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Austin Mackell

Austin Mackell

Austin Mackell

I’ve been in Egypt’s prisons. Only strong government action saved me Add to ...

The Canadian government must stand up for the rights of its citizens, in particular those of John Greyson and Tarek Loubani, who have been locked up in Egypt for nearly two months. Mr. Greyson, a filmmaker, and Mr. Loubani, a doctor, were respectively filming and treating protesters at a a rally against the military government when they were arrested. They have just had their custody extended for another 45 days – all without charges being laid.

It all reads like an even scarier and more serious version of the confrontation that two colleagues and I had with the Egyptian government in 2012. We were arrested in an industrial town in the Nile delta while trying to interview a dissident union leader. We were held for three days, then charged with “incitement” – specifically it was alleged that we had promised money to children if they threw rocks at a police station. Thankfully we were out of custody in a matter of days, but the charges against us and the accompanying travel ban would take much longer to be done with.

The point of our arrests then, as it is now with Mr. Greyson and Mr. Loubani, was to furnish the government with fodder for its Blame The Foreigners campaign – complete with widely mocked but not entirely ineffective advertisements asking “why tell the foreigner anything?” We provided foreign faces to point to: “See! The spies are real! We even caught one!” A moment of profound absurdity arose when we heard that our case had been mentioned by the defence lawyers of the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, as evidence of the ongoing foreign plot – the mysterious “third hand” that had been responsible, rather than Mr. Mubarak or forces under his control, for murdering protesters.

Of course, the great hypocrisy of the situation is that it the military junta, which is even more brutal in its current incarnation than it was in 2012, is dependent on foreign governments for money, equipment and training, not to mention diplomatic support and recognition. This dependency means that they are very vulnerable to diplomatic pressure, especially from Western governments – but it has to come from the government.

In my case, months and months passed during which I became quite familiar with the staff at my embassy. They weren’t the types to complain, but it became clear after a while that they were often being stonewalled just as much by the minister’s office back in Canberra as they were by the Egyptian authorities. The Australian foreign minister, despite a great deal of pressure from my friends, family and union, resisted taking action himself, instead referring to the robust efforts taken by the consular staff.

For more than six months, these diplomatic efforts produced no result. Then, ahead of a trip to Egypt and fearful of the media storm that would result from him coming and going and leaving me stuck there, he finally made a direct mention of my case to the Egyptian ambassador to Australia. A week later the charges had all been dropped.

Diplomatic staff from middle powers such as Australia and Canada, it will shock nobody to hear, are not actually that big of a deal in a large developing-world capital such as Cairo. When the elected government starts to make a noise, it certainly does get noticed.

The situation for Mr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson is much more serious than mine was, as the junta, having lost power and regained it since then, has taken the gloves off. The more severe (they are still in jail) and more arbitrary (they haven’t even been charged) nature of the persecution faced by the two Canadian men is testament to this.

Canada’s patchy history of defending its citizens abroad must make the families of the jailed men very nervous, given the recent stabbing death of a French teacher, also grabbed off the streets of Cairo and locked up, then killed by fellow prisoners.

Foreign Minister John Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have made a good start, by publicly objecting to the arrests and communicating with senior Egyptian officials, but given the rapidly increasing political tensions in Egypt, they can’t wait months for a result. They must maintain urgent pressure and bring their citizens home, and demand an immediate release. Patience, in this case, is not a virtue.

There is no time to delay.

Austin Mackell is a freelance journalist who spent two years reporting from Egypt following the 2011 uprising. He now lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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