7 min

The hidden campaign to free Tarek and John

Naomi Klein reveals the power players behind the fight

Filmmaker John Greyson had to go back into the closet while detained in Egypt. He thanked everyone who respected that request. Credit: Andrea Houston
While Canadians mobilized to help secure the release of Tarek Loubani and John Greyson, a behind-the-scenes intervention was in the hands of a high-level diplomatic team long before Prime Minister Stephen Harper got involved, according to author and activist Naomi Klein. 
Klein revealed details of this campaign at the Tarek & John Jail Break Cabaret at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel Nov 9. She joined many of those who participated in the international campaign to free the Canadian humanitarian duo to celebrate and also spill some secrets that didn't make the news.
Greyson and Loubani, who were detained in Cairo for almost two months without charges, were released Oct 6. To many, it appeared that their release came thanks to the intervention and pressure of Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. 
But Klein says that was not entirely the case. She described two campaigns — a public effort and another that worked quietly behind the scenes. 
“Tonight we are celebrating the most extraordinary coalition, and it’s something Tarek and I are just learning about,” Greyson told the crowd. “Since we’ve been back we have been trying to catch up on all the work you all have been doing. To say we’re in awe doesn’t begin to express our feelings.”
Long-time activist Tim McCaskell, who kept the coalition informed with daily email updates, described an intricate network of political leaders, human rights activists, artists and academics who spoke out, made phone calls, wrote letters and pushed the issue to top levels and international power players. The network included New Delhi filmmaker Shohini Ghosh; filmmaker Helen Lee and Instant Coffee’s Jinhan Ko, in Seoul; writers Sarah Schulman and Gregg Bordowith; Andy Bichlbaum, of The Yes Men; and Catherine Lord, to name a few.
In Toronto, an outspoken group of filmmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival pressured politicians to take up the cause, McCaskell says.
He stressed that “no one chess piece secured victory and freedom for Tarek and John.
“Instead, each effort worked in tandem, team members mobilized by the most extraordinary coalition of activists and citizens from around the world, working in concert across partisan lines, epitomizing the possibilities of collective, grassroots social change."
Loubani agrees and says the campaign should now be used as a blueprint for efforts to free political activists unjustly imprisoned around the world.
“That’s actually what made the most difference here,” Loubani says. “Hitting them from all different sides, sides they didn’t know existed. That’s what did it.”
The following is the full text of Klein’s speech, in which she explains the campaign that you didn’t see on #freetarekandjohn or in any media reports. It has been edited slightly for clarity:
I’m so happy and proud to be part of this amazing community and this incredible campaign.
We said in the bleakest moments that this would all end in an incredibly party, and so it has.
Justin Podur, who should really be here tonight, talked about how this was a campaign built on lies. And so it was.
My favourite line during this campaign was one night at Steven and John’s house, minus John, when Justin said, "I just can’t wait till everyone can be as gay and Palestinian as they want to be."
That makes this evening extra special.
I’m going to be talking about some of the work that can’t be shown on a PowerPoint presentation because it was quiet work, behind the scenes. It was not in the media. It was not reported, and I have the wonderful pleasure of being able to spill a few secrets tonight of what I have come to think of as the "people’s diplomacy."
Now at a certain point, some of us became worried that — contrary to what was being reported in the press — it was possible that the Harper government was not doing everything they possibly could have been doing to secure John and Tarek’s release. We’ll never know whether or not that was true, but we were concerned about it. 
And one of the reasons we were concerned was the fact that when Stephen Lewis took it upon himself a couple of weeks in to call Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, he discovered he was the first Canadian that the ambassador had heard from, which meant that Canada’s current ambassador to the United Nations hadn’t called him (which meant no one had asked him to).
So we started to worry, and we started to mobilize our own diplomatic efforts. And all kinds of things happened when people used their contacts to Baird to get to Harper. One of the people who did this quietly — but who made a couple of really important calls to the Prime Minister’s Office and to Baird’s office to ask for more high-level pressure — was Bill Davis, the former premier of this province and one of the last Red Tories.
So this people’s diplomacy was very broad, very wide-ranging. I know a fraction of it, and I will share with you what I know. 
I know someone tried to get to the King of Morocco. I don’t know if that worked. John Cusack assured me he had written to the Queen of Jordan and asked her to take up their case. Stephen Lewis had the idea of reaching out to Robert Fowler, who, some of you may recall, is the former Canadian diplomat who went on to work at the UN and was kidnapped and held by an Al-Qaeda-linked militant group for 130 days. We reached out to Bob Fowler, thinking that he would be a very powerful person to help with this. He was following the case very closely, and he was so happy to help. Coming from him, and using his high-level diplomatic contacts with Arab states, going directly to the Egyptian ambassador, it was very moving. He is someone who knows what it’s like to disappear into a dark hole.
We got some advice from our contacts in Cairo at a certain point that who we really needed to get to was Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy.
Nabil Fahmy is known as the architect of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and we were told that if we could get to Fahmy it would make a really big difference.
So we did some research and discovered that Nabil Fahmy, before he became foreign minister of Egypt, had spent time living in Washington, DC, as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States under Mubarak. In fact, he spent an entire decade there. So it was actually Avi [Lewis] who did some research to find out who had been the Canadian ambassadors in Washington at that point who may have come across him. We found somebody who it turned out had been friends with him. There were three Canadian ambassadors who overlapped with Fahmy during his time in DC. So we got a personal letter from the ambassador raising John and Tarek’s case.
Did it help? As we have been hearing all night, these were just leaves added to the pile. I think the luckiest break we got in this campaign — which came at a very key moment — was when the United Nations General Assembly was happening in New York City and Nabil Fahmy was spending an entire week in New York and was going to be addressing the General Assembly. And we all resolved that it was going to be a bad week for Nabil Fahmy. He was going to hear about John and Tarek from all directions. There were going to be no Broadway shows for him.
A lot of people participated in that, including some wonderful journalists who raised the case. But by this point, we realized the Canadian government either wasn’t trying hard enough or simply didn’t have the power to get the Egyptians’ attention. So in addition to asking John Baird to meet with Fahmy, we also wanted governments who had more power with the Egyptians to raise John and Tarek’s name. 
Our mantra in those days was "We’ve gotta get to John Kerry."
We all sold ourselves to the devil for you, John and Tarek. We did — big time.
John Kerry had a bilateral meeting scheduled with Nabil Fahmy, and the person who really was our hero at this point was Eve Ensler, the playwright, the author of The Vagina Monologues. She met John [Greyson] once and loved him. She has a pretty powerful Rolodex. And she got to John Kerry.
I can reveal to you now, which we weren’t allowed to say at the time, that John Kerry raised John and Tarek’s names in the meeting with Nabil Fahmy at the UN GA.
We also decided we had to get to William Hague, the foreign secretary of the UK, and a lot of people used their contacts to do this. Sarah Polley got Julie Christie and Emma Thompson to write letters to Hague.
Johann Hari, a fantastic journalist in the UK who was moved by John and Tarek’s plight, managed to get Elton John, who it’s possible didn’t put together that it was [Greyson] who made that video about Israel. So Elton John wrote to William Hague. Stephen Fry wrote to Hague.
So this was the people’s diplomacy. This was not the Harper government doing this. This was our community doing this.
Sarah Schulman, while reading the newspaper, noticed the European Union had sent a delegation to Cairo to try to broker a peace deal between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, and it was headed up by a woman named Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief. 
Then our mantra became "We have to get to Catherine Ashton." And we did. We got to her in five different ways. 
So the Egyptians heard about John and Tarek not just from the Canadian government; they heard about them from the Americans, the Brits, the European Union. The undercurrent of all this was that our next move would be a boycott, a tourism boycott, and they were quite worried about that. So this is really about movement power and what people can do from below. 
What lessons do we take from this? It’s complicated, because on one level it’s a story about privilege and connections, who your friends are and whom you can mobilize. It’s also a story about the power that groups of people can have on their own and the doggedness that we saw. For me, it really renewed my respect for groups like Amnesty International and those fighting for prisoners’ rights around the world. This is thankless work. We got a tiny taste of that, but it’s a global movement, fighting for people behind bars.
The nightmare of it all is discovering the fragility between freedom and its absence and how quickly it can disappear. That was terrifying. In the face of the terror you really have two choices: you can live your life in fear and choose not to answer the call because it’s too dangerous, or you can do something very different, which is resolve to expand the space of freedom around the world.
The reason why so many of us were so proud to work for John and Tarek’s freedom is because that’s the way they live their lives. That’s what they were doing there.