Canada's cautious position on Egypt linked to support for Israel ,Demonstrations in Egypt

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OTTAWA - On the surface, the Conservative government's statements on the crisis in Egypt might seem a carbon copy of those churned out by the White House.

But there has been one major difference — and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's staunch support for Israel and strong backing within Canada's Jewish community could offer clues about why.

President Barack Obama's administration, along with major European countries, have called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step aside now and allow for a transition of power.

But the Canadian government has markedly refrained from asking for Mubarak's ouster. Instead, it has spoken in broad terms about the need to respect human rights and a peaceful transition to democracy.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon on Thursday condemned the detention of Canadian journalists in Cairo, but did not wade into the question of Mubarak's presidency.

He noted instead that the country's vice-president is promising a smooth transition of power.

"There were steps, I understand, that were undertaken this morning by the vice-president," he said outside the House of Commons.

"I think these steps form part of this orderly transition effort toward reforms, and ultimately an election."

During an emergency House of Commons debate late Wednesday night, Conservative MPs repeatedly noted their concerns about Israeli security and the need to uphold the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord.

"In order for us, here in Canada, to recognize and support the future Egyptian government, it must meet four basic conditions: first, it must respect freedom, democracy and human rights, particularly the rights of women; second, it must recognize the State of Israel; third, it must adhere to existing peace treaties; and fourth, it must respect international law," Cannon said.

The same day as the debate, the Canada-Israel Committee sent an information sheet to MPs with an analysis of how the Egyptian crisis might affect stability in the region. Government relations adviser Richard Marceau said the committee's office had been busy with calls from MPs wanting more information prior to the debate.

Last week, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli ambassadors had been told to urge countries such as Canada to ease off criticism of Mubarak, and make clear that they were committed to stability in Egypt.

Marceau says there are several threats against Israeli security in the region, including potential Iranian nuclear capability, the increasing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and now the possible rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The committee is critical of the participation of the Brotherhood in a future coalition government.

He said the committee saw a consensus in the Commons around the need to stress regional stability.

"All the stakeholders during the transition period in Egypt must state very clearly their commitment to maintain the Israel-Egypt peace accord, as well as Canada should be clear as to the importance for Canada for the treatment of minorities including Coptic Christians as well a reduction in anti-Semitic orientation within the Egyptian media and political class," said Marceau.

In the past, the Conservatives have used their strong pro-Israel stance and their support for the fight against anti-Semitism to leverage electoral and financial support within Canada's Jewish community.

Joseph Ben-Ami, president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Studies and a former adviser to Harper, says that while the government might be sensitive to the views of the Jewish community, he doesn't see it having a huge impact on the government's foreign policy.

In the case of Egypt, he notes that Canada would exert little influence to begin with on the crisis.

"The Conservative party ideologically is committed to the ideas and principles of promoting freedom and democracy, and they see Israel as being the island of liberal democracy in the Middle East, and that's really where the support for Israel comes so strongly," said Ben-Ami.