There are few things more disconcerting than seeing what appears to be a groundswell of democracy crushed by a resurgence of brutal authoritarianism.
They called it the Arab Spring. A wave of grassroots unrest, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia and spread through parts of North Africa and the Middle East fueled by social media. Regarded as largely peaceful, although there was plenty of violence, it looked briefly like positive change could be on the horizon. It was a heady time characterized by a sense of optimism. Time magazine named “The Protester” its 2011 “Person of the Year.”
Perhaps nothing demonstrates just how far back things have gone than the sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists, including Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, by an Egyptian court to lengthy prison sentences for allegedly aiding the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news.
The charges relate to the three men’s coverage in December of the aftermath of the Egyptian army’s removal of Mohamed Morsi, ostensibly the country’s first democratically elected president.
The new (also supposedly democratically elected) Egyptian government does not like Al Jazeera because it is largely respected for objective journalism, something that generally makes despotic regimes look bad. Al Jazeera is also based in Qatar, which the new Egyptian regime believes supports the Muslim Brotherhood, now labelled a terrorist organization.
By all accounts the evidence presented by the prosecution was a joke, including a BBC report produced when none of the three journalists were in Egypt.
Understandably, Al Jazeera viewed the sentences as a travesty defying “logic, sense and any semblance of justice” according to Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English managing director, but sentiments that have been echoed by international governments, human rights groups and journalists everywhere.
It seems the only place where there is no outrage over the verdict—which Amnesty International called “a vindictive farce”— is in Ottawa.
The best the Canadian government could muster was a milktoast prepared press release from Lynne Yelich, a junior minister no less, that stated: “Canada calls on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists, in keeping with the spirit of Egypt’s new constitution and the desire of all Egyptians to build a fully democratic country.”
This response is completely unacceptable. The government’s handling of the file from the get-go has been hands-off, also completely unacceptable. Where was John Baird, the foreign affairs minister, on this? Where was Stephen Harper?
Paul Calandra, the PM’s parliamentary secretary shockingly suggested on CBC’s Power and Politics Monday that Canada didn’t want to upset the new Egyptian government.
The domestic reaction to this verdict was largely one of puzzlement. Unless the government is working on some behind-the-scenes deal, which seems implausible, why would it be so reticent to take a public stand?
Of course, our Conservative government is no fan of a free press either. And it has taken a very hard line on Canadians suspected of terrorism overseas, even musing about stripping dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship. Fahmy is a dual citizen.
Canadians ought to be very concerned about this. One of the benefits of citizenship is supposed to be that the Canadian government will protect our constitutional and human rights with all the means at its disposal. When a Canadian citizen is arrested, convicted and sent to prison for seven years in a foreign country for essentially doing his job and our government stands idly by and meekly lectures the other government on its democratic aspirations, it is an egregious affront to one of our most fundamental values.
Even if Mohamed Fahmy is guilty of some kind of crime, which seems highly unlikely, it is incumbent upon Canada to do everything within its power to ensure he is afforded his constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial and not the Kangaroo court it appears he was subjected to.