The angry battles over Egypt’s new constitution have a ripple here: Egyptian-Canadians are overwhelmingly against it. Yet Stephen Harper’s government hasn’t tried to gain political mileage from condemning it.
This is a Canadian government that annoyed Egypt in the heady days of the Arab Spring by lecturing about treaties with Israel and protections for Coptic Christians – a response that was viewed in Cairo as condescending and motivated by domestic politics. On the world stage, the Harper government also likes to trumpet its willingness to stand for principle and for democratic rights.
In Cairo, protesters have decried the draft constitution as a danger to minority rights and a step toward an Islamist state. President Mohammed Morsi’s rush to adopt it by referendum, and decrees to put his own decisions above review by the courts, sparked cries that the elected President, the candidate backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, is building a new authoritarian Islamist state.
The Egyptian-Canadian diaspora is mostly on the side of the protesters. In Canada, 80 per cent of the 4,300 who voted by overseas ballot in Egypt’s constitutional referendum rejected it. There were, on both sides, a few who angrily denounced opponents as traitors.
But Mr. Harper’s government has been cautious and mostly quiet. There’s no a hint of the vocal blasts it loves to aim at countries such as Iran. If asked, it offers encouragement for protection of women’s rights and Copts, and says it supports Egypt’s “transition to democracy.” Egyptians are voting, and that’s a real reason for foreign governments to avoid sticking their noses in too forcefully. Ottawa is waiting to see what Egypt becomes.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird cancelled a visit to Egypt, scheduled for Dec. 10, after riots and turmoil led to doubts as to whether it was a good time. Canada’s relations with Egypt had been “standoffish,” as one government source put it, since the Arab Spring. When Egyptians were calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Harper’s government was cool, stressing concern for peace with Israel and protection of Copts – seen as politicking at home, where half of Egyptian-Canadians are Christian.
Canada, like the United States, praised Mr. Morsi for brokering an end to the recent Gaza conflict, but then the Egyptian President launched his constitutional push. Ottawa has no influence. But even the United States hasn’t got much pull, and foreign criticism may well engender a public backlash.
The Harper government certainly harbours qualms about a Muslim Brotherhood government. But the Canadian foreign service has reported a picture that is less dark than media headlines, according to a government source: They noted enthusiasm for voting and said that incidents of Islamist intimidation have been more isolated than painted by media reports. The constitution itself has not been red-flagged by the foreign service with the same alarm the protesters have raised: There may be concerns that Egypt might move toward Islamism, but the constitution has not been viewed as the definitive step.
Some legal experts insist it is not. Mohammad Fadel, a University of Toronto expert, argues that while it contains a few rhetorical sops to Islamists, they’re not substantial, and it won’t create an Islamist state. “It does not enshrine the liberal rights that we take for granted in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said. But if it was going to be representative of Egypt, it was never going to be a liberal constitution, he added, “because Egyptian culture is very conservative.”
But, he added, there are substantially improved political rights and more limits on presidential power. There are minority rights, including for Christians and Jews, though not as explicitly as for other faiths. But the draft constitution also provides room for legislators to add more guarantees. The big problem is not the text, Prof. Fadel said, but the lack of faith in Egypt’s political institutions.
Ottawa will be watching the conclusion of the referendum in the final stage of voting on Saturday. But it is expected to pass, by a margin of roughly 60 per cent. That’s not a broad consensus. What comes next, and whether Egypt can be bridge its polarized politics, will matter. In the meantime, Ottawa is treading carefully.