Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Discontent in Egypt's heart

Murders may be grabbing the headlines, but the enmity the public feels for its corrupt leaders is the real talking point in Cairo.

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - June 2009

Khairy Ramadan is living in a constant state of fear. "I'm afraid," explained the popular Egyptian TV presenter in his weekly newspaper column. "When going to work or when coming back. When I wake up or when I'm sleeping. When my kids are late at school or the club. Throughout the day, I'm really afraid."

When an adult man with decently broad shoulders is suffering from such a severe bout of unreconstructed terror, it's always worth inquiring into the cause. In this case the culprit is Egypt's latest crimewave, a gory spate of murders sweeping the country – or at least its newspaper front pages – with grim determination. "The danger is everywhere, and killing has been taking place lately for the most trivial reasons," observed Ramadan. "It's not only in the street, but it can reach you at home ... killing has become a daily routine"

Has it? Well, violence has certainly been in the news a lot in recently; there was the man killed on an Alexandria street in front of shocked passers-by, a father who threw his two children down a well to spite his wife, another who murdered his ex after learning she was about to remarry and, perhaps most disturbingly, a boy who killed his two young cousins to "burn the heart of my uncle" (the latter had just fired him from a job). And all of this in the shadow of the most high-profile murder case in a generation – the trial of mega tycoon and political insider Hisham Talaat Mustafa, who was sentenced to death by hanging last month for ordering the killing of a former love interest, Lebanese pop diva Suzanne Tamim.

All of this has prompted a great deal of soul-searching amongst the Egyptian chattering classes. The state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights has labelled the homicides "barbarous" and "unprecedented", whilst newspaper pundits like Tarek Abbas argue that they are evidence of a fundamental shift in the Egyptian psyche. The murders, insist Abbas, are part of a new and different Egypt, "as if I woke up to find myself not by the Nile I know, but instead breathing different air and dealing with different people, becoming scared of things that didn't use to frighten me."

Yet despite the media frenzy, Egypt in general remains a strikingly safe place. From swindles on the street to fraud in the boardroom there's certainly no shortage of people being conned, corrupted or creatively relieved of their money, and sexual harassment is also a serious issue for women, but violent crime itself is a genuine rarity – which partly explains why it grabs so many headlines when it does rear its ugly head. Cairo is one of the very few cities in the world where I feel comfortable walking alone in pretty much any neighbourhood at any time of night, content in the knowledge that strangers in dark alleys are more likely to corral me into sharing a few cups of sweet tea than they are to pull out a knife.

Now it's possible that, having grown up in east London, my perception of what constitutes "normal" urban crime levels is slightly skewed. However the figures bear me out; according to the latest UN development report, Egypt has the lowest annual murder rate in the world with a distinctly underwhelming 0.4 homicides per 100,000 of the population (that's compared to 2.03 in Britain and 5.8 in the US). El-Dostour reports gravely that no less than 150 murders have been committed in Egypt since the start of this year, yet amongst a nation of over 80 million people that's hardly remarkable. Statistically the same time period will have seen almost two hundred murders carried out in Jordan, Egypt's stable regional neighbour – and Jordan's population is 13 times smaller.

All of which suggests that Khairy Ramadan's perpetual state of alarm is somewhat unjustified, and Egypt's "unprecedented" crimewave – tragic exceptions aside – exists chiefly in the minds of prominent columnists and tabloid editors rather than the real world. What's interesting is why the moral panic is spreading now; this spate of murders may not be out of the ordinary, but the prominence they have received does reveal something else about Egypt, something both Ramadan and Tarek Abbas were close to putting their finger on. It is that Egypt is a country with a fundamental disconnect between the state and its people, a legitimacy gap that affects not just individuals' attitudes towards government itself but also its official organs of authority, right down to street level. And when people no longer trust the state to look after them, they take the law into their own hands.

Flick past the lurid murder coverage in Egypt's newspapers and, buried on the inside pages, you can see why. A government-sponsored investigation into popular attitudes towards officialdom reported its findings last month; 50% of those interviewed had been the personal victims of injustice at the hands of officials, 83% said such corruption was becoming more endemic. Half said they felt desperate in the absence of any official instrument to remedy corruption, and unsurprisingly 40% admitted to resorting to personal connections to secure jobs or basic social rights. "Egyptians have reached a stage where nepotism and bribery are seen as the only reliable defence mechanism in the absence of social justice," commented one academic on the report. Over two-thirds of the 2,000 respondents identified themselves as poor; not a single one of them cited "qualifications" or "recourse to the law" as effective ways to improve their position.

It's no surprise that in a society where money and wasta (influence) prevail over hard work and honesty, families and communities often prefer to deal with disputes on their own terms rather than getting the bureaucratic apparatus of the state involved. And if the middle-ranking police officers and civil servants of this country are more interested in lining their own pockets than treating those who rely on them fairly, it's only because of a corrosive culture of greed and venality instilled from the very top, starting with the president, Hosni Mubarak. His regime has done its utmost to subvert the rule of law in the interest of protecting its wealthy friends (the guilty verdict for Hisham Talaat Mousafa was an interesting exception) while promoting a headlong rush into neoliberalism that has venerated wealth creation for an elite minority over the basic safety and security of its citizens – most of whom, in the survey, listed the gap between rich and poor as a primary cause of frustration.

Some local community activists are now stepping in where the state has failed; one programme, run by a former actor named Tarek Ramadan, seeks to train local conflict mediators who are elected from their neighbourhoods and are endowed with the credibility and respect which are conspicuously absent within the police force and security services. Ramadan's mediators step into that chasm between the state and its people and try and resolve local and family disputes at an early stage, before they get violent. As long as the present government remains in place with its brazen lack of popular legitimacy, demand for Tarek's work will keep on growing. A government minister recently conceded that Egypt's government was hated by its people, "as if we belong to an enemy state". Murders may grab the headlines, but that enmity is the real talking point in Egypt – something Barack Obama may want to consider as he makes his way to Cairo for Thursday's speech.

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