At the start of last week, it looked like Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy's ordeal – locked up in an Egyptian prison on terrorism charges widely seen as trumped up – was about to end in his deportation. But that likelihood evaporated over the weekend with news of a retrial in an Egyptian court.
Today, that trial started with another swerve: Mr. Fahmy was unexpectedly allowed to post bail, after more than 400 days in prison. He is reportedly set to be released Saturday. But the case is still rolling ahead with no end in sight.
Now, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is under fire for not having done enough to free its citizen from his Egyptian imprisonment. But analysts say that just how much Mr. Harper has done remains unclear – and that could be a good thing for Fahmy's release.
Fahmy posted bail of $32,700 today; his trial resumes on Feb. 23. Fahmy, along with two colleagues from Al Jazeera, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste, was convicted of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in a trial decried around the world.
Mr. Greste was released on Feb. 1, under a law that allows the president to deport foreign nationals on trial to their country of origin. Greste's freedom spurred Fahmy to renounce his Egyptian citizenship, leaving him solely a Canadian national and thus eligible for similar deportation.
Not enough from Harper?
But while John Baird, until recently Canada's foreign minister, last week described Fahmy's release as "imminent," it has proven anything but. And members of Fahmy's family – supported by editorials in major Canadian newspapers and almost 50,000 signatories of an an online petition started by Fahmy's brother – say that at least some of the blame lies with Mr. Harper.
Harper’s office said this week the premier had sent letters to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi but would not say when he reached out and it remains unclear whether they have spoken directly.
“Prime Minister Harper has personally raised the case of Mohamed Fahmy with President Sisi,” said Lynne Yelich, junior minister for consular affairs, in a written statement. “Canadian officials raised the case of Mohamed Fahmy with Egyptian officials 19 times in the last two weeks. I have along with former Minister Baird, continued to raise this government's concerns regarding Mr. Fahmy's case at the highest levels with Egyptian officials and will continue to do so.”
However, the Fahmy family and its allies say this isn't enough. “Letters are simply an inadequate response to this kind of situation,” says Cecilia Greyson, who has been running the #HarperCallEgypt social media campaign along with Fahmy’s family. Ms. Greyson was also active in the release of her brother, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, after he was imprisoned in Egypt along with doctor Tarek Loubani in 2013.
She says direct communication from Harper is essential in Fahmy’s case. “This kind of diplomacy is something that is recognized in Egypt, and most people who work in these kinds of circles recognize that President Sisi particularly responds to these personal one-on-one calls.”
'You can't be seen to be threatening'
But much of the diplomatic negotiations have happened behind closed doors, making it difficult to assess, says Laura Tribe, who works with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “If you try and understand what role the Canadian government could or should play, you have to know what they already have done, and I think we’re really unable to answer that question.”
Quiet diplomacy is key to these negotiations, says Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Politicizing the issue and publicizing any communications between heads of government could harm negotiations.
The solution, he says, is “talking to these people, pointing out that this kind of behavior hurts Egypt’s reputation in the international community. It will make it difficult for a country to sit on major global development bodies, to render a sympathetic ear when Egypt is arranging financing.... Those are the kinds of arguments you have to make but you can’t be seen to be threatening the [Egyptian] government.”
Besides, Mr. Hampson says, some of the criticism of the Harper government has been unfair.
“At the end of the day, if people have a bone to pick it’s with the Egyptians, it’s not with our government.”