The tale of freedom for Drs. Tarek Loubani and John Greyson had a happier ending than the tales of the other 1,600+ Canadians who are detained abroad. After almost two months of detention without specific charges, Dr. Loubani and his colleague, distinguished filmmaker John Greyson, were released last Saturday but were not allowed to leave Egypt until Thursday.
On Friday, they finally returned to Toronto to cheers, but the whole incident raises questions about how far Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government are willing to go for Canadians who are trapped in sticky situations abroad.
The Harper government is not the first that has had to deal with Canadian citizens being imprisoned overseas. What is uncommon is the government's lack of lobbying or direct negotiations over many of the cases, some of which have been lingering for years. Naser El-Raas, a Kuwaiti-born Canadian with a heart condition, was detained, tortured, and finally released with help from regional consular officials and human rights organizations. The Harper government stayed stonily silent, despite the desperate pleas from his family.
Likewise, Canadians and citizens worldwide mobilized to help secure Loubani and Greyson’s release. Non-violent yet successful campaigning was brilliantly orchestrated from day one.T he campaign pressured Egyptian authorities but also asked the Prime Minister's Office to take immediate action, specifically through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Development Canada. The hashtag #FreeTarekAndJohn was at the forefront of a huge media frenzy. And the focus was heavily directed on being proactive and polite. We are Canadian, after all.
A formal petition to the Egyptian government requesting the prisoners' immediate release was launched, garnering almost 150,000 signatures. There was intense Facebook coordination, rallies, and demonstrations. The #FreeTarekAndJohn hashtag was widely used and circulated among the twitterverse. The Toronto International Film Festival also became a hub of activity where the #FreeTarekAndJohn button was the most coveted accessory of all.
Well deserved articles and testimonies were published about Tarek and John’s humanity and passion for social justice. Regular updates on their situation were given via a website run meticulously by a small yet tireless group of family and friends. They handled media relations, offered ideas on how to participate, and pubished addresses of who to email, fax, and phone.
Most recently a Tumblr account was set up to post portraits of people supporting the campaign. Supporters remained hopeful, diligent, and positive. We heard of their hunger strike, listened to harrowing accounts of their treatment, and supported the stoic voices of family expressing their concern and stress. The families were in regular contact with lawyers and Canadian consular staff in Egypt. But progress was alarmingly slow. More than once, I heard Dr. Loubani Sr. cry. It was heartbreaking.
Prime Minister Harper only personally voiced concern over a month after their arrests and subsequently on the day that their detention was extended for 45 days. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird quickly reiterated that the government was doing “absolutely everything it can." And after 50 long days, Junior Minister Lynne Yelich announce they were free from prison and were booked on a flight home the next day. Media exploded with jubilation and relief. There were tears of joy, excitement, and gratitude. #FreeTarekAndJohn became #TarekAndJohnFree. The nation breathed a deep exhale.
However, the fairy tale ending hadn't occurred just yet. Five days after Tarek and John's release, they were still in consular custody, had spoken with family, and even released a message of "Thanks!"
but had not yet left Cairo despite the personal intervention of the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. It was only on Friday that they finally arrived back in Toronto.
It had been argued that Canada’s place at the negotiating table is no longer respected nor worthy. Bessma Momani, associate professor at the University of Waterloo, has stated : "The Canadians haven't been able to put a lot of pressure on the Egyptians and it shows that we have very little leverage as a result of a lack of foreign trade ties, foreign aid ties. Just overall political and diplomatic relationship with the previous Muslim Brotherhood government was almost non existent. It really shows today where Canadian government has very little leverage to free these two individuals.”
Considering Canada’s once historic and well-deserved reputation for being objective, the True North has seemingly fallen into a black abyss of international relations which has hampered its ability to handle international crises. Canada’s staunch non-negotiable positions and firm pro-Israel stance have tarnished an image of integrity and fairness, a sentiment echoed by Naomi Klein during a recent interview with Democracy Now!: "TheCanadian government under Stephen Harper has become extraordinarily hostile to the United Nations. Our status on the world stage has really plummeted.”
Perhaps it is economic interests that paralyzes our well-meaning government and keeps it from defending its citizens. Perhaps it is apathy. In the case of Tarek and John, unable to return home despite being released from prison, Prime Minister Harper assured Canadians that to his knowledge the inability of “these individuals” (as he refers to them) to get an exit visa was simply an issue of “a lack of clarity and coordination within the bureaucracy.” Right.
Still, it makes us wonder to whom we should look for solidarity and assistance for Canadians who do not have celebrity support or their own hashtag.