Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Al-Aswany: Egypt Needs Democracy, Not Prestige

The author, novelist Alaa Al-Aswany (at right), shakes hands with Mohamed Morsi (at left) at the presidential palace in Cairo June 27, 2012 shortly after Morsi's election as president of Egypt. (photo by REUTERS)

By:Alaa al-Aswany posted on Friday, Oct 26, 2012
This happened many years ago. I was a recent graduate, working as a resident physician in the oral surgery department at the University of Cairo, training as a surgeon. One day I was performing surgery on one of the patients, when a teacher from the department — well know for his viciousness — passed by. He waited until I had finished the surgery and then said to me: "The way in which you conducted the surgery was wrong."
I entered into a long scientific debate with the teacher, defending my point of view, but he insisted that I what I had done was wrong. During the discussion, a professor from the department appeared, so I asked him to intervene and decide which one of us was correct. I explained my point of view to the professor without specifying whose opinion was whose. I was surprised to see him look towards the teacher and ask him, "What do you think?"
The teacher told him his opinion and then the professor said, "You are right."
I felt defeated and angry. The next day, I took a well-known surgical book and went to the professor's office. As soon as he saw me with the reference book, he said sarcastically, "You're bringing this book to back up your opinion? I know that you are right."
"Yet sir, you told me that my opinion was wrong."
The professor looked and me, and then as if he was saying something very wise, said, "You are still a resident, he is a well known lecturer who is at least 10 years older than you. I can't tell him that he is wrong in front of you. I must maintain his prestige."
I saw no point in speaking with the professor, so I thanked him and left. A few months later I was given the opportunity to travel to the United States to study at the University of Illinois, and was fortunate enough to work with one of the most important histology professors in the world, Dr. Dennis Weber. We were a group of masters and doctoral students doing research and were supervised by Dr. Weber.
After a month, he brought us together and said, "Listen up. I want to hear your ideas. If there is anything annoying you at work or if you think that I have made a mistake please tell me."
The situation was more than I could comprehend, so I delighted in my silence. However, my colleagues intensified their criticism of Dr. Weber, and each one of them demonstrated their criticisms by giving practical examples from our research work. The great scientist remained calm, recording all of their observations. At the end, he responded to each criticism one by one, and explained the work plan to us in detail. He admitted that there were some shortcomings, but vowed to fix them. He then thanked us and ended the meeting. I spent days observing Dr. Weber's relationship with the students who had criticized him harshly, and discovered that his kind treatment of them had not changed.
I remember these two incidents together.
At Cairo University, the professor is always right, even if he makes a mistake, in order to preserve his prestige in front of the young doctors. At the University of Illinois, an important professor asks for negative feedback regarding his work, and then listens, explains, admits to his shortcomings and promises to fix them.
This is the difference between tyranny and democracy. If you searched all of Western media for the term "prestige of the state," you won't find it, because prestige is only for the law. However, in Egypt, the term prestige is very common, and is always used to mask injustice and tyranny. The state's prestige means tyranny in the lives of the citizens, and the police's prestige means suppressing citizens, beating them, torturing them and fabricating charges against them if they object. The judicial system's prestige means you do not dare to criticize a judge, even if he was involved in election fraud or it was proven that he was linked to state security. The president's prestige means that anyone can be tried or imprisoned on charges of insulting the president. The idea of "prestige" spreads like an infection.
After Egypt found itself with a Muslim Brotherhood president, a sense of prestige was transferred to leaders of the Brotherhood so that they began dealing with the people with superiority and arrogance. A few days ago Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood leader, was speaking on TV with one of Egypt's most renowned anchorwomen, Gihan Mansour. When the debate heated up, Erian accused Mansour of bribery and said that she would be arrested for attacking the Brotherhood.
In the democratic world there is nothing called "prestige of the state" or "national symbols." These are tyrannical terms. In a democratic system the only prestige is that of the law. They only symbols of the state are the citizens themselves. Fundamentally, the state was established as a means of protecting citizens’ rights and maintaining their dignity.
In a tyrannical society, the ruler is the symbol of the state because he is like the chieftain of a tribe. He knows our own interests better than we do, and decides on our behalf and commands us. Thus, we obey, and often he is unjust and corrupt, but we do not dare to hold him accountable, because that would be infringing on the prestige of the state and challenging national symbols.
In democratic countries, the ruler is a servant of the people in every sense of the word. The simplest citizen — even a street sweeper — has the right to hold the president accountable and to criticize him without being punished. In fact, in democratic countries the law protects normal citizens from libel and slander, yet does not protect the head of state. If you said to your neighbor, in front of witnesses, "You're a liar and a hypocrite," your neighbor could file charges and receive compensation. However, if you appeared on television and said that the prime minister is a liar and a hypocrite, you will not be punished by the law.
The law allows for anyone to criticize government officials — regardless of how harsh or biting that criticism may be — in order to preserve public interests. In Egypt, it appears that President Morsi enjoys trying and imprisoning Egyptians on charges of insulting the president. There is an Egyptian citizen named Bishoy al-Beheiri who will spend two years in prison because he insulted President Morsi on Facebook. It's as though the president is someone sacred and untouchable.
President Morsi himself grew up within the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose members grow up with a sense of absolute obedience to the supreme guide and kiss his hand. We saw in the video recording how members of the Brotherhood crowded around until the lucky one among them was able to put the shoes on their pure, precious leader's feet. Whoever is raised in this type of atmosphere will be able to endure a culture of tyranny.
After President Morsi succeeded in removing the military council from power, he invited a number of public figures to the presidential palace. I was one of them. I asked the president a specific question:
Why did you honor Field Marshall Tantawi and Lt. Gen. Anan, when revolutionary forces are demanding that they be tried for the massacres committed during their era? Is your honoring them some sort of agreement that ensures their safe exit so as to guarantee that they will not prosecuted?
President Morsi answered enthusiastically: I want to assure you all that, following the revolution, there is no person immune to prosecution, not even Field Marshall Tantawi or Lt. Gen. Anan.
This is what the president said in front of many witnesses and, as usual, he did the opposite of what he said.
Last week, there were many statements made against Tantawi and Anan, accusing them of unlawful gains and inflated wealth — given that they are public employees with a fixed salary. They were also accused of being responsible for the deaths of Egyptians in the massacres that occurred during their reign. These are all serious accusations that require legal prosecution, but the army issued a statement condemning the referral of Tantawi and Anan to trial, considering it to be an infringement upon the prestige of the armed forces and an insult to national symbols.
President Morsi was overcome with fear, and the next day made an announcement:
He would never allow insults directed at the army, either towards its current or its past leaders. The president also stressed that he wanted to reassure the military that its allocation, budget and projects would remain untouched.
The rationale behind the army's statement, which objected to the prosecution of Tantawi and Anan, simply means that Egyptians are not equal before the law.
As long as you are a senior officer in the army, you have the right to do whatever you please, and no one can hold you responsible for your actions, because you are a symbol of the nation.
 Thus, any army commander has the right to order his soldiers to kill protesters, throw their bodies in dumpsters, pulverize them with armored vehicles, violate the honor of women and throw them in the streets.
Moreover, none of us have the right to hold them responsible for these crimes, in order to maintain the prestige of the military. Any army commander has the right to acquire palaces, buy extensive amounts of land and accumulate a vast wealth, yet no one can dare ask him where all of that came from, for he has become a national symbol that cannot be questioned.
In Egypt — a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line — the armed forces set up projects costing billions of dollars that we know nothing about. These large amounts of money are influencing army leaders, but we don't know anything about the exact amounts, their sources or how they are being distributed. It is as if the army has become a state within a state.
Our respect and pride for the armed forces is steady and deep, but protecting those who make mistakes merely because they are in the military is despotic behavior that should not be accepted in a respectable state.
If President Morsi believes that trying Tantawi and Anan undermines the prestige of the army, then why did he agree to the trial of Ahmed Shafiq, who was an air force commander and thus considered to be a national symbol like Tantawi? If this is Morsi's logic then why does he support the trial of Mubarak? Is he too not a national symbol? Is is okay to try Gamal and Alaa Mubarak as well? Are they not considered national symbols (albeit small ones), just like their father?
From now on, let us learn that there are no national symbols. The only symbol of the nation is the citizen. The state does not have prestige; rather, it derives its prestige from the force of law, not from protecting murderers and the corrupt.
The image of President Morsi is now clearer than ever.
Morsi is a man who makes promises but never fulfills them. He says nice things and then commits ugly acts. President Morsi is intent on maintaining the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization outside of the law and above accountability. We know nothing about the Brotherhood's budget, and don't know if they receive funding from within Egypt or from abroad. We do not even know if President Morsi makes decisions by himself, or is he receiving instructions from the Brotherhood's supreme guide, who may well be the de facto ruler of Egypt.
It is now clear to us what is the most dangerous. The president made an agreement with the military council, ensuring the latter's safe exit and guaranteeing that its members would not be prosecuted. Thus, the president ignored the blood of the martyrs and gave amnesty to those who do not deserve it. Once again the Brotherhood had abandoned the revolution, and sold the revolution's principles for the sake of power.
The Egyptian revolution was carried out for the sake of truth and justice. The revolution will not allow anyone to be above the reach of the law, no matter his position in the government. The revolution will continue until it has fully achieved its objectives.
Democracy is the solution.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian
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