What Canada Can Learn From Egypt by Tyseer Aboulnasr
Most countries are defined by some unifying characteristic that brings their people together and differentiates them from neighbouring countries. This characteristic can be language, culture, geography, or even race. In the case of Canada, Canadians have no such unifying factors. We have different languages, different cultures, different races, and God knows different geographies. So what brings us together and differentiates us from others? For years, we believed, and rightfully so, that it was our values. In our post-colonial history, Canadian values were simple. They were the universal values of goodness, fairness, and human decency. We did not need to define them, but we all knew them and the world recognized us for them. We did not always reflect them perfectly, but generally speaking, we tried.
Recently, this image of what we aspire to be and how the world sees us has been slowly but surely changing. Our foreign policy has changed so dramatically that we lost our bid for a Security Council seat in fairly light competition. We went from being the leaders on environmental responsibility to being the ones holding up global action on the environment. For many Canadians, this gradual but persistent change came to a shocking low when Canada was one of the three countries that remained supportive of the Mubarak regime down to its last breath. Canada stood firm in support of a recognized dictator against the awakening of his people who took over the streets, peacefully, with very simple demands for some universally accepted rights and values: “Bread, Freedom, Dignity and Social Justice”.
As the world was being inspired by the people in Tahrir Square, Canada stood firm with the dictator, side by side with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If indeed birds of a feather flock together, we need to carefully understand what these governments, representing very different countries, had in common on this issue. What would bring Canada, presumably a secular human rights-oriented country, to hold hands with two countries defining themselves on religious or racial basis and both entangled in allegations of human rights abuses of very different kinds but abuses all the same? This is a very important question that has not been seriously addressed. How is it that we ended up on the very wrong side of history this time?
Reality is, this was not a sudden change. This was a very gradual but consistent process in which Canada was being redefined, one little action at a time. To see the picture of the “new and worsened” Canada, it is essential to connect these dots to see what we will eventually become if we continue on this path. When trying to connect these dots, it is necessary to correlate them to other countries’ experiences that have preceded us with these actions. The similarities are isolated and there is no question that fundamental differences exist. Still, in hockey terms, the question is not where the puck is, but where the puck is heading. Seeing where the puck ended for others who have for years done what we are starting to do may help us predict where we will end. Given the adamant support that Harper’s Canada gave Mubarak, I thought it would be interesting to search for similarities between the small baby steps the Harper government has been taking in a certain new direction and the gigantic steps that Mubarak took for years, in an effort to determine where we are heading. It should be noted that indeed these are random thoughts, in no specific order, and may lack specificity at times. They were intended for quick reference in a talk.
In Egypt, government had a history of commissioning research and claiming unreal scientific achievements that legitimize its intended action. For example, the official temperature was always reported as being a few degrees lower than what it really was. This allowed the government to avoid taking specific action that was mandated at the higher temperatures. Claims were made that diseases no longer existed in Egypt so that there would be no accountability on lack of action taken to combat them. Somehow, the government convinced itself that denying a scientific reality legitimizes its lack of action with respect to the consequences of this reality.
In Canada, the Harper government has consistently refused to accept scientific evidence when it comes to environmental issues and forced Environment Canada to change its public positions on issues. By denying and questioning scientific evidence, the government was able to legitimize its planned economic/business positions. This was carefully managed through an unprecedented direct and clear policy, muzzling government scientists and restricting them from communication with the media, a practice that was severely criticized in international scientific meetings. http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/dailybrew/world-top-scientists-meet-vancouver-ottawa-rapped-muzzling-222720898.html
This practice culminated in the “Death of Evidence” march of Canadian Scientists in Ottawa on July 10, 2012. The end of that road is familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Mubarak carefully manipulated the religious tensions in Egypt. Careful wordings portrayed the “undesired religious group”, whatever this happened to be at any given point, as the biggest threat to the safety of Egypt. This threat was typically overblown, building on individual cases and taking them out of context to scare the rest of the people and build the image that he, the strong man, was needed to ensure the government maintains control over these threats because no one else could protect the people.
Harper has perfected the fear-mongering against Muslims through periodic statements by Canadian Security Intelligence Service and by recently stating that “Islamism” is Canada’s biggest threat! The end of that road is familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Mubarak and Sadat before him worked hard to ensure that Christian Egyptians are defined by their Christian identity, not their Egyptian identity. This was achieved very nicely by ensuring the Coptic Church became the spokesperson of Christian Egyptians on all issues. Christians generally allowed that to happen for a lack of other options. This separated Christians from “regular Egyptians” more than any other actions. Some Christian groups woke up to this when the question of Christian representation on the committee to write the constitution came up. Continuing the tradition of focusing on the Christian part of Christian Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood, controlling the composition of the committee, asked the Church to provide names of representatives of Christian Egyptians rather than ensuring that from among the representatives of labour and the professions, qualified Christians are selected to sit on the table as Egyptians. The counterpart of the Christian churches, the Azhar, was asked to provide representatives of the Muslim religious institutions, but the bulk of membership was to represent other segments of society. This has indirectly boxed in the Christian Egyptians as Christians who are only interested in matters related to the church.
Given that Muslims do not have a church hierarchy that can be used as the religion’s representative body in Canada, Harper has been working hard to find “good Muslims” to deal with. Rather than engaging the community as a whole, he has been repeatedly engaging fringe groups with no credibility in the Muslim community. The end of that road is familiar to Egyptian Canadians. (The same strategy is applied to women in Egypt).
Creating an external crisis to unite the people is a standard manipulation by leaders who lack integrity. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the de-facto leader after Mubarak was ousted, created a huge national crisis about foreign NGOs working in Egypt. Public opinion was mobilized building up against these foreigners “operating illegally and compromising the independence of Egypt.” It became a question of national security/pride and standing up to the United States. This culminated in the arrest of around 40 NGO foreign workers, mostly Americans, on various charges that many argued made absolutely no sense since their organizations had been working with the Egyptian government for years. There may have been serious abuses by some of these NGOs, but the media campaign orchestrated around the threat posed by these people was completely disproportional and included running ads telling Egyptians to be wary of people asking them questions about the country or even applying for jobs on the Internet because of all those (foreign) entities using this information to attack Egypt! As suddenly as the charges were laid and arrests made, the Americans were loaded onto a military plane and sent to home and the whole issue died. It became clear there was little if any threat to begin with.
This is reminiscent of the Toronto 18 arrests on June 2, 2006. We had a massive government media campaign that raised the huge threat of violence and terrorism being planned by these 18 and said that Canada’s safety was seriously threatened. In the end, most ended up either released or handed community service sentences. Questions about potential entrapment by the informer were raised. Of course, some were guilty of charges, but it became clear that the orchestrated media campaign was completely disproportional. In both cases, it was a way to further entrench fear into people’s hearts and to demonstrate how the government was standing on guard for us. The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
In Egypt, elections were fixed and parliament was merely a way of claiming democracy. One could argue that the whole idea of parliament was not given much respect.
In Canada, this was never the case. However, we all remember how the government was found in contempt of parliament shortly prior to the 2011 federal elections. The prime minister’s response was effectively: ‘You do what you have to do and if you get caught, well, you tried.’ The way this was dealt with was a true reflection of the real contempt for parliament that is entrenched in the Harper government’s mindset. In both Egypt and Canada, the government was dealing with the parliament because it had to do so, in Canada because it is part of the democratic system in place while in Egypt because it is part of the democracy illusion presented to the world. The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Egyptians were used to events staged for the president and his business buddies. This was routine. Eventually it led to some government official photo-shopping a picture of Mubarak with President Obama and other world leaders to move Mubarak to the front of the pack to show him as leading the world. This was very easily caught and caused significant embarrassment to Egyptians. It is likely that the Mubarak people said "Well, you do what you have to do and if you get caught, you deal with it."
While the circumstances are admittedly different, the staging of a citizenship ceremony for the benefit of Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney's friends in The Sun reflects an openness to fool around with one of the most sacred actions of any Canadian, the citizenship oath. If I can stage a fake citizenship event for my friend's television station, would I not fake a picture to make Harper look better? The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
It is normal for governments to be more supportive of funding organizations that achieve its own objectives. What is not normal is putting in place processes and criteria for evaluating who meets these criteria and then having a minister simply add the word "not" before "approved" to cancel funding of a specific organization for political and ideological reasons as was done in Canada with KAIROS, the coalition of churches and religious organizations working together for justice.
This was standard practice in Egypt, with one exception. Ministers ensured that such groups did not make it to the list in the first place. They ensured that the evaluation process itself was corrupt and as such did not have to overrule the process. In Canada, the process had integrity: the department, using due process, approved funding, and International Aid Minister Bev Oda interfered with the process, which meant the document showed her handwritten "not" inserted before the department's "approved". The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
In Canada, universities hold sacred the principle of academic freedom. Professors are free to debate issues, all sides of issues, in their search for better understanding and better solutions. Decisions for allocation of government funding for research amongst individual professors are quite solidly outside of the political arena and left in the hands of expert peers. This is the practice and the tradition. However, when York University professors applied for and received a few thousand dollars from the federal funding agency, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), to partially support a conference on the Middle East exploring the merits of a one-state solution versus a two-state solution, Gary Goodyear, the federal minister for science and technology, felt comfortable enough to threaten SSHRC as a whole if the grant given to this conference was not withdrawn. This was an unprecedented interference in academic decisions that led the Canadian Association of University Teachers to demand the resignation of the SSHRC president for having even entertained the idea of adding restrictions on this funding.
The extreme side of such interference is evident in Egypt, where university leadership was cleared by the equivalent of CSIS before appointment to leadership positions of universities, research bodies were appointed by the government and served at the pleasure of the government, and everyone understood academic freedom to be the freedom to do whatever supported government positions. Watching the minister pressure SSHRC, the end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
The Harper government's attempts to ease its ability to conduct surveillance on Canadians and to limit the traditional sacred private space around Canadians is well known. The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
We are all familiar with allegations of manipulation during the recent election. In my almost 40 years in Canada, I do not recall such serious allegations or so many of them being raised against any other party. The end of that road was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Dealing with demonstrators with disproportionate power is standard action in Egypt. Police action during the G20 was familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Rewriting history and burying past national achievements that disagree with current regimes was standard in Egypt.
Downplaying the 25th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms sounds familiar to Egyptian Canadians. The inability of Harper's government to understand the role of the Charter in protecting the rights of the minority (as opposed to entrenching the ideologies of the majority) sounds very familiar to Egyptian Canadians struggling to ensure that Mubarak was not replaced by a theocracy as the new constitution is being written.
Constant fear-mongering and reports about threats endangering the future of the country is standard practice continuing until today in Egypt. Mubarak's regime perfected it and all those who followed continue to use it as an effective distraction mechanism.
Periodic reports about al-Qaeda in Canada and home-grown terrorism sound familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Excessive spending by politicians in amounts that most Egyptians cannot even imagine has been a standard practice in Egypt.
The stories about former minister Oda's spending habits sounded very familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Close connections between government officials and business tycoons were standard in Egypt. It was known that to get government business or rights to businesses, you needed personal strong connections with those in power.
The tight relations of the Conservatives with business tycoons and the fact that they routinely have to be reminded to distance themselves from their business buddies is very familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
All governments ensure they put "their people" in key political committees and organizations. In Egypt, this practice extended to basically all organizations, political or not.
The Harper government's staged coup of Canada's flagship public agency for human rights and democratic development, Rights and Democracy, taking over its board so as to stop its funding to human rights organizations in Israel and Palestine sounded very familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
In Egypt, it was standard practice that if the regime disliked a specific person, then that person was targeted for a character assassination by all means possible. Specific laws or practices did not apply.
In Canada, the government's decision to not allow entrance to Canada to a sitting member of the British Parliament (George Gallaway) because of his views on the Middle East, but to turn around and allow a well-known Islamophobe calling for the conversion or killing of Muslims (Anne Coulter) sounded very familiar to Egyptian Canadians.
Mubarak until the last minute played his "army" card. Any criticism of him was considered to be lack of appreciation of the role the army plays in protecting Egyptians.
The Harper government's argument that criticizing engagement in Afghanistan equaled lack of support to the troops sounded very familiar to Egyptian Canadians
Is Canada like Mubarak's Egypt? OF COURSE NOT. Will Canada turn into Mubarak's Egypt tomorrow morning? ABSOLUTELY NOT. But a strong established tree does not die immediately from a heart attack. It gets diseased and slowly withers away. Sometimes, by the time we notice and take action, it is too late. The current apathy of Canadians is troubling as there are early signs of the democracy tree getting sick. The simple lack of respect shown to the citizenship institution, to parliament, and to the Charter of Rights are at the core of the disease.
Is Harper Mubarak? ABSOLUTELY NOT, but he may be unintentionally setting up the stage up for a Mubarak to come in a couple of generations. It is the responsibility of the average Canadian to make sure that our democratic institutions function at their full power and that do not gradually become memories from a glorious past. Do we ever take a bus if we do not know where it is heading o, worse yet, if its destination is not where we want to go? Do we know where Canada is heading with this new ideology in place since 2005? We need to have a national discussion about connecting the dots and looking into the future to see where we will be if we stay on the current bus. What can our old mature democracy tree learn from the Egyptian experience? Basic Democracy 101, but things we seem to have forgotten.
Democracy without engaged citizenship can be turned into legitimized dictatorship.
Engaged citizens can be dangerous if they are not informed.
Electing a government democratically is just the first step. Once elected, democracy only works if you have watchful, vigilant, engaged citizens.
You learn about the majority by seeing how it treats the minority.
Minorities must reframe their struggle so it is rooted in their own equal citizenship, not in the need to be "reasonably accommodated".
The points above are intended to be very rough and to draw the picture of a general trend, not to direct accusations at anyone. This is not intended as condemnation of Harper or the Conservative party. I take my hat off to them for relentlessly pursuing what they believe in. This is intended as a wake-up call to all Canadians, Conservatives and otherwise. This is a call for the awakening of the Canadian people. Read the destination of the bus you are getting on before it takes off. If others are getting on blindly, make sure you alert them. If the driver is on the wrong route and does not realize that in his effort to avoid a traffic jam he is heading towards the cliff, make sure you tell him. Whatever you do, do not just trust it is going where you hope to be. DO NOT SLEEP ON THE BUS!!!
About Tyseer Aboulnasr
Dr. Aboulnasr received her bachelor of engineering degree from Cairo University, Egypt, and a master of science and a doctorate from Queen's University, both in electrical engineering. She was Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ottawa from 1998 to 2004 and Associate Dean (Academic) from 1996 to 1998. She chaired the Council of Ontario Deans of Engineering in 2001–2002. Dr. Aboulnasr received the Ottawa-Carleton YWCA Women of Distinction Award (Education) in 1999 and was elected Fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada in 2002 and Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering in 2003. She was named one of the 100 most influential people in Ottawa in 2001. She received her highest honour in 2005 when she was named a 2004 recipient of the Order of Ontario.
The Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs invites opinions and commentary about public affairs issues by various thought leaders, members, and individuals to be presented on our blog. Opinions expressed on the Couchiching Institute Blog are solely those of the writer and not of the Institute.
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