Egypt in February – was sentenced in absentia.
Harper plays to his mostly white, Christian, evangelical base.
Ever since Fahmy’s ordeal began, an organised campaign has sought his freedom. Editorials have appeared in national newspapers, fundraisers have been held to help him with his legal costs, and Canadian politicians, journalists, artists, academics, jurists, and civil libertarians have agitated on his behalf, repeatedly asking Harper to get involved. As the social media campaign goes: #HarperCallEgypt.
“The government has said before that they need to use quiet diplomacy to get Fahmy out of jail,” says Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “We found out about six months into our campaign that [this] essentially meant that they’re doing nothing.”
Earlier this month, 300 prominent Canadians signed a second open letter, imploring the prime minister “to take personal and immediate action”. While acknowledging the help of the consular services in Cairo, the signatories emphasise that “Greste, convicted alongside Mr Fahmy on identical charges in June 2014, was returned home seven months ago, after direct and persistent intervention by Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott”.
As for Harper, well, there’s always Twitter diplomacy.
On August 29, after Fahmy and Mohamed were once again imprisoned, this tweet appeared on Harper’s timeline: “Canada continues to call on Egypt for the immediate and full release of Mr Fahmy and full cooperation to facilitate his return home.”
The Harper government has demonstrated “a whole trajectory and a litany of disinterest and, frankly, incompetence”, Paul Dewar, foreign affairs critic for the opposition New Democratic Party, insists. “If our government is not advancing this at the highest level and, instead, is sloughing it off to junior ministers, it sends a message. It says the Canadian government isn’t that serious.”
Fahmy is caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare in a large part born of Harper’s foreign affairs fumbles, his bellicosity, his legislative attacks against Canadians with dual citizenship, and, last but not least, his party’s politics of division.
To Harper – who plays to his mostly white, Christian, evangelical base, or as he recently referred to them: “old-stock Canadians” – if you’re a Syrian refugee, if you’re not a minority Christian fleeing religious persecution, if you’re a woman who wants to remain veiled while taking the oath of citizenship, you’re not only a “security risk”, you might be with the terrorists.
Whether it’s Harper’s repeated attempts to imprison child soldier Omar Khadr, his alliance with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, or his refusal to join the P5+1 on the Iran nuclear deal, his government persists in demonising immigrants from Muslim countries.
These “dog-whistle politics” – the big buzzwords of the current federal election campaign – serve to stoke Islamophobia among Conservative supporters.
No wonder that a recent survey revealed that many Canadians are convinced that Muslims are 20 percent of the population. But, while it’s true that Islam is the second biggest religion in the country after Christianity – and the fastest-growing, Muslims make up a mere 3.2 percent of the population, according to the 2011 census.
Fahmy, who came with his parents to Canada as a teenager, relinquished his dual Egyptian citizenship late last year. If he hadn’t, he might have been subject to a controversial provision of Harper’s 2014 “Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act” that dictates that dual citizens and immigrants, if convicted of terrorism – even during farcical trials abroad – can be stripped of their Canadian citizenship. He would have had no hope of ever returning to Canada.
Fahmy was convinced to give up his Egyptian citizenship so he might benefit from a recent decree by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that could result in his deportation to Canada. Despite his sacrifice, he remained stuck in Egypt – and for a while, even without a Canadian passport. It took a massive lobbying effort by his supporters to get the government to issue him even temporary papers.
But the biggest Harper government gaffe was in January when former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird travelled to Egypt on a trade mission. He carelessly ignored that Sisi’s deportation decree stipulates that those to be deported must either face trial on similar charges after repatriation or have their Egyptian sentences carried out in their home countries.
And so, the bars on Fahmy’s release clanged shut when Baird, who now sits on various corporate and non-profit boards, including that of Friends of Israel Initiative, announced: “In Canada, we would have no basis to put Mr Fahmy on trial.”
“By saying that Fahmy wouldn’t face trial when he returned to Canada, Baird made it impossible for him to be deported at that time,” notes Henheffer.
“He is in no small part responsible for Fahmy still being in jail because of that blunder. It was the Egyptian government that jailed him, but there was an opportunity to bring him home – and the Conservatives screwed it up royally.”
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star, the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.