Mohamed Fahmy on his way to a court appearance in early June. Screeencap via YouTube.
International condemnation was quick and furious this week as Egypt handed down stiff sentences against three Al Jazeera journalists who had been detained in the country since December on vague terrorism charges.
Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, who was Cairo bureau chief for the satellite network at the time of his arrest, and Australian correspondent Peter Greste each received seven years in prison for allegedly aiding the banned Muslim Brotherhood through dishonest reporting. Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed got an even longer sentence of 10 years.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the “chilling, draconian sentences.” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “completely appalled” by the verdict. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had personally called Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi days earlier, was "shocked, dismayed and bewildered."
And in Canada: barely a whisper.
There was only a meek press release from the office of Lynne Yelich, the junior minister for foreign affairs, in which she said she was “disappointed” and “concerned” with the judicial process. The statement does not even identify Fahmy as a Canadian citizen, calling instead for the protection of “the rights of all individuals,” as though the government is as interested in the aspirations of the average Cairo mechanic or street vendor as it is in the welfare of its citizen.
Asked why the government’s response had been so timid, both during and after the trial, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs sent VICE a familiar response, variations of which had met every query about Fahmy’s case throughout the last six months.
“Canada has been granted full access to Mr. Fahmy to provide consular assistance,” read the statement. “Minister Yelich has personally contacted Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to relay Canada’s disappointment regarding the judicial process which led to the verdict.”
To date, the Canadian government has never explicitly called for Fahmy’s release. This despite a shambolic trial that dragged on for months and saw everything from pop songs to videos of sheep farming offered as supposed evidence the three men were working to destabilize the country. It was such a disaster, the judge frequently took to wearing sunglasses in court, perhaps in an effort to hide his own embarrassment.
Throughout Fahmy’s detention in Egypt, Canadian officials have cited the journalist’s dual nationality as reason they couldn’t more vocally call for his release, even though Fahmy grew up in Montreal and only travelled on his Canadian passport. Asked specifically how Fahmy’s dual nationality had impeded the government’s efforts over the last six months, Foreign Affairs cited privacy concerns and suggested, absurdly, that, “any questions regarding his citizenship should be discussed with him directly.”
Too bad he won’t be able to chit-chat about his citizenship anytime soon, especially when the one that matters—his Canadian citizenship—has all but been ignored.
Given Canada’s forceful campaign to free John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, two Canadians detained in Egypt last August, the official reaction to Fahmy has been just shy of indifference.
Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, has no doubts about why that is.
"It's time to say we are against two-tier citizenship, where if you have an immigrant background you don't get the same protection from the government," he said.
CJFE has been working with Al Jazeera to support the Fahmy family for months, but the organization has tried to remain apolitical throughout for fear of complicating the case. Now Henheffer says it’s time to go “all out” and push the Conservative government to take action and “lead a coalition of countries” demanding the release of the journalists. CJFE is urging Canadians to use a tool on its website to send letters directly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office in order to keep up the pressure on a reluctant government to intervene.
Ever since Harper heralded the 2013 military coup in Egypt as a “return to stability” it’s been clear what Ottawa’s priorities are: As long as Egypt’s generals put an end to the political turmoil that followed the 2011 revolution and clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood, all would be forgiven.
But Henheffer said that cozy relationship with with Egypt’s generals isn’t worth much if Canada can’t even secure the release of its own citizens from that country’s prisons.
Fahmy’s family, too, is hoping Ottawa will finally push for the Canadian’s release.
Speaking over the phone from Cairo, his brother Sherif told VICE the family was devastated by the verdict.
"It was a heartbreaking scene. Totally unexpected, unjustified,” he said. “We were all very optimistic. No one expected this at all."
Sherif says he holds Harper personally responsible for Mohamed's plight, tweeting angrily after the verdict that the prime minister was leaving his brother to rot in jail. Worst of all, the jailed journalist believes Canada was fighting for his release all along, an impression the family has apparently been unwilling to contradict, likely out of fear it would crush his morale even further.
"He is convinced Canada is actually doing its best to seek his release. He doesn't know what's happening on the outside.”
"The family is preparing to appeal the case, but even though Egypt’s new leader has said he won’t “interfere” with the court, a presidential pardon from Sisi is still the most likely route to freedom. Sherif said that can only happen if there is enough international pressure on the new president to intervene."
“The Egyptians realize that by this verdict they are going to get pressured from the Netherlands, England, Canada, Australia and the US. They have to somehow find a way to reverse this verdict and let them go,” he said. “But I can't believe the Canadians aren't pressuring the Egyptian side at all."
So far the Canadian response hasn’t been encouraging. On Monday, as other world leaders denounced the verdict against the Al Jazeera journalists as attacks on free speech and democracy, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was conspicuously silent. Harper, too, maintained his long record of ignoring Fahmy’s case, although he did find the time to wish his wife a happy birthday on Twitter.