What should the West do about dictatorships? Profit from them, of course.

In 2008, a Libyan graduate student at the Arab Academy for Maritime Transport was arrested, deported, blacklisted, and banned from Egypt on suspicion of “homosexual practices”. On April 14, 2015, an Egyptian court upheld the decision, preventing him from re-entering, on grounds of protecting the public morality (1). Last December, a TV presenter named Mona al-Iraqi led a televised raid on a bathhouse in Cairo, which led to mass arrests, “compulsory medical examinations”, and prison sentences.

On April 16, 2015, Egyptian-Canadian Khaled al-Qazzaz, who was an advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi, was at the Cairo airport with his family, having been released after nearly two years in an Egyptian jail, awaiting deportation on medical grounds. They had been promised that Khaled had been cleared of all accusations, was not under investigation, and they could leave the country – Khaled, who had been in jail since 2013, and his wife and children, who had come from Canada to get him. They were detained at the airport for seven hours, their passports confiscated, and left the airport with no information (2).

On April 11, Egypt’s famous “hanging judge”, Nagy Shehata, sentenced 14 Muslim Brotherhood members to death, and 36 others to life in prison, including US-Canadian citizen Mohammed Sultan (3). Shehata is quite a countenance, pictured always in sunglasses. Human rights researcher Priyanka Motaparthy summarized Shehata’s methods in a tweet (4) “#Egypt judge Shehata sentenced 204 people to death & 534 ppl to 7395 years in prison in just 5 rulings. Probably w/o removing his sunglasses.”

Back in February, Egypt’s president Sisi gave an interview to Der Spiegel, which provides insight into his mind (5). Given that power in Egypt is concentrated in Sisi’s hands, his beliefs have consequences. This exchange, in which Sisi explains his massacre of hundreds people in terms of a “civilizational gap” is remarkable:

SPIEGEL: What happened on Rabaa Square was a massacre in which at least 650 Morsi supporters were killed by security forces. Those events represent an abuse of power.

Sisi: I reiterate that you are judging us based on your criteria. The number of victims at Rabaa could have been 10 times higher if the people had stormed the square. And the Egyptians were prepared to do that. The sit-ins were allowed to continue for 45 days and people had to look on as one of the main squares in our capital city was totally paralyzed. We had repeatedly called on the protesters to clear out peacefully. Would something like that be allowed in your country?

SPIEGEL: Our police would not fire live ammunition. If possible they would use tear gas or water cannons. And in our country, the interior minister would have to resign after a massacre like that.

Sisi: I am not ashamed to admit that there is a civilizational gap between us and you. The police and people in Germany are civilized and have a sense of responsibility. German police are equipped with the latest capabilities and get the best training. And in your country, protesters would not use weapons in the middle of the demonstrations to target police.

In the same interview, Sisi was asked about three al-Jazeera journalists, who were still in jail after many months. His response: the judiciary is independent and must not be interfered with. The interview was published in the February 7 issue of Der Speigel, and it’s unclear when it was conducted. What is clear is that earlier that week, one of the three al-Jazeera journalists, Australian Peter Greste, was deported to Australia – freed, in other words, through some opaque process of negotiation, from the Egyptian prison system and from its ‘independent’ judiciary. Curiously, the independent judiciary could not manage the same feat for Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, who is of Egyptian origin and renounced his Egyptian citizenship because he was promised this would lead to his release. Nor of course could it manage that feat for Egyptian journalist Baher Mohamed.

Fahmy and Mohamed are out on bail and are being retried by the same vaunted ‘independent’ judiciary that put them in jail in the first place and that sentenced blogger Alaa abd-el Fattah to five years in jail (6). Since his release on bail, Fahmy has avoided any criticism towards Egypt’s government, and wondered why Canada couldn’t get him home the way Australia had done for Greste (7). Egypt’s authorities have not shown Fahmy the same consideration.

As for Canada’s government, it is primarily interested in doing a certain kind of business with Egypt. Export Development Canada is a government institution dedicated to financially supporting Canadian companies to do business overseas. It’s Egypt country page says that the EDC has assisted 65 Canadian companies, insured 89 international buyers, and done $141 million CAD of business. The disclosure page shows the companies assisted this year: the African Ex-Im Bank, Royal Bank of Canada, and Transglobe Petroleum International, Inc. (8, 9).

In other words, the same Canadian authorities that have found themselves unable to facilitate the release of a Canadian journalist arrested for doing his job, have found themselves able to facilitate a few tens of millions of dollars of business – all the while claiming implicitly that they have insufficient leverage to influence the situation in Egypt. Just enough leverage influence to profit from it, presumably.

Scott Long of paper-bird.net is a blogger who has chronicled Egypt’s descent into totalitarianism. He tells a story of how he was approached at a cafe and asked about his interest in human rights. He gave the man his contact information, but afterwards, he writes, he “cringed inside”, because he wondered whether he had just helped someone or endangered his own security (9):

Other people, foreign passport-holders among them, have been arrested for “political” conversations in public places. You don’t know if the person who approaches you is victim or violator, survivor of torture or State Security agent; or both.

That suggests more clearly than any headline how Sisi’s regime is achieving totalitarianism – something Mubarak’s clumsy and inept authoritarian rule, his iron fist of five thumbs, never managed, perhaps never imagined or tried. I see now that totalitarianism is less comprised in how the state controls your private life than in how you do. Ordinary emotions such as sympathy or compassion cease to be modes of solidarity and become dangerous betrayals, self-revelations to be regulated with sleepless scrupulosity, as though they, and not the people you suspect, are the real informers. Mistrusting yourself comes first. Mistrusting others is merely the consequence. But the self-hatred self-suppression brings – and I hated myself for my fear – demands other objects, a wider field of play. To be foreign to yourself is to apprehend foreignness all around you, to fear the stranger in the land of Egypt.

Egypt’s increasingly totalitarian dictatorship is not described that way by the countries that do business with it, even if countries have citizens who have suffered at its hands. But look at its “hanging judge”. Listen to its president explain away mass murder in terms of a “civilizational gap”. Look at its bans for “homosexual practices” and its bathhouse raids, its jailing of bloggers and writers, its murders of activists like Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, its new laws on protests. For North American governments like Canada’s, who send bombs to other countries in the region on the basis of “civilizational gap” type arguments, what is this dictatorship? A place to make money.


(1) See Mada Masr, “Court Grants Interior Ministry authority to deport ‘foreign homosexuals'”, April 15, 2015. http://www.madamasr.com/news/court-grants-interior-ministry-authority-deport-foreign-homosexuals.

(2) Khaled al-Qazzaz’s family’s website, April 16, 2015: “653 Days – FREEKQ – Khaled and his Canadian family allowed to leave Airport after 7 Hours” http://www.freekhaledalqazzaz.com/home/2015/4/16/653-days-freekq-khaled-and-his-canadian-family-allowed-to-leave-airport-after-7-hours

(3) CTV News, April 11, 2015: “US-egyptian citizen gets life behind bars, 14 sentenced to death”. http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/u-s-egyptian-citizen-gets-life-behind-bars-14-sentenced-to-death-1.2322395.

(4) https://twitter.com/priyanica/status/592229159612653568

(5) Der Spiegel February 9, 2015. “Interview with Egyptian President Sisi”. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-egyptian-president-sisi-calls-for-help-in-is-fight-a-1017434.html

(6) See the UK Guardian February 23, 2015. “Egyptian activist Alaa abd El Fattah sentenced to five years in jail.” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/23/egyptian-activist-alaa-abd-el-fattah-sentenced-five-years-jail. See also Omar Robert Hamilton’s blog in London Review of Books, “The Verdict”: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2015/02/23/omar-hamilton/the-verdict/

(7) UK Independent February 13, 2015. “Freed Al-Jazeera Journalist: Why can’t Canada get me home?” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/freed-aljazeera-journalist-why-cant-canada-get-me-home-10045889.html

(8) EDC’s Egypt country page: https://www.edc.ca/EN/Country-Info/Pages/Egypt.aspx. Disclosure page: https://www19.edc.ca/edcsecure/disclosure/DisclosureView.aspx.

(9) paper-bird.net: “Deport me!” April 18, 2015.

First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Profiting-from-Dictatorship-20150429-0019.html

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.