What Stephen Harper didn't see in the Middle East

Sectarian violence in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and a Canadian in Egypt

Ariel Schalit/AP

“When somebody is a minority, particularly a small minority in the world, one goes out of one’s way to embrace them.” —Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on why he won’t publicly condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank

A few days before the Jewish National Fund of Toronto paid tribute to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by hosting a lavish gala in his honour last month, Sen. Linda Frum mused about the PM’s sterling reputation in Israel. “I think it’s fair to say that he’s the most popular politician in Israel, bar none, including any of their own. He’s a rock star in Israel,” she said. Those words, rock star, felt overstated. But most reporters in the PM’s entourage can find no better phrasing for his treatment in Israel.

Three days in a row, Harper’s cracked the front page of the Jerusalem Post. This morning’s headline reminds readers that the Canadian leader is “unapologetic” about his “strong support” for the country. Today, he’s sightseeing, visiting the Sea of Galilee and the Hula Valley. That December tribute dinner raised $5.7 million for a visitor centre at the bird sanctuary in that sacred valley—to be named, of course, after Stephen J. Harper. Less than a month later, the man himself presides over his future namesake park.

Last night, Harper did his best literal rock-star impression. Canadians have seen this before. Harper took to a stage and belted out The Beatles‘ Hey Jude. Party time in Israel.

As Harper’s feted and as he tours the sites, however, the world doesn’t sleep. To his north, east, and south, torment continues in the troubled Middle East, just out of earshot.

1. A Canadian is languishing in an Egyptian prison. Mohamed Fahmy, a producer with Al Jazeera who holds both Canadian and Egyptian citizenship, woke up to his 25th day behind bars. Authorities have not laid charges against him or his colleagues, producer Baher Mohamed or reporter Peter Greste, but the trio stands accused of spreading false news and maintaining cozy connections with the Muslim brotherhood. Consular officials are reportedly on the ground.

2. A bomb killed four in a Beirut suburb. Four people died when an explosion rocked Haret Hreik, a Shia-dominated southern suburb that’s known as a Hezbollah stronghold. The Nusra Front, a group of Sunni fighters and a Lebanese branch of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility. The deadly strike was just the latest front in a sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia factions that Maclean’s senior writer Michael Petrou reports is tearing apart the region.

3. Seven bombings rocked Baghdad. The same day Harper addressed Israel’s Knesset, militants blew up parts of Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Meanwhile, the government continues to fight al-Qaeda militants in Fallujah. The United Nations reported that last month, 759 civilians in Iraq died as a result of the sectarian strife. Iraq Body Count, a website that independently tracks civilian deaths, pegged the monthly toll at 983—and 791 so far in January.

4. A report chronicles Assad’s terror. A report released on Tuesday, as Harper toured Israel’s sacred Western Wall, claimed that the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad has “systematically killed and tortured about 11,000 people.” World powers came nearly to the brink of intervention in Syria, but their armies never joined the war. Petrou writes that “there were always costs to our non-intervention … And now, in chilling clarity, we are faced—should we choose to look, and many won’t—with what those costs are.”


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