Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa enables a repressive Egyptian regime

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Stephen Harper's eagerness to build ties with Egypt's new rulers is hard to fathom, given that countries such as the United States and Britain have denounced "dire" abuses including "mass killings," arbitrary harassment and arrests of peaceful protesters, and unfair trials.

Canadians are languishing in fetid Egyptian prisons for crimes they didn't commit, along with countless other people.

But that hasn't stopped Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government from reaching out and validating their jailers.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's "warm and productive" meetings in Cairo this past week with officials installed in the wake of former field marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's coup have set a new low bar for diplomacy. To hear Baird tell it, Canada is keen to "effectively assist Egypt at this critical juncture" rather than call the regime to account for its crimes.

And Baird's musings about sending Canadian observers to the May 26-27 presidential election, which el-Sissi is expected to win handily, risks further legitimizing a regime that doesn't deserve it.

El-Sissi has been Egypt's de facto ruler since the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi last summer.

El-Sissi has presided over a campaign of repression that has seen 1,000 Morsi supporters killed, the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed, 16,000 arrested and more than 500 condemned to death. In Amnesty International's view, "repression and impunity are the order of the day."

What part of this does the Harper government want to assist? Egypt's descent into legal anarchy makes a mockery of Harper's claim while on a trip to Israel earlier this year the military coup was a "return to stability."

In right wing Israeli politicians' eyes perhaps. They regard the Brotherhood as a hostile force.

But most of the world fears Egypt is reverting to authoritarian rule.

Granted, Baird did quietly press for fair and timely trials for those caught up in the security dragnet.

They include the Al-Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen, and Morsi's former aide, Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a Canadian resident. After nine months in prison, Qazzaz has yet to be charged.

And charges levelled against Fahmy -- spreading "false news" and supporting a "terrorist organization" -- are trumped-up.

These cases call for outrage from Ottawa, not muted concern.

Dozens of United Nations Human Rights Council members have denounced abuses by the regime. Should Ottawa be courting such people?

Many Egyptians earnestly hope the presidential ballot will herald a return to democratic rule after a season of turmoil.

Canadians can sympathize. But el-Sissi has banned his chief rivals, he has the military's explicit support and he gets positive coverage from a mostly deferential media. None of this inspires confidence.

It's discouraging to see a Canadian government cheering on this travesty, heralding it as a return to normalcy and being prepared to lend it credence.

What Ottawa is enabling is, at best, a pale shadow of the vibrant democracy Egypt's Arab Spring reformists championed, before it was snatched away.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 A10

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