Canada deserves a thoughtful and intelligent foreign policy in the Middle East

For almost three weeks, the Egyptian people took peacefully to the streets to change the system that deprived them of their rights and freedoms. Canadians and peoples around the world stood up in solidarity with the people, but not Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Not only was he slow in addressing the uprising but when he finally did, it was to publicly express his support for President Hosni Mubarak, insisting that he wanted "those in power in Egypt to lead change."

To add insult to injury, Harper and his government removed the Egyptians' needs from the centre of this popular uprising, or as Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon put it, "In order for us, here in Canada, to recognize and support the future Egyptian government, it must meet four basic conditions: first, it must respect freedom, democracy and human rights, particularly the rights of women (something we didn't ask of either Israel or Mubarak's Egypt); second, it must recognize the State of Israel; third, it must adhere to existing peace treaties (singling out Israel once again); and fourth, it must respect international law" (though Israel is never asked to respect international law).

Ever since the inception of the modern Egyptian state under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, the core mechanisms of "stable" authoritarian rule have remained in place. Egypt had become a textbook police state, a state whose legitimacy had eroded: human rights violations, torture, persecution of minorities, arrests of journalists, suppression of political dissent, rigged elections, police brutality, torture, cronyism and corruption, and a continuous emergency law since 1981 that gives the Security Services the ability to detain anyone without charge. Some of the Israeli impunity must have rubbed off on Mubarak because western democracies propped him up and never took him to task on the rights abuses.

However, Egyptians had had enough of Mubarak's regime. In 2004, they said "Kifaya" ("Enough" in Arabic) as they launched their Movement for Change. However, the middle-class political movement failed for a variety of reasons that were probably not lost on this year's young and successful protesters.

Harper often mentions "values" to justify his positions, as he did late last year at the Ukrainian Catholic University:

"Therefore, the cornerstone of Canada's foreign policy is the promotion of such values: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and all the institutions that come with them: property rights, an impartial judiciary, and above all, freedom of expression and a free press. The freedom for which [murdered Ukrainian journalist Georgiy] Gongadze became a hero.

"In fact, we do not believe that you can have any one of these things: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, without the others. But the first is freedom. So that when Ukraine rejoined the brotherhood of the free, we in Canada were among the first to cheer."

It is clear however that Harper applies these values selectively and that the creed of this man that some Israelis call the "modern-day Abraham" takes precedence when ideas conflict. Harper's official position appears to be that the rights and freedoms for the peoples of the Middle East are secondary to the will and security of Israel. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Israeli government instructed its ambassadors to urge nations, including Canada, to curb criticism of Mubarak, a directive that Harper has followed faithfully.

Canada "respected" rather than welcomed Mubarak's resignation "in order to promote peace and stability." Harper's position stands in stark contrast with other prominent leaders such as Britain's David Cameron and the U.S.'s Barack Obama, who understood the need and capacity of democracy to act as a vehicle of stability in the region. Not only did they do the right thing, but both U.S. and U.K. leaders positioned their countries as potential supporters of the Egyptian people on the road to democracy. As 2005 presidential candidate Ayman Nour told Al Jazeera "...This nation has been born again. These people have been born again..." -- a term that is not meant to be foreign to Harper.

By successfully challenging the imposed post-colonization order, the "Egyptian street" has also put to rest the notion that Arab peoples are not ready for democracy. Egypt has regained its pride and dignity, but not yet the civilian democracy that Egyptians want and deserve. The next few months will show if this true revolution leads to a civilian democracy or whether it has been subverted into a military succession.

The fire that started in Tunisia then Egypt has spread hope in the heart of peoples across the Arab World. It has also served as a warning to their leaders. Some leaders have promised not to run again, some sacked their governments, others "relaxed" the imposed censorship, or gave financial "rewards" to their citizens. Djibouti has also its share of on-going protests as does Morocco.

To date, Libya has seen the bloodiest response by a government since the Tunisian revolution. Gaddafi seems intent to crush any dissent, using all the state means at his disposal, even if, as his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said on TV, this leads to a "civil war." Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch warned that "A potential human rights catastrophe is unfolding in Libya as protesters brave live gunfire and death for a third day running... Libya is trying to impose an information blackout, but it can't hide a massacre."

However, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyan protesters are getting their stories out, and the protest has now reached the capital, Tripoli. The bloodshed has gained the uprising moral support from around the world, and within Libya from tribal chiefs who threatened to shut down all oil production unless authorities stop the "oppression of the protesters," and from Muslim leaders who issued an appeal to the security forces to stop killing civilians.

Respect for human rights and democracy abroad is in Canada's best interests. By supporting true democratic change in Egypt and other states, we create a safer world for all of us. If Canada and other liberal democracies want to ensure stability, as they claim, and also truly protect their interests in the Arab world, they must address the legitimate demands of the people as they stand and not view them only through the narrow Israeli prism.

Canadians need to question the wisdom of aligning Canada with an extreme right-wing government in Israel. Harper's unenthusiastic response to this historical event has been noted. It adds to the list of ill-advised statements such as "measured response" when Israel rained bombs on Lebanon and killed Canadians. By putting Israel 's interests ahead of those of Canadians', the prime minister of Canada has rendered the voice of Canada almost irrelevant, and at times untrustworthy, in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Creed and tunnel-vision, combined with an ideological policymaking process do not make for the thoughtful and intelligent foreign policy that Canada deserves.

Bahija Réghaï is a human rights activist, former president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relatons (NCCAR).

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