Skip to main content

There’s another 'Canadian' in an Egyptian prison. Why the silence?

A great deal of attention has been paid to the incarceration in Cairo of Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, a journalist with Al Jazeera television, but there is another Egyptian with Canadian connections who is in prison in Egypt and he's been there a lot longer than Mr. Fahmy.

Khaled al-Qazzaz, a Canadian permanent resident, was arrested by Egyptian security forces on July 3, his 34th birthday, and held in secret, without charge, for five and a half months. In mid-December he was transferred to the notorious Tora prison, south of Cairo, where the country's political prisoners have long been taken, and held in a solitary cell in the maximum security "Scorpion" section.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented his case.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Qazzaz, whose wife and four children are all Canadian citizens, was among those Egyptian government officials swept up that day in July when Egypt's army staged a coup and took control of the country.

He was then serving as president Mohammed Morsi's foreign relations secretary and was arrested, along with the president and four other senior officials, and kept incommunicado – it was believed they were held somewhere in the headquarters of the Republican Guard near the presidential palace.

Mr. Qazzaz's move to Tora prison on Dec. 17 was the first official acknowledgement that he was in custody. Two weeks after his arrival in the prison, Mr. Fahmy was arrested and assigned a cell next to his.

Mr. Fahmy has recently been moved to another section of the prison and shares a larger cell with his two al-Jazeera colleagues. But while the campaign to free Mr. Fahmy and company has gone viral in the relatively short time since their detention, just 2000 people have signed an international petition calling for Mr. Qazzaz's release.

Mr. Fahmy, it seems, enjoys plausible deniability. He and his Al Jazeera bosses adamantly deny Egyptian charges that he is a member of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and that he broadcast false material intended to benefit that movement. Mr. Fahmy is helped too by the fact that Western media is justifiably incensed that the exercise of free press is being curtailed in Egypt and they can bring political pressure to bear on Egypt.

Taken together, these sentiments may be enough to counter the view of many in Egypt and around the region that Al-Jazeera and its Qatari benefactors are strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood all around the Middle East. It's likely to be enough to win Mr. Fahmy's release.

On the other hand, Mr. Qazzaz, who now faces similar accusations that he is a member of an outlawed terrorist organization, has no such deniability, and little Western media sympathy. While his supporters say it is their "understanding that Khaled was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood," they readily concede he was a member of the Freedom and Justice Party whose candidate, Mr. Morsi won the presidency. And being a member of the FJP amounts to much the same thing as being a Muslim Brother.

The FJP was created in 2011 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be the Brothers' political vehicle since the constitution forbade a religious movement such as theirs to run candidates for office.

While nominally independent, the FJP's leadership was appointed by the Brotherhood's shura council; all the top FJP leaders were taken from the Brotherhood's supreme Guidance Council.

Once elected (to both a parliamentary majority and the presidency), the names Muslim Brotherhood and FJP were used interchangeably. More often than not the government was described as the Muslim Brotherhood government rather than the FJP government.

Mr. Qazzaz, as foreign relations adviser, was a frequent spokesman for the president and appeared on international television and travelled to foreign capitals where he was introduced as part of a Muslim Brotherhood administration.

Mr. Qazzaz, his wife Sarah Attia and their children moved to Egypt in 2005. Friends say they return to Canada an average of twice a year. Members of Ms. Attia's family are mostly found in the Toronto area.

In recent open letters, the couple say they cling to Canadian values and that is was their desire to spread these values of freedom and democracy that motivated them to move to Egypt in the first place. Mr. Qazzaz said he thought education was the place to start.

Story continues below advertisement

His father, Adly al-Qazzaz, had founded and directed a school in Cairo's less affluent Mokatam district and the younger Mr. Qazzaz became director of its international program.

There have been allegations made against the school, some saying its founder is a senior Muslim Brother and that the school served as headquarters for the Morsi presidential campaign. The current military-backed regime appears to think so. The senior Mr. Qazzaz was arrested in October and now sits near his son in Tora prison.

When the popular uprising of 2011 took effect and Hosni Mubarak was ousted from office by the army, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly formed the FJP and Mr. Qazzaz joined up.

He reportedly held a senior position working with the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, Khairat el-Shater, the second most powerful man in the movement. It was the wealthy Mr. Shater who had been the Brotherhood's first choice to be their candidate for president. A court ruling barred him from running owing to a criminal record for his Brotherhood activities. With Mr. Shater sidelined, the Brothers turned to Mr. Morsi, and Mr. Qazzaz went to work for him.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an extremely hierarchical organization. Mr. Qazzaz, then just 32, could not possibly have found himself in such a senior advisory capacity without having worked for the Brotherhood for several years.

There's no getting away from it, Mr. Qazzaz will always be seen as a Brother.

Story continues below advertisement

Even if that is the case, however, it doesn't diminish the fact that Egypt's army once again took power into its own hands and removed an elected president. Its arrest and detention of Mr. Qazzaz (and others) violate several international treaties to which Egypt is a signatory.

But this shouldn't come as a surprise, especially in the Middle East, and all the legal arguments in the world won't change the fact that what happened in Egypt was a coup d'etat and these senior members of the ousted administration will almost certainly go to prison.

As Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said recently: "The military-backed government is in an existential conflict with the Brotherhood, and intends to use every tool at its disposal to win that struggle. The law is one of those tools."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter