Published On (revised): Embassy Magazine, December 14th, 2011
When it comes to serious political change in the Middle East, Monia Mazigh is a hopeful skeptic. The Tunisian-Canadian academic recently gave a talk in Ottawa to “The Group of 78” on the future of the Arab Spring and its effects on Canadian foreign policy.
She spent substantial time talking about Canada’s selective policy in terms of dealing with the Arab Spring. Most importantly, the Harper administration has not been vocal about the democratic transition that is starting to take place to take place in Egypt. On the other hand, the Canadian military played a substantial role in the ousting of Moammar Ghadafi in Libya, and has imposed sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria.
Mazigh is the wife of Maher Arar, who was awarded $10,000,000 by the Harper administration for being wrongfully renditioned to Syria at the behest of the U.S. Arar spent around a year in a coffin-sized Syrian cell and was tortured. Mazigh worked tirelessly to get her husband out, and knows first-hand the brutality that the Syrian regime is capable of.
She extends this same caution and suspicion to the rest of the Middle East dictatorships, including Egypt, which is going through its first post-Mubarak elections. Mazigh noted that a simple change of guard in Egypt is not enough. The current military leadership must go. Canada, given its role vis a vis other countries challenged by the Arab Spring, should assume a more active role in supporting the democratic movement in Egypt.
Instead, the Harper administration seems content to settle for criticism against Syria and its allies—namely Iran and its unclear nuclear ambitions. Among others, foreign affairs minister John Baird has announced more than once the need to support Israel in the case of a war with Iran. It doesn’t help that Iran is also known to have very war relations with Hezbollah, a political party in Lebanon currently on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations.
Add on to that Prime Minister Harper’s September announcement that “Islamicism” is Canada’s biggest foreign policy concern, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Harper administration is selective in its policy with the Arab Spring. Hosni Mubarak was seen as an ally in the War on Terror, and capable of suppressing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, which is leading all parties right now in the ongoing elections in Egypt.
It was precisely this paranoid mentality in dealing with international terrorism that sent Arar off to a Syrian prison. Mazigh knows that, despite the current fear from the Harper administration, the best way to alleviate the threat of terror is through democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence years ago, and has been acknowledged by the Brookings Institute, among other think tanks, as a party not to be feared.
Canada would do well to support the democratization process in Egypt if Harper is right and terrorism ought to be the nation’s main concern. Political scientists in the United States like Vali Nasr, who now works in the Obama State Department, have long acknowledged that incorporating Islamists into the democratic process also defangs them. Having a political voice and a place in the democratic system discourages violent behaviour.
Mazigh was also right in mentioning that Egypt’s current military regime led by Muhammad Hussein Tantawi could use a little prodding by the international community in terms of relinquishing power. Tantawi was a known ally of Mubarak within the Egyptian regime, and the military has taken violent steps to quell recent demonstrations by Egyptians who believe that their revolution is being stalled by the military.
Canada’s role in the region gives it substantial leverage to deal with the situation in Egypt. The Harper administration’s muted position on one of the key geopolitical nations in the Middle East indicates that Canadian foreign policy in the area is not primarily based on the willingness to see democratization.
Mazigh said that the Egyptian democratic movement, led by a substantial amount of youth, could use help from the international community. Dozens of Egyptians died in November when the Egyptian Armed Forces used live ammunition to quell protests. Canada has an opportunity to forge a productive relationship with the new Egypt by exerting pressure on Tantawi and the military.
Some have also noted that the revolts in places like Egypt and Syria are not guided by formal ideologies, thus prolonging uncertainty. Mazigh noted that this diversity is not a weakness in the movements of the Arab Spring, but can be exploited by hardline Islamists or foreign powers if those in the movement are not careful.
She pointed out that the surprising success of the socially conservative Salafi al-Nour party might become cause for concern. The party is backed by Saudi Arabia, which has been a centre for reactionary positions regarding the Arab Spring.
Nonetheless, should Canada become more involved in supporting Egyptian democratization, a positive relationship can be forged early on with one of the world’s most strategic geopolitical hotspots, no matter who gets elected.