Evidence of meeting #8 for Foreign Affairs and International Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was egypt.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Barbara Martin  Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Marie Gervais-Vidricaire  Director General, Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Jeffrey McLaren  Director, Gulf and Maghreb Relations, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
  • Hani Tawfilis  Board Member, Mississauga, Canadian Coptic Centre
  • X  As an Individual
  • Antoine A. Malek  Chair, Coptic Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal
  • Hugh Segal  Ontario, CPC

8:45 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), a briefing on the situation in Egypt, I very quickly want to welcome once again our friends from Foreign Affairs.

Thank you very much for taking time to be here.

Madame Vidricaire, you've been here quite a few times, so thanks. I don't know when you get a chance to work anymore, because we always have you at committee. I apologize for that.

We have with us Barbara Martin, director general of the Middle East and Maghreb bureau. Marie Gervais-Vidricaire is the director general of the stabilization and reconstruction task force. We also have with us Jeffrey McLaren, director of Gulf and Maghreb relations.

I want to welcome all three of you.

I believe, Ms. Martin, that you have an opening statement. We'll get right to it since you're only here for half an hour.

Ms. Martin, the floor is yours.

8:45 a.m.

Barbara Martin Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of this committee, for the opportunity to speak to you today.

I'm Barbara Martin and, as introduced, director general of the Middle East and Maghreb bureau in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Today I will provide you with an update on recent developments in Egypt, including the situation of Coptic Christians in that country. Egypt is entering a critical period in its transition to democratic governance. This is not an easy process and we can expect some bumps in the road. Like the rest of the world, the Government of Canada is watching closely.

It was inspiring last January and February to watch as Egyptian people of all ages, faiths, and walks of life courageously demanded what people all around the world want: freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and a chance at a better life. Egyptians brought about transformative political change through peaceful protest, not by violence or terrorism.

Egypt is a nation of 82 million people, with an ancient civilization and a vibrant and rich culture, that has long been a moderate leader of the Arab, African, and Muslim worlds. It has a long history of religious diversity.

It has also been an important partner in the Middle East peace process, based on its long-standing peace treaty and cooperation on security matters with Israel. Consequently, what happens in Egypt has important implications for other countries of the region, for the world economy, and for international security, including the security of Canadians.

In the context of the Arab awakening, the outcome in Egypt has the potential to affect the transitions under way in other countries, and the development in Egypt over the coming months and years will shape the region and the world as we know it. This is why it is important for Canada to remain engaged with Egypt.

Egypt and Canada continue to have deep and long-standing ties at every level. Our strong relations with Egypt are based on significant people-to-people ties and growing bilateral trade and investment links. It's estimated that some 55,000 Canadians have roots in Egypt, and some 100,000 Canadians travel there every year. Egypt imports some $630 million in goods and services from Canada each year.

Our strong relationship with Egypt allows us to be frank with each other, as friends should be. We've expressed our desire to see a peaceful and meaningful transition to democracy, as well as our concern about escalating sectarian tensions.

You will recall that there was an attack on Coptic Christians leaving a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi in January 2010, as well as a bombing of a church in Alexandria during the celebration of the New Year's mass earlier this year, both of which Canada condemned in the strongest terms.

Most recently, violent clashes took place in Cairo on October 9 between the Egyptian security forces and Coptic Christian protestors. Twenty-seven people, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed, and over 300 were injured, in one of the most troubling and violent incidents since the fall of the former regime.

Minister Baird issued a statement expressing his deep concern and called on Egypt to ensure freedom of religion and to protect religious minorities. At Minister's Baird's request, on Sunday, Canada's chargé d'affaires in Cairo met at Saint Mark's cathedral with Bishop Youannes, who is the general bishop and private secretary of his Holiness Pope Shenouda III, to express Canada's concern and support. The Minister of Foreign Affairs had also requested that Canada's ambassador to Egypt discuss the previous attacks with the Pope earlier this year.

Our chargé provided the bishop with a copy of the resolution adopted by the House of Commons just last week, which condemned the attacks, calls for the government to bring the perpetrators to justice, and asks the UN Human Rights Council to conduct an investigation into the plight of the Egyptian Coptic Christians and issue a public report of its findings.

Minister Baird also made reference to the situation of Coptic Christians during his address at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this fall, as well as during public consultations related to the new office of religious freedoms on October 3.

Coptic Christians, who make up some 10% of Egypt's 82 million people, have been an integral part of Egyptian society since the fifth century A.D. Over the centuries, Copts and Muslims have co-existed peacefully, and the overwhelming majority of Egyptians today support religious tolerance. However, sectarian divisions between Muslims and Copts, as well as tensions between the ruling military council and the Coptic community, have been exacerbated by this most recent incident, as well as by those earlier this year.

These violent incidents originate with extremists who do not accept the religious plurality of the country. It is up to Egyptians to prevent intolerance and violence from becoming the way of the future. This is not what their revolution was about. Egyptians of all faiths, Muslims and Copts, marched together in Tahrir Square during the revolution under the slogan, “We are all Egyptians”.

Similarly, after the clashes of October 9, hundreds of Muslims and Christians participated in a unity march to urge Egyptians of all faiths to work together to end the sectarian violence. We therefore welcome the commitment of the Egyptian government to bring to justice those responsible for the violence and the introduction of a new law that toughens the penalties for discrimination.

The process leading to a civilian democratic government is entering a critical stage. It was a positive step last March when 77% of Egyptians voted in favour of constitutional amendments that shortened the presidential term and created a two-term limit, and restricted the ability to declare and renew a state of emergency.

It was a sign that the ruling military council has committed to a timeline for transition to civilian rule. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin on November 28, to be held in three stages ending March 2012. After parliamentary elections, a new constitution will be drafted, followed by presidential elections expected in late 2012 or early 2013. It will be important to ensure that these elections are free and fair.

We appreciate that the elections are to be supervised by the Egyptian judiciary. However, we believe that the presence of independent international observers would be appropriate: even Canada has had international observers of its elections. We are disappointed that the supreme council of the armed forces passed a law in July prohibiting international election observers, although we note the possibility that witnesses will be allowed to participate.

We recognize that there are considerable challenges going forward as Egyptians work to define the political and economic foundations of the new Egypt. Stability will need to be maintained while ensuring fundamental freedoms; the interest of secular parties will have to be examined and balanced with those based on religion; a culture of pluralism and respect for human rights will need to be promoted; and good relations with regional members will have to be maintained.

In addition, Egypt faces economic challenges, including high unemployment, particularly among the youth, falling foreign reserves, and a sharp loss of tourism revenue following the revolution. Its leadership will need to renew efforts to liberalize the economy and tackle corruption.

In response to Egypt's economic challenges, CIDA's programming focuses on stimulating sustainable economic growth by creating a better environment for small and medium-sized businesses to grow. When Minister Cannon visited Cairo in March, he announced that Canada would provide $11 million in new funding to assist Egypt economically during the transition.

Canada is also actively involved in the Deauville Partnership with its G-8 partners, and in the context of this partnership, the multilateral development banks announced they would contribute up to $20 billion over three years in assistance to Egypt and Tunisia. Canada is a major shareholder in these banks, and we stand ready to coordinate assistance as required.

It's unlikely that Egypt's process of transition towards democracy will be smooth. This is to be expected as Egyptians seek to find new common ground and to define the nature of their society and their government going forward. Not only do we want Egypt's government to heed the courageous voices of the Egyptian people and respond to their desire for a new future, we also want to see Egypt maintain its place as a leader among Arab, African, and Muslim states.

Canada will remain an important partner for Egypt. We stand ready to support its people and its government as they face the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead.

I'd like to thank the committee for this opportunity to speak to you today. I'd pleased to answer any of your questions, as would Jeff and Marie, who are here with me today.

8:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Ms. Martin.

I think in view of the time we have--we have about 18 minutes left--I'm going to look at one round of six minutes each. That will give us a full round each. We'll go from there.

I'm going to start with Ms. Sims for six minutes, please.

8:55 a.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims Newton—North Delta, BC

Thank you.

I want to thank you for your presentation, and for giving us an overview today and updating us.

The question I have is on UN Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, under which we are required to ensure that women are full participants in all peace processes. What discussions have happened within DFAIT around this issue? What role has Canada played in the constitutional talks in Egypt? Also, how are we working to ensure that women are full participants in all political processes in Egypt today?

8:55 a.m.

Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Barbara Martin

Initially, if I may, I will very quickly start. Then I might ask Marie to speak in more depth.

Clearly, the role of women is a key issue for Canada in the evolution taking place in all of the countries that have undergone the Arab awakening. It is a critical element of the direction and our engagement with the country. However, I would underscore that the development of the constitution in Egypt is a matter for Egyptians to actually decide, and while we can urge Egyptians to take this into account, it is ultimately their choice.

Marie can speak to the programming elements.

8:55 a.m.

Marie Gervais-Vidricaire Director General, Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Our programming activities in Egypt have focused on democratic development because we think it's very important to ensure the long-term stability of the country. We have put in place some projects.

The first one is with Rights and Democracy and is a project of about $130,000 to train journalists, as well as more than 100 bloggers. We know the importance of social media in Egypt and in the region. The idea was to train these people ahead of the constitutional referendum that took place in March as well as in preparation for the upcoming elections.

We are also in a partnership with Media in Cooperation and Transition. This is a German-based NGO. The goal of this project as well is to strengthen the capacity of independent media and enhance public knowledge of democratic norms and electoral processes. Of course, that would include the women's angle, because half of the population, I suppose, is composed of women. That's an important aspect. This is for the training of journalists and to show them how to gather all kinds of information on the political programs, on the political parties' positions, and the political stakeholders. It's really mostly training.

Beyond that, we also have a regional project with the Rapid Responses to Violent Conflict program and the electoral support program of the United Nations political affairs department. This is a multi-year project. The goal of this project is to enable the international community to engage in early and preventive action before conflicts become bigger and costlier and to provide the electoral support to countries in the region. That includes Egypt. We have made a contribution of $600,000 to that project.

Finally, I would like to mention that we have just endorsed a project with the Parliamentary Centre. It will provide assistance and transfer expertise to a national institution in Egypt in specific areas of parliamentary democracy, which would allow a new Egyptian parliament to run the country in an accountable manner while responding to the country's challenges.

For the time being, those are the areas where we have programming

9 a.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims Newton—North Delta, BC

Thank you very much.

So we have some general programming going on, but I didn't hear anything that's targeted just towards women. When I'm looking at what's going on in the Arab world, we know that one of the biggest challenges for women is to get that full participation. Do we have anything that specifically targets women or says that when we're doing this training there will be so many places for women so that we can do capacity building?

9 a.m.

Director General, Stabilization and Reconstruction Task Force, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Marie Gervais-Vidricaire

As I said, I'm sure that the angle of the participation of women is certainly included in that. Do we have a separate program for women? For the time being, no.

You were talking about the region. As you know, Minister Baird was in Libya, for example, two weeks ago already, and there he met with women activists and said that Canada would be supporting women's participation in the upcoming electoral processes and so forth. There is certainly a lot of interest and willingness to support women's roles in Egypt and in the rest of the region.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much.

We're now going to move over to Mr. Dechert. We have Ms. Brown sharing the time.

Go ahead, Mr. Dechert.

October 25th, 2011 / 9 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Mississauga—Erindale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here and for sharing this important information with us.

I, too, am very troubled by what has been going on in Egypt over many years, but specifically this year. Like you and many Canadians, I was quite excited by the prospect of democratic reform in Egypt earlier this year. Things seemed to be going in the right direction. Muslims and Christians and other minority groups in Egypt were protesting together against the previous regime and helped to bring it down.

Since then, we've seen some rather troubling issues arise with respect to sectarian violence, specifically with this incident in Maspero a couple of weeks ago, where the government forces appear to have brutally repressed a peaceful demonstration, which resulted in the deaths of many people.

You mentioned in your remarks, Ms. Martin, that Canada's export of goods and services to Egypt is worth approximately $630 million a year. What does Canada import from Egypt, and what's the value of that trade?

9 a.m.

Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Barbara Martin

Canada's imports from Egypt are worth approximately $300 million a year. I have a document that outlines exactly what those are. I regret that I don't have the details on what those imports comprise. I will be able to get back to you. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it's cotton sheets and such.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Mississauga—Erindale, ON

The number is $300 million. Some people have suggested economic sanctions. What do you think the impact of economic sanctions would be if Canada were to impose some kind of economic sanction on Egypt until it improves its protection of minority religious rights and other human rights?

9:05 a.m.

Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Barbara Martin

Economic sanctions are a fairly heavy hand to impose on a government. They often penalize the people more so than they penalize the regime in question, because they have an impact on the economic environment.

But more importantly, in this situation, the government has undertaken to do an investigation into the situation that led to the violence on October 9. Certainly it did not in any way condone the violence that occurred earlier this year and in 2010. There are indications that much of this violence is associated with extremists within Egyptian society, and therefore, at this point, it would seem more appropriate for us to be encouraging the government to fulfill its obligation to undertake that investigation and to be transparent about the outcome of it, rather than to be sanctioning the government.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

Bob Dechert Mississauga—Erindale, ON

As you pointed out earlier, Canada has called for a UN independent investigation into the incident in Maspero. Do you know whether any other countries have also called for such an investigation?

9:05 a.m.

Director General, Middle East and Maghreb Bureau, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Barbara Martin

No. Our call for this investigation was only on Monday, October 17. We are not aware yet of any kind of international reaction to that call.