Detention of Canadian Academics in Egypt Spurs International Concern

Professors John Greyson (left) and Tarek Loubani were arrested in Cairo on August 16.
August 30, 2013

The arrest and continuing detention of two Canadian professors in Egypt has generated an outcry from universities and scholars, as unrest in Cairo contributes to worries about their fate.

Tarek Loubani, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, and John Greyson, an associate professor of film at York University, were arrested at a Cairo police station on August 16. They had gone the station to ask for directions back to their hotel.

The pair had traveled to Egypt on their way to the Gaza Strip, in the Palestinian territories, where Dr. Loubani was taking part in a project between his university and the al-Shifa hospital to help train its emergency-care doctors. Mr. Greyson, an award-winning filmmaker, was in the preliminary stages of a documentary about the hospital.

No formal charges have been brought against the two academics. Some online reports have said that Egyptian authorities are alleging the two are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that has been the target of a military crackdown. (The Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.)

The two are being held under a judicial order, and there was speculation they would be released on Thursday. However, The Toronto Star reports that a prosecutor failed to show up at a planned meeting that day with a lawyer representing the professors and Canadian consular officials. That prevented their release and could mean an extension of the detention order.

The apparent snag has deepened concern about the pair's well-being and is likely to increase calls for their release.

100,000 Signatures

At the time of the arrests, Dr. Loubani made a brief telephone call to a friend, Justin J. Podur, an associate professor of environmental studies at York, who began writing about the detention on his blog and in social media. He and Mr. Greyson's sister have set up a Web site to draw attention to the case and push for the professors' release. In addition, an online petition calling for the pair's release has neared its goal of 100,000 signatures.

"The Canadian support has been fantastic, and we're beginning to get more support from organizations outside of Canada," Mr. Podur told The Chronicle. On Thursday, for example, the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America released a public letter on behalf of the detainees to Egypt's interim prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi.

University presidents and faculty associations in Canada have voiced similar sentiments and reached out to the academic community in Egypt to help apply pressure. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, for example, sought help from officials at its Egyptian counterpart. "They are completely receptive and are doing what they can, given how chaotic the situation is in Egypt," said James Turk, the Canadian association's executive director.

The Canadian government has been pressing Egyptian authorities for information since the arrests. "We continue to work at the highest levels to confirm the specific charges against Dr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson. As we have not yet received confirmation of the charges, the Government of Canada calls for their release," said Lynne Yelich, a junior foreign minister, in a statement on Thursday.

Canadian-government officials have been able to visit the pair, who reported they were in good spirits. "Their morale and health continue to be good, which is encouraging," wrote Mr. Podur on his blog. The two "were also given updates about the international attention their case has received. They were very surprised and moved by all the incredible support that has poured in for them."

Mr. Podur said academics should be concerned about the possibility of arrests and detention in foreign countries that are suddenly in turmoil, given the number of scholars who conduct research and work abroad. "This is definitely an issue for the academic community," he said, "and one academics should think about."