On two Canadians jailed in Cairo

Michael Petrou explains why it is hard to argue that Canada has abandoned Tarek Loubani and John Greyson

On any given day, thousands of Canadians are detained abroad. Among them are filmmaker John Greyson and doctor Tarek Loubani, currently jailed without formal charge in Cairo.

The two were in the region hoping to travel to Gaza, where Loubani planned to train doctors and Greyson was considering filming a documentary. They were arrested on August 16 when they reportedly entered a police station to ask for directions. Prosecutors allege they had conspired with the Muslim Brotherhood to attack a police station.

Street violence in Egypt has been frequent and deadly since a military coup this summer toppled the newly elected government of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

Over the weekend, an Egyptian prosecutor ordered Greyson and Loubani to remain in jail for at least another 15 days. The two are now on a hunger strike.

Greyson and Loubani’s plight has generated a fair amount of public attention. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for their release. Celebrities at the Toronto International Film Festival have done the same. The Globe and Mail has urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to personally intervene.

This outpouring is a little unusual. Several years ago I researched Canadians detained, in horrible conditions and without due process, in Haiti. Consular officials worked on their behalf, but they were largely unnoticed by the larger public. No one wore a button with their names on it.

And yet it is difficult to argue that Canada has abandoned Loubani and Greyson. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been in touch with his Egyptian counterpart, Nabil Fahmi. Today Baird’s spokesman tweeted a photo of the two having a telephone conversation. Baird tweeted that he hoped to meet Fahmi face-to-face next week in New York, and said Fahmi hoped the case would be resolved quickly.

The Egyptian ambassador has also been summoned more than once. Foreign Affairs says consular officials meet Loubani and Greyson “regularly.” Mohamed Loubani, Tarek’s brother, says DFATD employees have worked “tirelessly” on Tarek’s behalf.

This seems to annoy the Toronto Sun: “If you travel somewhere against the clear warnings of your government, you’re on your own if anything bad happens,” the paper wrote in a recent editorial.

I disagree. The benefits of Canadian citizenship should not depend on responsible behaviour — and besides, there is no evidence Loubani and Greyson did anything reckless. They were in Cairo, not Mogadishu. And with the possible exception of violating a curfew, it doesn’t appear they broke any laws. Canada is right to fight for their release.

We don’t know exactly what is happening behind the scenes. Government officials typically say little publicly when Canadians are detained abroad, mostly to avoid embarrassing or otherwise angering the parties they are petitioning.

Canada does provide Egypt with millions in aid. Conceivably, if this drags on much longer, Canada could threaten to suspend some of it. But at this point it seems reasonable to hope that Greyson and Loubani will be released shortly without further escalation.

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