There’s a Canadian journalist in prison in Cairo and he’s due to go on trial on Thursday. So far, there’s been no public condemnation of his detention from Ottawa.
I deliberately say “Canadian,” as opposed to “Egyptian-Canadian” on the grounds that all dual citizens (like myself) would like to feel that the government would be on our side should there be a knock on the door at night.
Mohamed Fahmy, 39, and two of his colleagues from Al Jazeera English were arrested in late December, apparently victims of the political upheaval in Egypt. The interim military-supported government thinks that Al Jazeera’s coverage is biased toward former president Mohamed Morsi’s fundamentalist supporters.
The three journalists have been charged with being members of the (recently outlawed) Muslim Brotherhood, and with providing support to the Brotherhood through their reporting. The military government has accused the three, along with several other colleagues, of “airing false news aimed at informing the outside world that the country was witnessing a civil war.”
Mohamed’s brother, Adel, says the charges are nonsense: “My brother is the furthest from any such ideology,” he said in a phone interview. “He is a passionate journalist, not related to any of these groups.” From Egypt, the Fahmy family emigrated to Montreal, and the three boys spent 12 years in Canada. Their parents still live in Montreal, although they’ve travelled to Cairo for Mohamed’s trial.
There have been heartening calls for the journalists’ release from many corners, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Committee to Protect Journalists and filmmaker John Greyson, who was also imprisoned in Egypt and freed after pressure from the Canadian government. Even Barack Obama has spoken out against the charges through his spokesman, Jay Carney: “The restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt are a concern, and that includes the targeting of Egyptian and foreign journalists and academics simply for expressing their views.”
The Australian government is lobbying for the release of Mr. Fahmy’s co-accused, Peter Greste. So that leaves Ottawa in bewildering silence. Is Mr. Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen, seen as “not Canadian enough?” I can only surmise, and the vacuum offers few answers.
Adel Fahmy is quick to extend gratitude to the Canadian consular staff in Cairo, who have helped his brother receive medical treatment for an injured shoulder, and sought improved conditions. (Mohamed Fahmy was originally kept in solitary confinement in a notorious high-security prison, but he’s now joined his Al Jazeera colleagues and has access to food and an hour of exercise a day. He still can’t have a pen, paper or books, though.)
When asked if he’d like more support from Ottawa, Adel Fahmy said, “We would definitely like it. It would have an impact, in my opinion. But I’m in no position to criticize or ask why it hasn’t happened.”
But another supporter in Cairo, who asked not to be named for security reasons, is more blunt: “Why have they been silent? We need more support from the Canadian government.”
Mr. Fahmy had been working for Al Jazeera for just three months when he was arrested. He was, to put it mildly, in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in political turbulence beyond his control. As Cambridge University political scientist Hazem Kandil wrote in the London Review of Books this week, “What Egypt has become three years after its once-inspiring revolt is a police state more vigorous than anything we have seen since Nasser … those who refuse to toe the line must be ostracized and those who persist punished as traitors.”
Cairo blogger Sarah Carr recently wrote, “the continuing mass arrests and detentions … have had a chilling effect on the media. Journalists must now contend with both the threat of being shot, or detained, or attacked by enterprising members of the general public who have it rammed down their throats – by local media – that Al Jazeera and foreign journalists are out to spread chaos in Egypt.”
Mohamed Fahmy’s family say that he’s in reasonably good spirits as his trial approaches, and that messages of support buoy his spirits. Think how much better it would be if one of those messages came from Ottawa.