Friday, January 28, 2011

'This is not Iran or Algeria you know...'


"I would like to include here an incident that I believe is an indication of both the increasing lack of empathy on the part of the Egyptian regime over the past few years and the extent of its alienation from the people. This case does not imply that the Egyptian regime is at risk of imminent instability or collapse.

"During the 2000 legislative elections, a small community in rural Egypt brought to my attention some of the problems they had encountered with the security forces. They had been denied entry to vote, which resulted in the death of a few locals as well as injury to many more. A well-publicized affair, the case was covered in the international media as well as national opposition party newspapers.

"The community was angered by the lack of governmental response - whether in the form of an apology or compensation for the families of the victims. Following the scandalous publicity of the event, state security had sealed off the area to prevent further communication between locals and outsiders. After these tragedies of election day, I was compelled to sneak into the community disguised as a local, with the help of some genuine residents who took the risk out of a desperate need to communicate with the outside world. As a stream of locals sneaked in and out of the back entrance of a local notable's house, which acted as my base, state security personnel were sitting in the reception room drinking tea and observing the main entrance, oblivious to the action. During interviews and discussions, members of the community asked me to pass on their grievances, if possible, to any senior government official that might listen. They assumed that the lack of governmental response might be due to information being blocked prior to reaching a higher level.

"Later, I contacted a senior and highly respected public figure in government. I explained the sequence of events and highlighted the ill feelings that had developed within the community toward the government. The senior government official was very understanding and appeared to grasp how important it was to compensate the families of the victims in order to regain the community's confidence and trust. The senior government official also promised that he would contact the minister of interior and look into the situation personally. I subsequently left feeling satisfied that the problems of the community would be addressed.

"The next morning at work, I was contacted on a personal mobile phone by a senior state security officer, who introduced himself and informed me that a meeting was in order. A few hours later, I arrived at the officer's state security office, which was based at the Ministry of Interior's headquarters in Cairo. The officer was sitting behind his desk drinking tea and watching an interview being conducted on the Al-Jazeera satellite news channel with a senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. As I entered the office, he picked up the phone and asked the person on the other end to ensure that the Brotherhood interview was being videotaped. Then, after pleasantries, the officer began asking me about the election events surrounding the community in question. I relayed the same information I had narrated the previous day to the senior government official. The officer listened carefully and then proceeded to question the reasons behind my interest and concern about this particular issue. When the officer discovered that it was an impersonal matter based on humanitarian concern that had led me to seek assistance for the distraught community, and that I was not linked to the village through family or friendship ties, he was very puzzled. The officer then proceeded to justify the events to me by placing the blame on the community. He claimed that the people had not listened to the security forces and that this was what had caused the injuries and deaths. He then went on to compare the role of the state to the role of parents, and the role of citizens to the role of children. In his words, 'If the parents tell the children not to go out onto the streets and the children disobey and get run over by a car, is that the parents' fault? No it is not. The same with [that local community], they misbehaved and did not follow instructions so they paid the price, is that the government's fault? No it is not, it is their own fault for being careless'.

"After about an hour of discussions with little progress, I conceded that it was time to leave. Just before leaving, I repeated the point that my decision to bring this matter to the attention of the authorities was intended to inform them of the fragile situation so that they could hopefully do something constructive to defuse the tension and potential instability in the community. The officer smiled, thanked me for my concern, and stated that he would try to help, even though still maintaining that the locals were the ones at fault. As I was opening the door to leave, the officer looked over and said, 'This is not Iran or Algeria you know. Everything is under control... We will never make the same mistakes as them. There will never be instability or uprisings... It will never happen here'." (Egyptian Politics: The Dynamics of Authoritarian Rule, Maye Kassem, 2004, pp 190-192)

The harder they come...

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