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Egypt on the Brink

By-Alaa Al Aswany | 1 August 2010

 In Praise of Justice
ustice is a set of human values on which there is consensus, and which is reflected in a body of law that treats all people as equals. This concept no longer exists in Egypt. There is not a single rule in Egypt which really applies to all, from traffic offenses to bank loans to the sale of state land and property and public-sector companies. Who you are, who your father is, how wealthy you are and how close you are to the regime in power — all these are decisive factors in determining which rules you will be judged by. Everything in Egypt now depends on the circumstances and every case has its own special rules.

Millions of poor people pay taxes on their meager salaries while the sons of powerful people amass great fortunes and no one dares even to ask them where this wealth came from. If the government's auditing agencies catch a junior civil servant engaged in corruption, they quickly bring him to trial but if the offender is a minister they merely submit a report on his corruption to the president, who then does what he likes. If he wants, he holds him accountable, or if he wants, he files the report away in a drawer. If a police officer mistreats the son of someone important, he is disciplined, but when poor people are tortured to death in police stations the regime pays little attention and considers the incidents as “irregularities.” When a Western tourist receives a scratch, all the apparatus of the state mobilizes to arrest the criminal who scratched him. But when policemen torture an innocent young man such as Khaled Said in Alexandria until his head is smashed and he dies, the government closes ranks to protect the killers and smear the reputation of the victim.

In Egypt in the 1960s, hundreds of secondary school and university students used to do their homework in the street under street lamps, because they were too poor to afford lights at home. But they worked hard, because they were confident that they would achieve success in a matter of time, and would advance on their merits. That system of equal opportunities in education and promotion has ended completely. The children of the rich obtain foreign qualifications, which give them opportunities to go to the best universities; the same people will get the best jobs through their connections. The only option for millions of poor students is a secondary school certificate, and the state deliberately makes the exams so difficult that it is impossible for the poor to go to university. Wherever you look in Egypt, you'll find blatant injustice, favoritism, preferential treatment, and special exceptions.

Exceptions have become the rule. In faculties of medicine, many of the professors are so accustomed to discriminating in favor of their children that they now consider they have a fundamental right to have them appointed as lecturers, regardless of their academic level. When a dispute broke out over the rules for appointing law school graduates in the public prosecutor's office, one official said: “A law school graduate with a 'fair' grade who comes from a judicial background is just as qualified as those who are graded 'excellent' but do not come from such a background.” This bizarre statement, unique in the history of the judiciary, clearly indicates that the children of judges have preferential treatment in hiring, even if they have lower grades than other candidates. The man who made this statement did not think about the fact that this extraordinary logic completely undermines the principle of equal opportunities, institutionalizes injustice among those whose job it is to bring about justice and, more dangerously, undermines the incentive to work hard. Why would a law student bother to study if he knows that a colleague from a judicial background will have priority in getting a job?

The current battle between lawyers and judges in Egypt is significant. It began with an argument between a lawyer and the chief prosecutor in the Nile Delta city of Tanta. The chief prosecutor responded by calling security and joining them in beating up the lawyer. The lawyers gathered in protest at the attack on their colleague and the lawyer then assaulted the chief prosecutor. The amazing thing is that all the measures taken subsequently overlooked how the incident began — with the prosecutor and his security men attacking the lawyer. The lawyer and one of his colleagues were sent to trial, with the prosecutor's office acting as both plaintiff and judge. The court acted with the kind of speed not usually available to plaintiffs in Egypt, and within days the lawyers were sentenced to five years' imprisonment.  Those who defend the trial say it was necessary to preserve the prestige of the judiciary, but in fact the prestige of the judiciary can be preserved only by justice.

When the minister of justice, who is appointed by the president, controls the salaries and other benefits of judges, does that not diminish the independence and prestige of the judiciary? When thousands of judges launched a noble campaign for judicial independence, a police officer beat a judge named Mahmoud Hamza and dragged him along the ground in front of the Judges Club in full view of everyone. Where was the prestige of the judiciary then? When honest judges refused to turn a blind eye to the rigging of the elections which they supervised, many of them were assaulted by police officers. Where were those who are now angry for the prestige of the judiciary? Why is there no quick trial for the police officers who attacked the judges, as there was for the lawyers? These are just examples of how the rules in Egypt are flexible, enforced either strictly or loosely depending on the case and the circumstances.

The absence of justice is the main reason why everything has deteriorated in Egypt. Egyptians are not a pampered people used to luxury: on the contrary throughout their long history they have always shown a remarkable ability to withstand difficulties and crises. Whenever Egypt has been defeated, it has made sure that victory follows defeat. When the 1973 war broke out I was at secondary school and I went with my colleagues to collect donations for the war effort. As long as I live I shall never forget how people rushed to give us money or how many women took off their gold jewelry and gave it to us voluntarily. Egypt's problem is not poverty or shortage of resources or overpopulation. Its problem can be summarized in three words: lack of justice. The injustice has simply become more than we can bear.  Egyptians will not regain their sense of belonging or their capacity to work until they recover their sense of justice, and justice cannot come about in the shadow of despotism.     

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