The massive al-Fateh mosque that dominates Ramses Square, in downtown Cairo, sits empty these days. Bullet holes pepper its minaret, the exterior windows are broken and eight tanks are parked along its eastern perimeter.
Last month the mosque was at the centre of deadly clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Two Canadians – a doctor and a filmmaker – were caught up in the maelstrom and arrested on Aug. 16.
The case of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson illustrates how sharply the political landscape in Egypt has changed in the last two months, as the government has blamed foreigners for supporting the Islamists while suggesting both are targets in what it calls its war on terror.
“We have too many problems with foreigners involved in terrorism,” said a uniformed security officer at the entrance to the office of the state prosecutor in Cairo on Sunday.
In a statement issued this weekend, Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson said they had gone to “check out” the protests at Ramses Square on Aug. 16 and did nothing more than film what they saw and provide medical aid on the scene.
The military-appointed government that is running Egypt apparently sees their actions differently. On Sunday, press reports said the detention of the two Canadians as well as some 600 other people arrested during the violent crackdown on Morsi supporters will be extended 45 more days.
Foreign Minister John Baird is said to have been pressing Egypt to free the men, and reportedly did so during a face-to-face meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmi on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last week.
“We were disappointed to learn today that Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson will remain in custody,” said Lynne Yelich, a junior minister for Foreign Affairs in a statement circulated Sunday.
She added that Ottawa is calling for the release of the two Canadians and “continues to press for a timely and positive resolution to this situation. ... The well-being of Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson is our top priority.”
Cecilia Greyson, a sister of Mr. Greyson, is organizing a public petition to free the men and has called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to talk to his Egyptian counterpart. “This detention has gone on much too long already,” she said.
Late Sunday evening, the Prime Minister's Office released a statement saying: "In the absence of charges, Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson should be released immediately."
Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson are being held in the maximum security Tora prison south of Cairo. They said in their statement, released by supporters in Canada, that they are being held in “ridiculous conditions” in a cockroach-infested cell.
They said they arrived in Cairo on Aug 15, intending to travel overland to the Gaza Strip. Dr. Loubani was to volunteer at hospital there. Mr. Greyson was to make a short film on Dr. Loubani’s work.
They had with them camera gear and material for the hospital, including “two disassembled toy-sized helicopters for testing the transportation of medical supplies.” They were arrested, they said, after filming the injured in Ramses Square and helping wounded people.
They were trying to get back to their hotel in evening after leaving the area, they said, and had asked for help getting through a police cordon at a checkpoint when they were beaten, screamed at and taken into custody.
Much about them and their behaviour would have raised suspicions in the eyes of jittery Egyptian security officials: the unusual equipment such as the toy helicopters they brought with them to Egypt, the fact they were out in Cairo after an announced curfew and their presence in an area where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had battled security forces for hours.
It is difficult to overstate the level of tension and stark fear that was present in this city of more than 20 million. Large parts of the city were a battle zone, including Ramses Square.
Only two days before their arrest, the military had imposed a state of emergency and a nighttime curfew. Morsi supporters were dispersed with gunfire and tanks from their protest sites. The police were being attacked in turn by demonstrators.
Fear of foreign “terrorists” among the protesters was also being fanned by state media and the Muslim Brotherhood had set the stage for more confrontation, calling for new protests on the Friday that Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson decided to go “check out,” as they said, the protests in the square.
The Canadians may also have unwittingly raised more suspicions by saying they were on their way to Gaza. The military removed Mr. Morsi on July 3, and has since accused him of being involved in treasonous activities in concert with the Hamas government in Gaza, which has a long history of co-operation with Egypt’s now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The man who led the military takeover, General Abdel Fattah el Sisi, has set the tone for a state media campaign vilifying Americans and other Westerners as both spies and supporters of the Brotherhood in Egypt. That campaign has permeated public life, and foreigners living in Cairo these days feel it.
While the mood has improved in recent weeks, the month of August was extremely tense, with foreign residents in Cairo discouraged from moving freely in the city for fear of being confronted by angry Egyptians. Young Europeans reported being “flash mobbed” by youths demanding to know their nationalities and the reason for their presence in Cairo. Several journalists were manhandled and even arrested.
In their statement this weekend, Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson said they don’t know if it was their “passports” that prompted their arrest. At one time, their nationality might have protected them from hostility in cosmopolitan Cairo. But they said it seemed to enrage the Egyptians who arrested them. “They screamed ‘Canadian’ as they kicked and hit us,” they said, in their recounting of the version of their arrest.
Their video footage of what they describe as “the carnage that was unfolding” as security forces clashed with Morsi supporters in Ramses Square would hardly have helped them in the extreme tension of those days that saw many police officers as well as hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators killed.
The two Canadians say they have been on a hunger strike for nearly a week. According to their statement, they have been moved from a cell with 36 other prisoners to one with six people, can now exercise and take showers, but cannot make phone calls and still “share a single tap” of water with cellmates.
The Canadians, in their statement, said they “would welcome our day in a real court with the real evidence.” They suggested they are being held because they witnessed the deaths of dozens of people who were killed by security forces. Their “alibi,” they said, would be the footage they took.
Egyptian prosecutors, in the present xenophobic atmosphere and the ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, still may not see it as an alibi.
According to Egyptian press reports, Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson, along with some 600 others arrested during the August period of violence, remain under investigation for a series of charges, including murder, attempted murder and joining a terrorist organization.
With reports from Colin Freeze in Toronto and Steven Chase in Ottawa