Published in Ahram Online on February 16, 2013
On 26 January, a few hours before the sentencing of defendants in the Port Said Stadium case, Alaa Abdel-Fattah — one of the first bloggers in Egypt and courageous human rights activists who paid a high price for the triumph of truth and justice —appeared on a television programme. Abdel-Fatah was arrested in 2006 in demonstrations demanding the independence of the judiciary, and re-arrested by military police in October 2011, after the Maspero massacre.
The other guest on the television programme was Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki, who was on his way to attend a meeting at the National Security Council and therefore was reached by telephone. The confrontation between Abdel-Fattah and Mekki was truly historic; it embodied polar opposite viewpoints on a major problem facing the revolution: how to reform the police apparatus and deal with this problem.
The minister consistently justified the actions of Central Security soldiers a day earlier that killed nine protestors in one location in Suez by gunshot to the chest and face. He suggested we should excuse the soldiers for using live ammunition in the face of unarmed protestors because they did not have enough sleep, and were very emotional because two of their colleagues had been killed. The minister also warned of the dangers of demanding to reform the judicial and police apparatuses from the outside, because that would demolish the state.
Abdel-Fattah interrupted him and told him he needs to be silent to listen to a different view, adding that the minister’s suggestion to excuse the soldiers for their actions the day before was unacceptable because in principle the police should be self-restraining and their forces cannot use live ammunition just because they did not sleep well or because they are irritable. He also asked the official if he actually believes “the Ministry of Interior which kills and beats us has any intention of reforming itself.”
I don’t know why when I was watching this confrontation I recalled a scene from the film Gandhi, when Gandhi’s character (portrayed by Ben Kingsley) sits opposite Baron Irwin, the British viceroy of India (portrayed by Sir John Gielgud), in the first round of direct negotiations between the Indian leader and the British colonialist.
During the discussion, Gandhi made it clear that the British must leave India because it is irrational that a handful of white men can continue ruling millions of Indians if the latter reject their rule. Irwin asked with surprise if Gandhi really believes that the British will simply pack up and leave, Gandhi replied: “Yes, when you realise the foolishness of your position.”
Abdel-Fattah’s reasoning with the minister was similar to Gandhi with Irwin; the Ministry of Interior could not end its conflict with the people by using weapons if the people reject this treatment. It is only a matter of time: sooner or later the Ministry of Interior will realise that the era of its repressive policies is over and it is in its own interest and for the sake of the nation that it adopts new policies.
But the next few days that followed this historic confrontation did not see the Ministry of Interior packing up and leaving, or retreating from the forefront of the political scene. On the contrary, in the following days and weeks clashes between the police and the people escalated and many were killed in Port Said and other cities; citizens were dragged on camera, and news about activists who were kidnapped, tortured and killed continued. The rules of engagement between the police and people were also tweaked when the prime minister met with the commanders and officers of Central Security forces and promised to increase their weapons supplies.
Meanwhile, the minister of justice did not change his position and in time became more adamant, and a key defender of the Ministry of Interior’s obsolete policies. I personally heard him assert at a meeting at his ministry the need to defend the Ministry of Interior, and not listen to demands for reform since these demands only aim to bring down the state, not reform the police.
The meeting was held to discuss the draft Freedom of Information Act, and I along with several specialised colleagues and academics were invited to attend the meeting on 5 February. We all came well prepared to discuss the draft legislation of which we were sent a copy (which, by the way, is an abysmal draft). We were surprised when the minister began addressing the meeting on an entirely different subject.
He reiterated his earlier statements that police reform would destroy the state, that systematic torture does not exist under President Morsi’s rule, and that most of the media is hired and misleading.
Mekki added that his ministry just finished drafting a law to regulate demonstrations, and gave us a brief summary of it, including stating the distance that should separate demonstrators from public buildings, a detail that was studied closely after consulting experts about the range of the Ultra’s fireworks.
After an entire hour of this foreboding address, the minister stood up to leave but one of our female colleagues, Hoda Al-Sadda, a professor of English literature at Cairo University, stopped him and censured him for denying torture exists and mocking it. Hossam Bahgat, the founder and director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reminded the minister that Mekki used to call him on the phone before becoming minister to congratulate Bahgat on his media interviews regarding abuses by the Ministry of Interior.
Bahgat noted that perhaps the minister’s views changed not because the media is behaving differently but because he became minister. He also reminded the minister of several torture cases that Bahgat himself forwarded to Mekki, but the minister did nothing about.
Personally, I just repeated what Abdel-Fattah had told him and said that we refuse to be accused of destroying the state when we demand reforming the Ministry of Interior. Also, that I refuse to talk to the minister of justice of a country where a revolution took place against abuses by the Ministry of Interior if this minister has decided to defend these very acts.
The minister refused to retract his statements and even said that six cases of torture leading to death are considered progress in comparison to the past. I, along with several colleagues, promptly withdrew from the meeting.
If the minister of justice, after hearing all these arguments and being told of the gravity of what the Ministry of Interior is doing, still insists on his position, then we are in serious trouble. Those destroying the state are not the ones demanding the reform of an apparatus that is corrupt to the core, but those who cover up this corruption and provide political cover for torture.