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Where is Harper's 'bullhorn diplomacy' for jailed journalists in Egypt?

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What's the Harper government most proud of? Arguably, that they have the courage of their convictions. They speak up boldly, bombastically even. Not for them, in a favourite expression, is "going along to get along." This is particularly true on international issues (except of course China, but let that go).

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, for example, have been as outspoken as anyone in the world in their condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin's adventures in eastern Ukraine are "aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic." He threatens the "peace and stability of the world." You'd think he was Joe Stalin incarnate, and maybe that's what the Conservatives had in mind. They clearly compared Putin to Hitler, the former's annexation of Crimea unhelpfully equated with the Nazi aim to conquer all Europe.

Of course nowhere is this government's voice heard with more pungency than in the Middle East, where Israel can do no wrong, Iran no right, and where Canada asserts its right to bully Palestinians.

Still, it's clear that Messrs. Harper and Baird truly do not go along to get along. But sometimes the consequences are surprising, as when Baird visited Cairo two months ago to offer Canada's moral support to the brutal military government of Egypt. The Canadian government had clearly decided to go along with that regime. Mr. Baird's meetings with Egyptian officials, so he himself reported, were "warm and productive", and he made no bones about his government wanting to "effectively assist Egypt at this critical juncture."

Yet this was the same Egyptian government that was earning sharp rebuke from much of the rest of the world for its ruthlessness. A government whose tame judges had condemned to death, in two mass trials that lasted only minutes, 529 people and then 680 people. A government that harasses and jails Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims and atheists. (Where is the Harper government's mysterious Office of Religious Freedom when you need it?) A government, as The New York Times put it, with "ruthless disregard for the law and contrary political views that go far beyond anything that former president Morsi was accused of doing when he was deposed by the army." A government that Stephen Harper, however, described as a "return to stability."

And a government that this week, through a pet judge, sentenced three Al-Jazeera journalists to long prison terms for the crime of doing journalism. One is Mohammed Fahmy, who holds dual Canadian-Egyptian citizenship. World leaders have denounced this travesty in the strongest possible terms. Or, more precisely, some have.

I have a wise friend who reminds me there are no accidents; if an established pattern is abruptly broken, there's usually a reason. So it's not just happenstance that neither Stephen Harper nor John Baird joined Australian Prime Minister Abbot, British Prime Minister Cameron or U.S. Secretary of State Kerry in their personal phone calls of vigorous protest to the most senior officials in the Egyptian government, including the new president himself. Canada's remarkably restrained official response was officially issued by Lynne Yelich, Minister of State for Consular Affairs.

In the media, government spokespeople assured us of the Conservatives' concern for Mr. Fahmy, but also insisted that the regime in Egypt is "progressing to democracy." This curious assertion has in fact been the Harper line ever since el-Sisi's election as President in May with an enviable 96.91 per cent of the votes, which Baird described as "a key step along Egypt's path to democracy."

Derided on all sides for its tepid reaction to the sentences, the government has been untypically defensive. Baird explained that on this file "bullhorn diplomacy" would be ineffective. The government's subdued reaction to Fahmy's sentence, we are to conclude, is unrelated to its desire to have "warm and productive" relations with President el-Sisi. And why do Messrs. Harper and Baird want to cozy up to such a brutish regime? Can it be because Israel has so warmly welcomed el-Sisi's election, believing that he guarantees Israeli-Egyptian cooperation? Indeed, what else can it be?

Ask yourself this: Had this gross injustice against the three journalists taken place in Iran or Russia instead of Egypt, would Stephen Harper and John Baird still have eschewed bullhorn diplomacy?

This article originally published in The Globe and Mail.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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