This morning we learned that an Egyptian court – a kangaroo court, if ever there was one – after what can only be characterized as a farce of a trial, had convicted Mohammed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian Al-Jazeera reporter, on “terrorism-related” charges and sentenced him to 7 years in prison. That the conviction was preordained is undeniable. This can probably be taken for granted anywhere in the Arab world, but even by the low standards of the region, this trial was a joke. Apparently, Egypt defines “terrorism” as saying unflattering, if accurate, things about its shit-hole government (that the current shit-hole government isn’t much worse (or better) than its predecessor shit-hole government, is really neither here nor there). Still, Mr. Fahmy’s conviction in itself, isn’t all that interesting – after all, did anyone really expect a fair trial?
What’s more interesting has been the response of some of Mr. Fahmy’s family and supporters, who have been harshly critical of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mr. Fahmy’s brother’s, Sherif, tweeted Stephen Harper:
I hold you responsible for leaving my brother to rotten in Egyptian prison. Was a call or a public statement that difficult?
Or Tony Burman, columnist for the Toronto Star who said:
The absence of the highest level of intervention, on behalf of the Canadian government has been lamentable. But, there is a chance for reversal…It’s now time for Canada’s prime minister to indicate to Egypt that enough is enough.
More in this vein can be seen here.
Man, Stephen Harper can’t get a break. Apparently even when Egypt screws up, it’s his fault. Quick question, what do Harper’s critics think he should be doing?
Tony Burman and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression think that Canada should be more vocal, like the Australian government has been in respect of Mr. Fahmy’s co-accused, Peter Greste, an Australian citizen. Really, how has that worked out for Mr. Greste? He was convicted and sentenced to the same 7-year sentence as Mr. Fahmy. Hmm, I’m not sure I see how the Australian approach is an improvement over seems the Canadian strategy.
Moreover, there are compelling reasons for the Canadian government to take a different tact than the Australian government. Mr. Greste, after all is an Australian citizen, period. Mr. Fahmy is a Canadian citizen. Unfortunately, he’s also has the misfortune to be an Egyptian citizen. That makes his position far more perilous than that of Mr. Greste. According to the US state department, Egypt may refuse consular services to dual citizens or deny diplomatic access, on the grounds that they are citizens of Egypt and therefore that their activities are of no interest to Canada. In this case, that’s clearly bullshit (though in other cases… how responsive would we be to a dual Canadian-US citizen who lived here for years and asked for diplomatic assistance when he was arrested?). Still, it gives Egypt a fig leaf for telling us to go screw, meaning that Canada can’t afford to give them reason to do so. In these circumstances, quiet and subtle diplomacy may be more effective than the loud public statements previously made by the Canadian government in respect of Canadian citizens held in Egypt (John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, neither of whom were Egyptian citizens) or by the Australian government in Mr. Greste’s case.
This isn’t to say that Canada’s response is all that satisfying. This is the sort of affair that makes one wishes for the good old days, when an uppity Egyptian government could be dealt with by dispatching a man-o-war with orders to shell Alexandria and hang the local Pasha from the yardarm if our citizen wasn’t released forthwith. In this, I tend to share Lord Palmerston’s famous dicta on the importance of protecting ones citizens from harm in foreign hands:
“As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of Britain will protect him from injustice and wrong.”
This never would have happened when the British Empire was still around (not for nothing, that’s also the last time Egypt had a competent government, who says the British Empire wasn’t a force for good?). Then again, when Lord Palmerston spoke those words, he’d just send a squadron of warships to protect the rights of a solitary British subject in Greece. Personally, I’d support Stephen Harper to the hilt if he ordered a naval task force up the Nile to shell Cairo, but since the closest thing to pass for a man-o-war in Canada’s navy just sprung a leak (and probably couldn’t shell Cairo if it hadn’t), that option isn’t on the table. In any event, people like Mr. Burman tend to frown on Westerners using force to protect their interests (however righteous), much less human rights, in third world countries.
Still, since gunboat diplomacy isn’t an option for Canada, that leaves us with a choice between the vocal diplomacy urged by Tony Burman et al and pursued by Australia or the quiet diplomacy pursued by the Harper government. At this point, it’s not clear that the former is getting better results than the latter, and carries potentially significant risks for poor Mr. Fahmy. Perhaps rather venting their spleen on Stephen Harper’s seemingly reasonable approach, Mr. Fahmy’s supporters should be redoubling their efforts to shame the apparently shameless Egyptian government while working with the Canadian government, all while publicizing the hell hole that Egypt has become (which, given its starting point, is impressive).