Friday, December 30, 2005

Total Impunity

More harrowing proof, if such be needed, of an out of control police force manned by hapless recruits and vicious officers and their mercenary higher ups. In the wee hours of Friday, Hosni Mubarak’s ever-expanding police apparatus targeted Sudanese refugees holding a months-long sit-in to protest the UNHCR’s refusal to hear their cases for resettlement after the peace deal in Sudan. al-Jazeera broadcast horrifying footage of water cannons sprayed onto refugees in the frigid night air, riot police warming up as if for a decisive battle, and ruthless walkie-talkie-wielding officers beating, kicking, and slapping unarmed refugees (including women) as they dragged them to buses waiting to transport them to camps outside the city. The death toll so far: 20, including several children.

The Interior Ministry claims that refugees were drunk and hurled liquor bottles, injuring 75 officers and riot policemen. The Interior Ministry also claims that police used “restraint.” Egyptian television dutifully repeated the claims, showing footage of the injured officers in hospital, flanked by sympathetic family members. Of course, no images of injured or abused refugees were aired. The Muslim Brothers are vowing to raise the matter of police brutality in parliament. They would do well to follow through. Merely a few weeks ago, the very same police forces shot voters to prevent them from approaching polling stations. The very same, hateful “State Security” officers beat up judges, just as they pummelled unarmed refugee men and women.

Egyptian police brutality is now legendary. With alarming frequency every year, Egyptian police officers maim, kill, and otherwise abuse completely innocent citizens. The police has become a gargantuan, horrendous monster, sicced on whoever curries the displeasure of the powers that be. Controlling, disciplining, and entirely reforming this extremely abusive, corruption-laden, and entirely unaccountable apparatus is quite literally a matter of national security.

*AP Photo.

Monday, December 26, 2005

"New Thought" in Practice

Saturday’s sentencing of Ayman Nour to five years in prison inevitably calls to mind the eerily similar tribulations of sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim three years ago (Ibrahim received seven years). Both were sentenced by the same, ill-reputed judge (Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa), both were officially charged with forgery (though the legal case against Nour is even more flimsy than Ibrahim’s), and both had varying degrees of complex ties to the American administration. Both were viscerally hated by the Mubaraks (for very different reasons), and both proved very adept at capitalising on their international ties. Of course, both were not above working with the regime that later hounded and harassed them.

But here’s the key difference. Whereas Ibrahim could count his domestic supporters on the fingers of one and maybe two hands, Nour has quickly amassed a sizeable following of sympathisers and supporters. Whereas Ibrahim’s trial sessions featured a who’s who of the Cairo diplomatic set, Nour’s trial had more Egyptians than foreigners, with his young partisans filling the courtroom with fiery anti-regime slogans. Whereas Ibrahim’s sentencing was met with domestic indifference and even schadenfreude in some quarters, supporters and sympathisers of Nour immediately took to the streets to condemn his phony trial and conviction.

Not because Nour is some genuinely popular national hero, but because the presidential will to extinguish him was crystal-clear from the outset. Just as voting for the Ikhwan for many people was a satisfying slap in the face to the ruling regime, so supporting Nour for many people is a token of resistance to Mubarak senior’s abuse of power and Mubarak junior’s lust for power. No doubt there are some true believers in Ayman Nour, but there are many others pulled by the enduring allure of the protest vote, made more alluring by the fact of a stalwart regime refusing to share or otherwise redistribute its power in any way. For me and I think many others, the regime’s noises about “new thought” and all that cheap blah blah are nothing more than revolting spittle, designed to grease the wheels of the creaky, shameless, bankrupt
Gamal Mubarak project.

The contrast between Ibrahim and Nour’s domestic receptions is the story of seismic shifts in Egyptian politics in the short space of just three years. Since 2002, the relationship between Egypt’s hukuma and ahali experienced an incremental loss of control by the former and new manifestations of boldness by the latter. Mubarak’s regime no longer commands the material or symbolic resources it wielded comfortably just three years ago. It is unable to innovate even its arsenal of repressive tactics. It is unable to anticipate the responses of its relevant domestic and international interlocutors and strategise accordingly. It is unable to maintain even a face-saving modicum of coherence. It’s muddling through, at best, unsure whether to crack down decisively or open up carefully. Both courses entail momentous consequences and big risks, and there’s no one in the regime who’s thinking strategically, deliberating, or planning rationally. Tsk tsk.

Mubarak’s regime never ran like a well-oiled machine, but it also never evinced the fissures and intramural wars of position currently the talk of the town. For the latest, read the
eruption of the phony liberal and incorrigible prevaricator Hala Mustafa. Apparently, Ms. Mustafa has recently and miraculously discovered that Egypt’s security services are ubiquitous, nefariously thwarting the potential of true liberals like herself. But I don’t wish to despoil this space with further discussion of the poser and small time opportunist Mustafa. Anyone who knows her background, qualifications, career path, future ambitions, and current affiliation with Gamal bey’s club (aka the “Policies Secretariat”) will decipher her true motivations.

As the curtain falls on Egypt’s eventful year, and as we debate the meaning of it all and the possible trajectories from here, I’d like to conclude with an insight passed on to me by my roster of beloved teachers and mentors over the years. When approaching social analysis, assume sparingly, observe carefully, listen intently, think clearly, write lucidly, be on the lookout for the unexpected and improbable, don’t twist the facts to suit your preferences, and always, always, ask: what would prove me wrong? It’s thrilling to be right, but you learn more when you turn out to be wrong.

Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid, and any additional celebrations I’ve missed. Here’s to hoping for a new year that brings in more justice, truth, and self-determination.

*Photos from AFP.

Monday, December 19, 2005


And so it has come to pass. The ultimate election of the year has brought in dramatic results. On Friday, judges returned the “iron slate” of incumbent Zakariyya Abdel Aziz, so-called because of its tough stance on the imperative of judicial independence (I love it). Out of 4,652 valid votes, Aziz garnered 3,680, while the pro-regime Adel al-Shorbagi came away with a non-negligible 930. Unknown last-minute entrant Ihab Abdel Muttalib secured some 89 votes.

I was blessedly wrong to think that the body of judicial electors is having second thoughts about Aziz’s activism. Instead, the results show an intensely mobilised and unwavering judicial general will, ready for a new chapter of hard bargaining with the regime. Physical attacks on judges during the parliamentary elections are still fresh in everyone's mind. But let’s not brush aside the significant minority of challengers led by Shorbagi. They’re crafty and retain close ties to the powers that be. And they’ll live to fight another day. Still, I can’t resist offering my condolences to the regime’s dejected fixers. Your job just got much harder, gentlemen. Pity.

Even more remarkable than judges’ unambiguous mandate to Aziz et al is how closely watched and then heartily celebrated these elections have been. “Mabrouk!” is the cry on everyone’s lips (many thanks for all the e-mails, I’m ecstatic too). It’s as if a significant sector of the public tethered its hopes for freedom and justice to this odd electoral exercise among this most unexpected group of electors. This no doubt is one of the most intriguing and perhaps enduring outcomes of the Judges’ Club vote. As is obvious, the pro-independence faction won more than the confidence of its peers. It has also secured the lasting interest and admiration of members of the general public, for whom the once obscure names Abdel Aziz, Hisham Geneina, Ahmad Saber, and Mahmoud Mekky now evoke honour, courage, and intrepid perseverance.

Judges in this country have long been held in high esteem, but always at a certain remove. Charisma was anathema, unseemly, and downright frowned upon. Now, judges are at the centre of public politics, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that a handful have attained the stature of beloved public personalities, purveyors of a certain mystique. That continues to trouble many, and the concerns are legitimate. What does it mean that judges take on the public leadership roles usually assumed by politicians and charlatans? Why did none of the ‘clean’ contenders for parliament capture the public’s imagination in the same way that judges have? How will the regime respond to this latest of a string of setbacks thrown its way? How will Abdel Aziz and partisans maintain the momentum for a new judiciary law while fending off infiltration, demoralisation, or implosion from within? Judges thrive on wielding specialised legal knowledge, fairness, and guardianship of what’s left of the public interest. How the rough and tumble of politics will affect their prized social capital, painstakingly built over decades of dogged professional service and collective action, will be one key development to watch.

But let me not complicate the festivities with too many nagging questions. It’s time to celebrate. I’ll even drink sharbat!

Friday, December 16, 2005

And Then There Was One

It’s neatly fitting that the final elections capping this remarkable Egyptian electoral year will be by and for the judiciary. In a few hours, the Egyptian Judges Club will witness its most critical elections since the March 1969 poll. At stake is not simply a new Club chairman and governing board, but at least two foundational issues: the very tenor of executive-judicial relations for the next several years, and the matter of which institution will be the legitimate representative of judges, the Club or the Supreme Judicial Council. For the past several days, the Club has been awash in the electoral paraphernalia and leaflets of opposing camps, some of suspiciously high quality (glossy booklets and all). And judges are arguably more mobilised than they have ever been, even more than during the critical 1969 elections. Rather than a pro- and anti-regime bloc, however, the judicial electorate is split along much more intricate lines. The nodal concern is how to manage the now thoroughly public and even internationalised spat with executive authorities, still extremely raw after the bloody parliamentary elections. In short, a real battle, with a completely unknowable outcome of enormously high consequence. Does it get any better than this? Let the voting begin.

It’s rather foolish to say much at this point, no doubt. But I can’t resist some broad strokes. Let’s begin with the three contending blocs. It’s difficult to imagine that judges would have mobilised so spectacularly this year without the incumbent leadership team headed by Zakariyya Abdel Aziz and fellow travellers (Dirbala, Geneina, Saber, Mekky et al). The trajectory of Abdel Aziz is a story unto itself, worthy of a more careful narrative at another time. For now, be it noted that irate strongmen within the regime are especially keen on sweeping out Abdel Aziz and party and installing their own pliable supporters.

Enter Cassation Court judge Adel al-Shorbagi and posse, the regime’s new team after the jettisoning of trusty but crusty stalwart Moqbel Shaker and his goons. Old-timers will recall that Shaker started his reliable pro-regime service as a promising young buck brought in by Justice Minister Mohamed Abou Nosseir in the 1969 manoeuvre that ousted Mumtaz Nassar and Yahya al-Refai’s intrepid board. The traces of history are all over this election, another story for another time. But the last days of 2005 are fundamentally different than 1969, when even at its weakest, Nasser’s regime was more coherent, more competent, and certainly savvier than the bumbling behemoth we’re contending with today. Mish keda walla eh?!

To make matters even knottier, Abdel Aziz’s consistently high-profile activism this year has begun to alienate non-negligible segments among men of the bench. Abdel Aziz was exceptionally energetic after the second stage of voting. He was behind the controversial plea calling on the armed forces to help protect judges and voters (as per Law 73/1956). He met with Port Said judges to reassure them that they won’t be attacked in the run-offs. After Noha al-Zeiny’s
revelations, he invited other judges supervising the poll in Damanhour to offer their own testimonials, collating them in a detailed letter sent to the Minister of Justice and certified by esteemed Alexandrian magistrate Mahmoud al-Khodeiry. In short, he was acting like the president of the judges, actively negotiating with Justice Minister Mahmoud Abu al-Layl and shuttling from city to city, listening to and aggregating the concerns of colleagues. As we know, Mubarak’s regime loathes independent leadership of any sort, especially the dangerous kind of stewardship that has an effective constituent base. The task is thus clear: Abdel Aziz must go (back to Tanta would be best).

Cautious judges not necessarily on the regime’s side wonder if Abdel Aziz’s modus operandi is the best strategy to obtain their cardinal goal: a new law for the judiciary. They’re worried that brinksmanship and bold escalation not only render a new law more unlikely, but expose their profession to dangerous appropriation and even further infiltration by hostile outsiders. It’s a legitimate concern, increasingly shared by many upstanding judges. The latest reports tell of eleventh hour defections from Aziz’s coalition over precisely these issues (by Hisham Abu Alam and Farouq Darwish, specifically).

To thicken the already intricate plot, a third faction has emerged headed by relative unknown Ihab Abdel Muttalib, a Cassation Court judge. His platform is unity of the ranks and rapprochement with the Supreme Judicial Council, but without giving up on the demand for a new judicial law. The claim is appealing, but questions remain as to the real origins of this new faction. Is it a covert regime attempt to split the votes for Aziz, or a genuine coalescence of an alternative, ostensibly more productive third way?

Who wins will determine how judges will face off with a regime still intent on denying them autonomy, how the Judges Club of Egypt will continue to stake its claim to be the only truly independent representative of the judicial general will, as against nefarious government usurpers such as the Supreme Judicial Council, and indeed how other corporate sectors in Egyptian society will organise their own future collective efforts for self-governance and independence from the dictatorial grip of the executive. I know I’m not the only one watching with baited breath. Annus mirabilis.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Asmany feared, the last day of voting today saw security forces intensifying their use of violence against voters to thwart any further gains by opposition candidates, especially the Muslim Brothers. Security forces did not confine themselves to blockading roads and closing off polling stations, but fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of voters. In Mansoura, Kafr al-Shaykh, and Zaqaziq, voters suffered tear gas inhalation and assorted injuries. al-Jazeera
reports at least seven fatalities and 600 injuries. However, al-Jazeera also reports relatively unobstructed voting in Baltim and Hamoul, and the opposition al-Karama's Hamdeen Sabahy is quoted as saying that unlike last thursday, police today have refrained from terrorising voters in his district.

This elderly woman in the town of Kafr al-Shaykh was overtaken by tear gas before samaritans came to her aid.

Women voters barred from entry congregate outside a polling station in the town of Kafr al-Shaykh, and a wounded supporter of the Muslim Brothers in Mansoura (above).

In Mansoura (left), Central Security Forces fire at supporters of the Muslim Brothers, while the latter take shelter behind makeshift shields and throw stones at police.

This voter in Zaqaziq tries to reason with troops blocking access to a polling station (above).

What can possibly be said when ordinary people attempting to peacefully exercise their right are met with state-sponsored, lethal violence?

*Thanks to the talented photographers of Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France Presse.