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Canada's Conservatives backing militarism and repression in Egypt

by Stefan Christoff

Cairo street art by keizer. 25 piastre coin : “Price of the Egyptian soul? Human dignity is untouchable.”
Cairo street art by keizer. 25 piastre coin : “Price of the Egyptian soul? Human dignity is untouchable.”

Canada’s Conservative government is extending political support and diplomatic cover for Egypt’s rapid return to authoritarian rule under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

John Baird, Canada’s current Conservative Minister of Foreign Affairs, openly praised the Egyptian government for “progressing to democracy,” a surreal statement, made on an official visit to Cairo just months after Sisi, a former military general, apparently won over 96% in the last elections, which international observers described as “hugely troubling.”

Egypt’s recent election results are strikingly similar to past “election” wins for authoritarian rulers in the region, similarly backed at opportunistic moments by western political powers, including the landslide “election” victories for Bashar al-Assad in SyriaSaddam Hussein in Iraq and of course Mubarak’s pre-revolution, manipulative electoral victories in Egypt.

On Egypt, the Conservatives in Ottawa are fully embracing an all to common but also deeply hypocritical Canadian approach to foreign policy, rooted in cynical double-standards, speaking up about human rights abuses when committed by, or linked with political adversaries, like Russian aggression against Ukraine, while holding down solid support and cooperation for authoritarian regimes when they align closely to western political and corporate interests, a reality reflected in Canada’s current political relations with Saudi ArabiaBahrain, the UAE, Jordan and Morocco.

State violence and repression in Egypt

Today in Egypt, thousands upon thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars, jailed and sentenced in many cases to death, in a legal system “spiralling out of control” and where justice is “being meted out based on a political whim,” according to Amnesty International.

Additionally, in late October a new presidential decree greatly extended the role of Egyptian military tribunals, enforcing a larger jurisdiction for military courts, described in an open letter by fifteen independent rights groups in Egypt, coordinated by the The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, as seriously jeopardizing "citizens’ right to fair trials and further aggravates the current crisis of the Egyptian justice system.”

This important recently published open letter continues ...

“Expanding the jurisdiction of military courts over the trials of civilians breaches the 2014 constitution which restricts the mandate of military courts over civilians to attacks against military personnel and establishments. The new decree is a masked state of emergency as it denies citizens’ their constitutional right to be prosecuted before their natural judge. The decree also circumvents the constitutional guarantee by assigning the armed forces, along with the police, to the protection of public establishments thus making them fall within the mandate of military establishments. This creates a parallel judicial system, and could potentially lead to the trial of thousands of civilians before military courts that lack the minimum standards of fair trials."

On the streets in cities across Egypt, police are moving quickly to repress popular demonstrations critical of the military-backed government, security forces are literally shooting people on the streets, while in multiple cases subjecting those arrested and under police custody to “torture” and “sexual abuse,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Also the Egyptian government is moving violently to attack any existing social space for a diversity of gender identities, including heightening police raids targeting the queer community, a new reality that many reports indicate is coming from high up within the current military-driven government.

Additionally, over the past months, Egyptian military forces are forcefully displacing communities in the Sinai Peninsula, with tactics including arbitrary house demolitions and military killings. All in an effort to extend the so-called “buffer zone” along the Egypt/Gaza crossing, a process that will only further isolate and work to besiege the Palestinian people of Gaza.

Egyptian state security forces are literally destroying entire neighbourhoods in the Sinai, brutal military action, illegal under international law, that will devastate an already politically and economically marginalized region in Egypt.

Attacks on freedom of the press

Across Egypt, a crackdown on freedom of the press continues to intensify, as the military oriented government is described by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as having “zero tolerance for criticism.” CPJ asserts that in Egypt today, journalists are facing “an unprecedented number of anti-press abuses," including the horrifying reality that "six journalists [have been] killed and dozens detained since the military took over in July 2013.”

In this Egyptian government attack on the freedom of media workers, numerous TV stations have been shut down and many journalists are behind bars after sham trials. A generalized assault on the freedom of the press in Egypt, well illustrated in the case of the three Al Jazeera English reportersBaher MohamedPeter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen. All three journalists are clearly professional media workers, in the mainstream sense, prosecuted by the Egyptian state without any clear proof of the main allegation of supporting the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Despite international outrage on the jailing of these Al Jazeera media workers, in Ottawa, PM Harper has been relatively silent, an approach described by the family of Mohamed Fahmy as failing to “aggressively address the case.”

In a recent text written by Fahmy in prison and passed on by lawyers to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Fahmy describes the struggle of jailed journalists in Egypt and beyond as “truly a global one. It’s a struggle for the right to report freely, and safely.”

An ideal of press freedom that today in Egypt, under the Canadian-backed authoritarian Sisi government, simply doesn’t exist.

Diplomatic and military ties

Canada supports the current military-driven Egyptian government in various ways, including deepening military and economic links.

Egypt’s state information service highlighted a closed-door meeting last month, between Egyptian and Canadian officials at Egypt’s Foreign Ministry in Cairo, to discuss “boosting economic ties” and also “Canada's participation” in an international economic forum in Egypt slated for March 2015, an event clearly aiming to boost economic and political cover for the current military government.

Reading the official Canadian government position on Egypt today, given the violence and brutality that Canada is supporting by being diplomatically and materially complicit, is really a portal into a fantastical take on Canadian policy in Egypt.

“Canada prioritises its engagement with Egypt on a wide range of global issues, including the development of democratic governance, pluralism and human rights, as well as the promotion of citizenship rights, the rights of women and girls, and freedom of expression and association. Canada continually strives to maintain and strengthen its valued relationship with Egypt, a historical and key partner bilaterally, regionally, and internationally. Egyptians led a popular revolution in January 2011, beginning the country’s democratic transition. Canada supports this process and is committed to maintaining positive bilateral relations with Egypt as the country transitions to full democracy.”

Today, the Egyptian “democratic transition” that Canada officially claims to support is nothing close to democracy, or any of the other "values" that the Conservative claim to be pushing internationally.

Canada’s claim to be supportive toward the popular revolution in January 2011 is not historically true, as Canada backed the Mubarak regime for decades, while today the Conservatives are silently complicit with a multiplicity of moves by authoritarian forces inside Egypt trying to take back all space gained in the revolution.

Mubarak acquitted, a barometer of injustice?

Most telling of this increasingly unjust Egyptian reality is the fact that Egypt’s former ruler Hosni Mubarak has now been absolved of the most serious and important charges stemming from the Egyptian uprising in 2011, specifically the dropping of charges relating to the ordering of the killing of protesters during the uprising. A legal decision that sparked intense protests across Egypt.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading rights group, said: “The verdict [on Mubarak] further reinforces concerns about the alarmingly selective justice system in Egypt, which appears more intent on settling political scores and punishing dissent than establishing justice.”

In addition the 2011 freeze ordered on US$700 million in assets held in Switzerland, affiliated with 31 members of the Mubarak administration, widely understood to be stolen public funds, is becoming increasingly unclear.

In contrast to the legal move to absolve Mubarak, Egyptian courts are moving forward with another wave of mass death sentences, placing another 188 people on death row in late October, for participating in an intense demonstration at a police station in Kerdassa town, just outside of Cairo and at that chaotic demonstration the police station caught fire and 13 policemen died.

“It is quite telling that the sentencing, the third such conviction we have seen this year, was handed down in the same week that the case against former President Hosni Mubarak was dropped and and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his aides were cleared of all charges over killing protesters during the “January 25 revolution”. This is blatantly a case of justice being meted out based on a political whim," writes Amnesty International.

In contrast to Mubarak being acquitted let us highlight another example of blatant injustice, as just last month an Egyptian court has sentenced 78 children to between two and five years in prison for taking part in demonstrations calling for the return of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

As Egyptian courts, military and police sustain this brutal shift toward authoritarianism, Canada’s support remains unflinching. Beyond governmental support Canadian arms companies are also deeply involved.

Canada’s commitment to violent opportunism in Egypt and beyond

According to the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade in Ottawa Canadian arms companies are currently supplying the Egyptian military and state security forces with the following equipment : bombs, rockets, missiles, grenades, aircraft, helicopters, unmanned airborne vehicles, tanks, armoured vehicles, weapons firing and aiming systems. All clearly instruments of repression, now being used against social movements struggling for justice in Egypt.

What is clear today is that the Conservative government has little regard or concern for the systems of violence currently at play in Egypt, reactionary forces attempting to overturn the 2011 popular revolution, in fact Canadian corporate (like the Canada Egypt Business Council or military oriented company CAE inc.) and political forces (Conservatives) are directly linked to the efforts to overturn the uprising.

Today, its critically important for grassroots activists to work to build links of solidarity with social movements struggling for social justice and against repression in Egypt, for there to be direct communication and organizing bonds that link our common struggles across borders.

Stefan Christoff is a writer, musician and community activist living in Montreal @spirodon Stefan is active with Tadamon! collective that works in solidarity with struggles for social justice and liberation in the Middle East, thanks to Sam Shalabi, Lillian Boctor, Mohamed Shaheen and Tadamon! for discussions that encouraged the writing of this text.

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Stefan Christoff (Stefan Christoff)
Montreal, Quebec
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Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, community organizer and musician.

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