Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy has now been sentenced to seven years in jail for allegedly supporting terrorism (by working with the banned Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt. A number of differing voices in Canada are not only outraged by the decision, but are calling on the Canadian government to secure his release.
In response, Foreign Minister John Baird had this to say to an Ottawa radio station: "We want a successful resolution and I guess either way, critics of the government can win because if we're loud and vocal, we're practising bullhorn diplomacy and are not being professional. But if we try to take the case directly to the leadership, we're accused of not standing up. I think you want to pursue the path that would be the most effective to resolving the case."
This particular case, and others like it, raises a series of very interesting and important questions. What does officialdom in Ottawa do when a Canadian citizen has been improperly imprisoned in a foreign country? What are the best tactics or strategy for securing their freedom?
These are not easy questions to answer with any confidence – especially when it involves someone suffering under very harsh prison conditions. And the answers, of course, will doubtless differ depending on the specific situation or case, the circumstances surrounding it, the state of bilateral relations with the foreign country in question, and what levers of influence are available to the Canadian government. The timing of any governmental intervention is also important.
Still, securing the release of a Canadian, particularly one who went through the Egyptian legal system (however suspect), is an extremely tall order. Canadian governments must be very careful about being seen as intervening in another country's judicial process (since we would not appreciate another country interfering in our own system). Targeted governments are also very reluctant to reverse legal decisions either out of deference to the legal system itself or out of fear of a public backlash for capitulating to outside pressure.
In the case of Mr. Fahmy, it's hard to know what exactly is happening behind closed doors. There may very well be efforts under way involving more traditional diplomatic channels. We just don't know for sure.
What we do know is that the Egyptian Ambassador to Canada was called in to the Pearson Building in Ottawa for discussions. However, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and Sherif Fahmy, Mohamed's brother, have called for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to speak directly to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi about the case.
But beyond these initial actions, what strings can Canada actually pull to trigger the release of Mr. Fahmy? What leverage do we have on our own?
Given our overtly pro-Israeli policies, the Harper government is not likely to have much sway with the Egyptians. But we might be able to lever our relations with Washington, if we play our cards right with the Obama administration, to put pressure on the el-Sissi government to pardon Mr. Fahmy.
For sure, it makes sense to work with other like-minded countries like the United States, Australia and Britain to co-ordinate all of our efforts. There is certainly more strength in numbers.
I also recall former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark tell an audience in Halifax in the mid-1990s that working quietly and diligently under the radar is the best way to go in many of these cases. The idea was to give the country being petitioned a face-saving way out or some political-diplomatic cover (perhaps under the guise of medical or humanitarian considerations).
For Mr. Clark, the worst thing to do was to criticize harshly, and in a visibly public way, the same government or political leadership that you now want to reverse its initial decision. Not linking the release of one or two individuals to other demands or issues affecting the bilateral relationship is also critical. In other words, stick firmly to the singular quest of securing Mr. Fahmy's release (and those imprisoned with him).
As hard as it is, sometimes you just have to wait for these types of situations to run their course. The fact of the matter is they never happen right away or as fast as you want them to. We've seen this in previous heart-wrenching cases involving Canadians who were eventually released in Brazil, Mexico and Algeria. But as Joe Clark intimated, you have to play the long diplomatic game of bringing up the specific case of Mr. Fahmy at every opportunity or meeting with Egyptian officials.
I know that that is rather cold comfort to the Fahmy family. But there is no magic wand to wave here. There is only the hope that sustained, though delicately applied, diplomatic pressure will pay dividends over time.