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Was Mohamed Fahmy a Victim of Stephen Harper's Ideology?

09/28/2015 05:36 EDT | Updated 09/28/2016 05:12 EDT
KHALED DESOUKI via Getty Images
Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, formerly with Al-Jazeera, attends a press conference in Cairo on May 11, 2015. Fahmy, who was sentenced last year to up to 10 years in prison, has sued his Qatari employer for $100 million, his lawyers said, claiming the satellite network was negligent and supported blacklisted Islamists. AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In an odd twist of fate, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi decided to have a change of heart and "pardon" three Al Jazeera journalists including Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy. Whether Sisi was feeling charitable on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid-Ul-Adha or wanted to improve his faltering global reputation before his visit to the United Nations is unknown.

What is clear, however is that the Canadian government had little to do with Fahmy's release. Although "sheepish whimpers" -- as lawyer Amal Clooney characterized the Canadian government's response -- were made to secure his freedom, the government's lack of action was evident from the start showcasing the flawed precedence of ideology over humanity.

Given that Fahmy held dual Egyptian-Canadian citizenship (now renounced as a condition for release), the case is a potential precursor of how such negligence may become reality for Canadians not worthy of a concerted diplomatic effort, primarily those considered to be second-tier Canadians under Bill C-24 or failing to qualify, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's lexicon, under the "old stock" variety. Although the context of Harper's faux pas was about healthcare benefits for refugees, this type of language exposes a more sinister motivation that justifies rights for certain Canadians while ignoring the plight of others.

The suggestion is simple: citizenship by itself does not guarantee equal treatment and is instead judged on a hierarchy that naturally favours descendants of white Europeans who settled in Canada before multiculturalism took root. It is a dangerous precedent that justifies discrimination with the backing of government legislation. Whether the government would have been more vocal if the victim in question was an "old stock Canadian" who worked for a conservative media outlet rather than a Mohamed Fahmy who headed the Egyptian Al Jazeera bureau is a question that unfortunately merits honest analysis.

Let's also not forget the Conservative disdain for the media. Controlling the message and limiting media access has been taken to new heights under the Harper regime. In his book Spinning History, journalist Les Whittington describes how the PMO has limited journalists' access and turned the government into a tightly controlled message machine. Connected to this is Harper's war with the CBC that has involved mass cuts to funding and stacking the board with partisan Conservatives to neutralize the public broadcaster's independence. This need for control is not surprising given that Harper's Conservatives approach the fourth branch of government as a liberal-oriented obstacle rather than as a tool to inform the electorate thus ensuring a healthy democracy.

Is it any surprise then that this government was dragging its feet when it came to the release of a journalist dedicated to speaking truth to power? Fahmy, a recipient of the 2014 Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom award and the 2011 Tom Renner Investigative Journalism award, is not only an experienced reporter but the type of journalist who is still committed to fighting for press freedom in Egypt even after enduring 400 days in jail. This is exactly the type of fierce journalism Harper's Conservatives detest and want to dissuade. For Harper, doing the bare minimum to create the illusion of government involvement but not enough to tip the balance served his ideological agenda.

Trumped up terrorism charges also played a role in Fahmy's predicament. After the initial 10-year sentence was overturned, a retrial charged Fahmy with terrorism-related offences including aiding a terrorist group and fabricating news to harm Egypt's national security. Ironically enough, Fahmy was a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood who took to the streets in a march to show his support for Egypt's now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's so-called war on terrorism in the summer of 2013. To further distance himself from his employers' alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Fahmy is suing Al Jazeera for $100 million, alleging the banned channel, Al Jazeera Egypt Live, "was used to illegally broadcast inflammatory material in an attempt to undermine the government." Despite this, Sisi's kangaroo courts maintained Fahmy's ties to terror perhaps to send a message to Qatar, headquarters of Al Jazeera and the home of the Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.

Over the last decade Stephen Harper's track record on Islam and Muslims has become clear. He has been able to sow the seeds of fear against Canadian Muslims to mobilize his own white, evangelical base while creating fear and paranoia of "the other." The Prime Minister's Office alleged that one of Canada's most prominent and respected Muslim advocacy organizations has links to terrorism. In the year that he gained a majority government, Stephen Harper came on national television to promote the notion that "Islamicism" was Canada's biggest threat implying that Islam had a monopoly on terrorism. Last but not least, Stephen Harper's Conservatives tried their best to keep Omar Khadr behind bars to the extent that his lawyer proclaimed, "Mr. Harper is a bigot. Mr. Harper doesn't like Muslims."

Former CIA agent Robert Baer once said, "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt." Combined with the fact that Fahmy was an Egyptian-Canadian Muslim journalist committed to free expression, he was never supposed to stand a chance. He stood a chance because of committed reporters willing to tell his story. He stood a chance because of human rights groups and a dedicated attorney willing to demand justice. He stood a chance because he never lost hope.

In contrast, his government never joined the effort. Although Fahmy's release was eventually granted, it was the decision of an Egyptian dictator pressured from the outside rather than the product of Canadian diplomacy. That is truly a sad state of affairs.

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