Canadian-Egyptian groups are urging the federal government to condemn what they interpreted as a threat to outspoken expatriates made by an Egyptian cabinet minister in Toronto last weekend.
Egypt’s Emigration and Expatriate Affairs Minister Nabila Makram made headlines after she told a community gathering in Toronto that anyone who criticized Egypt would be “sliced up," according to a video from the event last Sunday. Ms. Makram’s comments were made in Arabic and met with laughter from the audience, which included an Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP and a federal Liberal MP.
"This country is always inside us, inside our hearts. We cannot accept any word about it. Anyone who says a [negative] word about our country – what will happen to him? Will be sliced up,” Ms. Makram said in the video, as she made a slashing motion across her throat.
Ehab Lotayef, a member of the Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy, said Ms. Makram’s remarks constitute a threat to Egyptians living abroad.
“I don’t agree that even if this is said in a joking fashion, it does not have a dangerous, hidden message, because we know that many countries, and some of them close allies to Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, are following the dissidents abroad and harming them,” said Mr. Lotayef, citing the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has been criticized for widespread human-rights abuses, including a crackdown on activists, artists, journalists, atheists and the LGBTQ community. Human Rights Watch says Mr. Sisi’s security forces have launched a “campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others” who have criticized the government.
In a statement on the Egyptian Emigration Ministry’s Facebook page Thursday, Ms Makram said “the phrase and gesture I used were implying that many Egyptians living abroad have strong ties to Egypt.” She said the “colloquial Egyptian-Arabic phrase” was taken out of context and not meant to promote violence.
Salah Basalamah, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation, said Ms. Makram’s comments and hand gesture of beheading are sufficient to understand what she meant. He said he doesn’t see a metaphoric use of the expression.
“This could have been a way to make people laugh, but we know that laughs are often instilled with serious messages. And this seems to be clearly one especially coming from an Egyptian official of the current government,” Prof. Basalamah said.
Mr. Lotayef said Ottawa must call the Egyptian ambassador to Canada immediately to condemn Ms. Makram’s remarks. He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government needs to live up to its commitment to human rights around the world.
“Canada is dealing with the Egyptian regime in a far too lenient manner,” Mr. Lotayef said. “I think there is some appeasement going on and I am hoping that that this incident acts as a wake up call for the Canadian government.”
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is aware of the comments made by Ms. Makram during her visit but did not denounce them directly.
“Canada continues to support the desire of the Egyptian people for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and greater economic opportunity. The rights to free speech and expression are fundamental to democracy and our government will always defend Canadians – and people around the world – in their ability to exercise these rights,” spokesman Adam Austen said in a statement.
Maher Rizkalla, president of the Canadian Coptic Association, said he would also like to see the Canadian politicians in attendance – Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Sheref Sabawy and Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of international trade diversification - denounce the minister’s comments.
However, Mr. Sabawy said Ms. Makram’s remarks “were taken totally out of context because she was speaking in Egyptian Arabic slang." Mr. Sabawy said Ms. Makram was in Toronto on his invitation to mark Egyptian heritage month.
Mr. Alghabra did not provide an on-the-record comment to The Globe and Mail.
A spokesperson with Peel Regional Police said they are looking into the video of Ms. Makram at the event.