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Headshot of Campbell Clark for logos of Ottawa bureau staff. June 18, 2010.

Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail

Some time pretty soon, the Canadian government will have to decide whether to abandon its efforts to warm up relations with Egypt and instead treat it as an unfriendly dictatorship.

The test is the treatment of Mohammed Fahmy, the Egyptian-Canadian journalist sentenced to seven years in jail, along with two others working for al-Jazeera. They were, in effect, found guilty of journalism the government didn't like.

For the time being, the Conservative government has responded with muted dismay, a far cry from the blistering outrage it would express if the same had happened in, say, Iran. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott placed a call to ask for the release of the Australian among the three. Stephen Harper hasn't followed suit.

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That may be partly because Mr. Harper's Conservatives have taken the view that the autocratic regime of President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi is better than the alternative. But it's also because of tactics: The Canadian government is still hoping to convince Egypt.

That doesn't mean Canadians should be any less outraged with Egypt, or patient with the Canadian government. Without pressure, governments tend to let these cases slide. There isn't much use in Ottawa being polite unless it's clear that if that goes nowhere, they'll do their best to embarrass Egypt.

Professional diplomats, as a rule, hate these kinds of high-profile cases. They worry the focus on the case of just one person can derail diplomatic relationships and get in the way of serious issues like regional security. There are a lot of people in jail, and every country has its own laws. One individual can gum up important business between two countries.

But that's just tough luck. Ordinary people see the treatment of their fellow citizens as an important yardstick of whether a country is good or bad. And the case of Mr. Fahmy is a good measure for President el-Sissi's Egypt. If it's not embarrassed on the world stage by this case, it's not likely to ever feel any shame for the broader abuses at home.

For now, Canadian officials are being restrained about Mr. Fahmy's case because they believe things could be worse.

Mr. Fahmy is a dual Egyptian and Canadian citizen, and many other Middle Eastern countries just wouldn't recognize him as Canadian. Egypt has allowed Canadian officials to visit. More than that, the Egyptians haven't told their Canadian counterparts to listen, they've agreed to talk about the case, if to no avail. It's left some hope.

Mr. Harper hasn't done what Mr. Abbott did, but then, as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pointed out during a radio interview on Tuesday, "the Australian hasn't been released, either."

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And then there's a process. Mr. Baird noted in the radio interview that Mr. Fahmy and his two colleagues can file an appeal. After that's exhausted, they can seek a presidential pardon. Perhaps President el-Sissi, who said he won't "interfere," will change his mind, given time.

That's fine, as long as it is just tactics. There's no point believing that this is a case where respect for another country's due process is a serious consideration.

The charges themselves are the kind of ridiculous police-state "crimes" that amount to an admission that Egypt has little respect for the free expression of human rights. The three are accused of fabricating reporting that endangered national security and of supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood. They all say they were only reporting on protests following the July coup that ousted elected, Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi. There was, by all independent accounts, no evidence of any crime. Amnesty International called the trial a "sham."

So if the restrained Canadian tone is more than tactics, and becomes understanding for a friendly dictatorship, it's a big mistake.

Mr. Harper indicated in January that he welcomed the army coup that ousted Mr. Morsi, fearing he wanted to turn Egypt into an Islamist state, calling it a "return to stability." Mr. Harper's government once fretted the Arab Spring protests and Mr. Morsi might jeopardize peace with Israel, but President el-Sissi has reassured Israel. Mr. Harper's government has worked to re-establish severed ties since last July's coup. Mr. Harper argued that while Egypt's not a democracy, the long-term forces of progress should be encouraged.

But sometimes a dictatorship is just a dictatorship. Egypt is already trampling basic rights, mounting sham trials and locking up thousands – cause enough for other nations to criticize. If it, to boot, won't respond to other countries' objections when their citizens are caught in its police-state dragnet, encouragement isn't what Canada should offer. It's a sign that Canada isn't going to have any beneficial influence or get a real hearing. Then it's time to not only call Egypt what it is, but start using a bullhorn to do it.

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