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.