Mayday Mayday

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 3 2011

By Philip Whitfield

Although May Day began as a commemoration of stonemasons in Australia, the idea spread after the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago. Police opened fire on a peaceful workers’ demonstration, killing at least 12, including one of their own policemen.

Nerves jangle with high spirits this May Day as Rania Al-Malky, the Chief Editor of the Daily News Egypt pointed out in her germane commentary over the weekend. She says romantic notions shouldn’t supplant natural justice. The military are flouting the long-held rights of civilians to require justice be meted out in people’s courts, not in the military’s secretive barracks where justice snoozes through the proceedings.

As Rania says, if the military is policing the streets in these extraordinary times, then they have every right to arrest anyone engaging in criminal activity. But that’s where their jurisdiction ends. After all Mubarak, his sons and their henchmen are enjoying full-fledged civil trials, as should everyone else.

Armies are blunt weapons of war and peace. Egypt’s is doing quite well. But it becomes increasingly clear they sharpen their cutlery if their role as ultimate protectors of society threatens what they regard as their exclusive precinct.

Elsewhere, particularly in South America, the juntas seize power whenever they see the politicians messing up their demesnes. It happens every few years in Pakistan. It’s happening now in Myanmar, the place we used to call Burma. Protecting the people there meant the military incarcerating Aung San Suu Kyi for 15 years after she won 59 percent of the national votes and 81 percent (392 of 485) of the seats in parliament. Coups in Muslim countries are not exempt. Egypt’s closest Colonel, Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, seized power 42 years ago and is still hanging on by a thread. Mauritania and Bangladesh periodically suffer under their own jackboots. You’d be on tour own if you believed democracy is flourishing in Afghanistan. One way or another Hamid Karzai clings on with tens of thousands of troops from everywhere holding him up. Iraq and Syria? Don’t go there.

That begs the question: will Egypt’s military step out of the limelight if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the 50 percent of the seats they’ve announced they’ll contest? Surely that means they earn the right to appoint the prime minister and his government and, effectively, sideline whoever wins the presidency to an ineffective ceremonial?

If the Brothers do win a democratic election, will they get Hamassed – by which I mean the US and Europe cuts off financial aid to Egypt as they did to Gaza? After all, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy are at the back of the pack in an uphill race for their presidencies’ renewal. Their right-wingers will try to block the Brothers cashing in what could be used pay off their debts to the fellow travelers that underwrote their existence in political exile.

Faced with imminent national bankruptcy, won’t the army step in again, to restore the status quo? They have and will in other countries. Coups d’état are common in Africa, (home of Egypt’s denizens). Between 1952 and 2000, 33 countries experienced 85 depositions. West Africa (where Egypt endenizens) had 42.

There’s something else to watch out for. When rulers don’t want to be seen taking unpopular decisions, they duck them by appointing tribunals of worthies to do the dirty work. That way they can either accept their findings, reject them or put them on the back burner.

Which is why the new era’s leaders need to a bulldozer and a wrecking ball to smash the edifice of power to smithereens. They could follow the South African example and establish Truth or Truth and  Reconciliation Commissions (TRC). By means of their reports, they directly or indirectly contribute to reparations of victims; the financial, medical, social and other consequences of human rights abuses to be born by those responsible.

If you expect the perps in Egypt to pony up voluntarily wait for Hell to freeze over. No one in Egypt has ever been recorded dipping into their back pocket to offer a refund. (I tried to get a watchmaker to replace one he’d sold me in Qasr alNil and which stopped every two months requiring replacement batteries. I don’t make the batteries, he said, refusing to accept any liability for the defective watch mechanism).

Let’s read the words of an expert, Professor. Dr. G. G. J. Knoops, who addressed a symposium on The Right to Self-Determination in International Law  Organized 29 September – 1 October 2006  at The Hague, Netherlands.

Dr Knoops said though it seems to many, the proper response to the perpetrators of human rights abuses, violence, ethnic cleansing, or genocide, must be criminal proceedings by some sort of tribunal, a court of law (international law, perhaps) duly authorized to render judicial dispositions: to establish justifiable facts of the matter, to render verdicts and, if called for, to punish.

But, he concluded, truth commissions (including the more ambitious truth and reconciliation commissions) cannot by their nature deliver this sort of justice.

In other words truth and reconciliation commissions cannot prosecute and try alleged human rights abusers. They can only offer alternative forms of justice such as restorative justice.

One of the five pillars of Islam is the practice of sharing the Zakat. This is not optional charitable giving say Egyptian Islamic jurists. It is an obligatory payment by those who seek to  purify themselves of greed and selfishness.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at pjwcairo@yahoo.com or twittered @mohendessin.

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