When John Greyson, his friend Tarek Loubani and 36 others were crammed “like sardines” in a filthy, 30-square-metre cell in an Egyptian prison for seven weeks, Mr. Greyson longed to see the CN Tower – a structure he viewed daily from a window in his Toronto studio.
Through a note passed from his lawyer in Cairo to his friend of 17 years, Stephen Andrews, Mr. Greyson requested and received a drawing of the iconic structure, which had come to represent freedom. “I think he pasted that up on the wall in his cell. A little bit of home,” Mr. Andrews said from his home in Toronto.
Mr. Greyson and Dr. Loubani were released Saturday from Tora prison south of Cairo, where they had been held without charge, which means Mr. Greyson will soon be able to see that symbol of freedom in Toronto with his own eyes. The pair endured brutal conditions for 50 days and participated in a two-week hunger strike. After their release, they were transferred to a Cairo hotel, where they are waiting to get their documents in order to return to Canada.
“He’s out of jail, but he’s not out of Egypt,” Mr. Andrews said of Mr. Greyson. “Until he’s home, I’m still worried that things can go sideways.”
The Associated Press reported the two Canadians tried to board a plane to Frankfurt, Germany but were prevented after their names appeared on a “stop-list” issued by prosecutors, attributing the information to airport officials.
Mr. Greyson and Dr. Loubani retrieved their luggage and were free to leave the airport, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Mr. Greyson's sister, Cecilia, said that while the men have their passports there’s still some “red tape” that must be dealt with before they can finally leave Egypt.
She said consular officials are working with the men to speed up their return to Canada, a process she expects could take days.
Despite the hitch in their departure, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he remains optimistic the two Canadians will soon be coming home.
“It’s now our view at the moment, based on what we know, that this is just a case of lack of clarity and co-ordination within the bureaucracy,” Mr. Harper told a media briefing in Bali, Indonesia where he's attending the Asia-Pacific leaders summit that begins Monday.
“So we’re optimistic it will be resolved in the very near future, but obviously we’ll continue to focus on this until it is resolved and we see these Canadians back in the country,” he said.
The Canadians, a filmmaker and emergency-room doctor, had set out in August for the Gaza Strip where Dr. Loubani was to volunteer at a local hospital. Mr. Greyson planned to make a short film about his friend’s efforts. After landing in Cairo, they learned the border to the Palestinian city of Rafah was closed, so they checked into a Cairo hotel, said Ben Thomson, a long-time friend and nephrologist who works with Dr. Loubani at the University of Western Ontario.
They checked out a protest a few blocks from their hotel, and when it turned violent, Dr. Loubani delivered medical care to the injured while Mr. Greyson filmed the scene, according to a statement the men released. Later that evening, on Aug. 16, they were arrested.
Egyptian prosecutors accused them of “participating with members of the Muslim Brotherhood” in an attack on a police station.
On Sunday morning, Justin Podur, a close friend of Mr. Greyson and Dr. Loubani, reached Dr. Loubani by phone at their hotel. After many false starts and rumours that a release was imminent over the preceding seven weeks, Mr. Podur found it hard to believe Dr. Loubani was finally free, even as he heard his friend’s voice on the phone.
“He said, ‘Dude, I’m out. Don’t sound so surprised,’ ” Mr. Podur said.
On Sunday, the men’s lawyer in Egypt, Marwa Farouk, attributed their sudden release to a formal complaint that she had lodged with Egypt’s prosecutor general last Wednesday. Speaking through an interpreter, she said the complaint challenged the arrest of the men. The prosecutor general ruled two days later in their favour, clearing the way for their release.
Since the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the country has been under state-of-emergency laws and, in most of the country, residents have observed a night-time curfew. Tensions between pro-Morsi supporters and the military remain high.
For weeks, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called on the Egyptian government to either charge the imprisoned men with a crime or release them.
Lynne Yelich, a junior minister responsible for consular affairs, released a statement on Saturday announcing the news of Dr. Loubani’s and Mr. Greyson’s release.
“Minister Baird and I were in contact with senior Egyptian officials on numerous occasions concerning this case, and the Embassy of Canada to Egypt worked tirelessly to secure their release,” she said.
Mr. Andrews got news that Mr. Greyson was free straight from the horse’s mouth: a Saturday-night phone call from his close friend.
“He said, ‘Hi, it’s John,’ ” Mr. Andrews recalled. The two, who had not spoken for nearly two months, chatted for half an hour.
“I asked after his mental health and [said] ‘Really, how are you doing?’ He says he’s fine. His voice sounded good and we were laughing a lot,” Mr. Andrews said.
When Mr. Greyson and Dr. Loubani were told they were being released from the prison, “they were very, very, very surprised,” said Mr. Podur. “They just thought that they were switching cells or something or being transferred to a different spot. They didn’t believe it until it was quite far along.”
Had Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson been able to cross into Gaza on the day they arrived in Egypt, Dr. Thomson believes things would have gone smoothly. Dr. Loubani had made the trip to Gaza half a dozen times before and had also delivered aid in Venezuela, Colombia, the West Bank and Iraq.
“It’s all too common that physicians will go once and offer care once,” Dr. Thomson said. “Tarek believes and exemplified that if improvements to care are going to occur in these places, you need to develop a long-standing relationship.”
While he’s elated that his friends are heading home, Dr. Thomson said his “brain is confused today.”
“I’m awaiting the moment for me to hug John and hug Tarek and know that they’re back and safe … But what they’ve gone through symbolizes something of a bigger scale that still affects hundreds and probably thousands of people in Egypt.”
With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa and The Canadian Press