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Ottawa moves to evacuate Canadians in Egypt

Ottawa scrambled Sunday to send aircraft to Egypt to evacuate Canadians trapped by mounting unrest, echoing a similar move by the United States.

"The government is recommending that Canadians leave Egypt," Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon announced at a hastily convened press conference Sunday evening. "… The situation is deteriorating, the situation is not under control."

Foreign Affairs estimates that there are about 6,500 Canadians in Egypt right now. The government, using Air Canada to charter at least one flight a day, will fly evacuees from Cairo to European airports. Before boarding, passengers must sign a contract promising to repay their portion of the cost of the flight, and they will also be expected to make their own way home from Europe.

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The operation will continue until everyone who wants to leave has left. Mr. Cannon said the government does not know how many Canadians in Egypt will take advantage of the offer.

One Western diplomat who asked not to be identified cautioned against such a move, saying there is no sign Westerners are at risk. The official warned that evacuating Canadians at this time would be an insult to the Egyptian government, suggesting that Canada believes President Hosni Mubarak isn't in sufficient control to protect foreigners.

However, there were complaints both from Canadians in Egypt and their friends and family at home that the government wasn't providing information or assistance to people who felt trapped amid reports and scenes of violence.

Mr. Cannon said those who wish to take advantage of the evacuation flights should contact the Canadian embassy in Cairo or the Foreign Affairs Emergency Operations Centre in Ottawa.

The evacuation wasn't the first and won't be the last time that Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to the protests by mimicking the U.S. administration of Barack Obama. While Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama have not talked to each other about the unrest in Arab nations, a government official said, there have been consultations by members of their respective staffs.

Along with their American and European allies, Canadian governments have traditionally tolerated Arab governments that are mostly autocratic and, to varying degrees, corrupt but that are nonetheless dependable allies who leave Israel in peace and who aid the West in combating Islamist terrorism.

The demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali earlier this month surprised Western leaders; the protests that have racked Egypt over the past week, imperiling Mr. Mubarak's government, have confounded them.

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While there is broad popular support across Canada for the aspirations of the mainly young protesters demanding Mr. Mubarak's ouster, Mr. Harper is also aware that Egypt was the first Arab nation to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

A stable, democratic Egypt could catalyze reform across the region. An Egypt in thrall to fundamentalists would be a catastrophe.

And so Mr. Harper, like Mr. Obama, has hedged his bets, urging the Egyptian government to listen to the demonstrators' demands while not calling on Mr. Mubarak to step down.

One unknown in these early days is what impact the protests might have on domestic Canadian politics. The Arab-Canadian community is dispersed throughout the country and has not coalesced into a powerful voting bloc, unlike some other ethnic minorities in Canada.

But all political parties will be watching the events unfold with an eye to how it could translate into votes at home. Political leaders will be calculating how they might appeal to Arab Canadians who demand strong support for reform elements in their former homelands, without alienating Jewish Canadians, who are well organized and powerful in certain key ridings.

With a spring election a growing possibility, unrest on the Arab street could affect domestic politics as well.

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With a file from Patrick Martin in Cairo

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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