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Push Egypt toward real democracy

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Mohamed Fahmy deserves more from Canada.

HAMADA ELRASAM / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Mohamed Fahmy deserves more from Canada.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has rebuffed outraged calls by some governments demanding the release of three journalists, including Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, sentenced in Cairo Monday to lengthy imprisonments. The Harper government, however, managed only a meek response to what was a mock trial of one of its citizens.

Foreign Minister John Baird said Tuesday he was working on this and other files before Egyptian courts, but that he would not resort to "bullhorn diplomacy." Baird said he must work within Egypt's justice system, where interventions can kick in after the appeals process has been spent. That is a tepid comfort to Canadians.

Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian citizen whose family moved to Canada in 1991, deserves more. He was the bureau chief for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera when he and two co-workers, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were swept up last December in mass reprisals by the el-Sissi government against supporters of the former Muslim Brotherhood regime.

The three men were convicted of the spurious charge of falsifying news footage and aiding a terrorist organization -- the Brotherhood. Such draconian measures are the favoured refuge of governments that fear their people. Under el-Sissi, thousands of Egyptians have been rounded up, convicted en masse in specious prosecutions. Hundreds have been sentenced to death, often in absentia.

Observers say the Al-Jazeera journalists are mere pawns in the enmity between Qatar -- which has thrown its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood and funds the news organization -- and Egypt. Now they are among the thousands of victims of an administration that has trampled human and civil rights.

Indeed, in effort to prompt some progress, American Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday met el-Sissi and announced the U.S. would restart its financial assistance for Egypt's military, suspended late last year amid a crackdown on supporters of former president Mohammed Morsi.

Monday's events proved embarrassing for the Obama administration. That government, at least, joined with Australian President Tony Abbott to demand el-Sissi step in to pardon the journalists. The Harper government's tepid statements paled in comparison.

Canada, like America and Australia, understandably wants to preserve relations with el-Sissi and prevent a further destabilizing of a Mideast power broker.

El-Sissi followed through with open elections earlier this month, which he won handily, but now the West should be showing some impatience for the lack of progress towards real democratic principles, most obviously in human rights and justice. Egypt's judiciary, at one time, was a reliable bulwark against unchecked power, but that has all but evaporated.

There are ways to ramp up the pressure: Egypt needs military and humanitarian support from western nations, and billions in loans from the International Monetary Fund to shore up its fragile economy.

The imprisonment, following a show trial backed by no real evidence, is symptomatic of the el-Sissi regime's view of an independent press and the role it plays in a democracy.

The signs of a slide to tyranny, however, were there long before Fahmy and his co-workers were led to a cage in a Cairo courtroom. Canada and its western counterparts should have warned of sanctions and chilled relations when the el-Sissi government began killing dissidents at street protests, resorting to mass arrests and mock trials and a return to executions of political opponents.

Canada must push for Fahmy's immediate release. But it cannot stop at demanding freedom for its own citizen. Canada and its western allies must push el-Sissi to show real progress toward respect for human rights and the rule of law for the benefit of all Egyptians.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 A8

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