Striking a balance between national interests and personal freedoms has been an ongoing global issue over recent decades, when almost all democratic governments have chosen national interests and security over personal freedoms.
The issue has been tested over the past two decades, particularly after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, and security and national interests have generally won every time, tossing away constitutional rights in many cases.
Most Western countries have reported a significant decrease in freedom of speech and public freedoms in recent years. Things became worse after the Covid-19 pandemic led some Western governments to take strict measures beyond standard health restrictions.
What is more alarming has been the degree of aggression in dealing with some of the protesters against the incessant lockdowns in countries such as Holland. Pandemic-related lockdowns have left millions out of jobs and tens of thousands of businesses ranging from manufacturing to hospitality going bankrupt and out of business. The lockdowns have also not attained the goals they were promised to provide, except in rare and temporary cases.
The case of the Canadian government’s handling of the Freedom Convoy staged by the country’s truck drivers last week is a vivid example of what Western governments known to preach democracy, freedom of speech, and personal liberties have come to. The convoy emerged after the Canadian government imposed a series of new restrictions including vaccine passports and new vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the US-Canada border last month.
Canada reported nearly 3.12 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic on 5 February, a large number considering the Canadian population of 38.2 million people. Nearly 10 per cent of the population has been infected by the virus, with cases reaching over 30,000 a day this week.
The new restrictions impose a period of quarantine for unvaccinated drivers crossing the border and have stirred up anger within the trucker community, which believes that their rights to accept or refuse the vaccination are being abused. The truckers thus decided to organise protests across the country and to take them to the Canadian capital Ottawa. They blocked some roads, which according to official sources caused disruption.
Whether the truckers are correct or not in their position, the true issue here is about the reaction of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with his Liberal Party and associated media. The Canadian truckers are 90 per cent vaccinated according to Trudeau, but that did not spare them his anger when they decided to protest against his measures.
Trudeau attempted to stir up fear in the public by accusing the truckers of “hate, abuse and racism,” and he went on to portray himself as the defender of Canadians against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and a whole list of other phobias unrelated to the issue at hand, which is the strict measures he is imposing.
Moreover, accusations against others of various kinds of phobia are ironic when one remembers that the 50-year-old prime minister has been seen in older photographs attending parties in black face as a sort of a “joke” that is definitely a racist act. This did not just happen on one occasion, but several times. While Trudeau has apologised for this behaviour, the fact that he is ready to accuse others of racism, hate, and abuse is absurd, especially as the protests, while disrupting the flow of traffic, have been peaceful so far.
Trudeau said that sending in the troops to clear the protesters from the nation’s capital is “not on the cards right now,” but the statement itself is an indication that it is possible that he will use force to clear a peaceful gathering by truckers.
Trudeau was moved to a secret location last week as a security measure to protect him from the truck drivers, a sign of the feeling of danger there is in Canada coming from a simple group of truckers who oppose the incessant lockdowns and the new restrictive measures on their movements.
Much to Trudeau’s dismay, the movement has not died down but has been growing in numbers by the day as both the Canadian government and media continue to bash it day and night with all sorts of accusations, claiming that it has been taken over by radicals.
This is not just about vaccinations as Trudeau’s actions pretend, but is more about the dissent represented in the Freedom Convoy movement that is irking Trudeau who likes to preach about the inclusion of all creeds, races, and genders.
Trudeau, who said that “freedom of speech is not without limits” in 2020, has been a scourge against it in his recent activities. When faced with a test of his rule, he has been acting like a dictator from the developing world, throwing out accusations at the opposition and most recently at the Freedom Convoy leaders.
Canada has been one of the countries that has opened its doors to Islamists in recent years, and it has become a hub for a number of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups on its soil, such as the Muslim Association of Canada (MAC), which operates freely and even collects donations. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates remain untouched in the country lest the government gets accused of Islamophobia. It is easier to bash groups of working-class truckers and their families gathering in peaceful protest as is their constitutional right.
In the case of the Freedom Convoy, donations are also forbidden. Online crowdfunding for the movement has been organised that gathered nearly $8 million Canadian dollars through GoFundMe crowdfunding outlets. Under pressure from the Canadian government and politicians, the funds were frozen and the leaders of the movement were prohibited from receiving them as Canada’s liberal lawmakers labelled the truckers as “mercenaries”.
The manner in which Canadian society is shaping up is alarming, and alas it is not very different from the manner in which US society is shaping up either. Following blindly a leader who ironically comes from a supposedly “liberal” party is now the only way to avoid being stigmatised, cancelled, or bashed by the media as racist or some sort or “phobe,” whether Islamophobe, homophobe, or whatever.
Furthermore, Western leftists are now routinely accusing their detractors of racism, especially if they are right-wing or libertarian, or even if they are leftists who oppose a particular idea or concept.
In a manner that befits the former Soviet media apparatus, the left-leaning Canadian and US media have been vehemently defending Trudeau for the past few weeks. There is hardly any coverage of the peaceful truck protests. For many, it feels that reading articles in some Canadian or US newspapers, or watching reports on their TV, does not feel so very different from the way in which the Soviet newspaper Pravda covered the news, always glorifying the Soviet leaders and bashing their enemies.
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed Western governments to exercise powers they never had in yesteryear, and some are now claiming almost absolute power over the fate of their citizens. They are denying them their rights if they complain, all in the name of the public interest and national security. This is the road towards a modern form of dictatorship disguised as democracy.
While the Covid-19 vaccines are believed to have reduced the infection rate, they have not stopped the pandemic by any means. With recent coronavirus variants such as Omicron, global infections reached nearly 400 million worldwide in February. There have also been millions of cases among those who have been vaccinated, and there is a need for healthy debate on the future.
But the case here is not about the importance of the vaccinations or their effectiveness in protecting populations against Covid-19 and its variants. It is a case of a democratically elected leader acting like a dictator and stigmatising his adversaries. Even if Trudeau is well intentioned, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Canada may now be going along that road.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.