Muckraking malarkey

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

November 9 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Politicians paint pallid pictures. Do we inhabit dystopia, a society of human misery, squalor and oppression, or Utopia, the imaginary island enjoying perfection in law and politics?

Pick an issue. Egypt spends about 4 percent of GDP on its military. In descending order Oman comes top in the world rankings (11 percent) closely followed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Yemen and Eritrea. Syria and Kuwait are up there. Egypt stands at #35.

A candidate for office could offer to cut military spending to improve the lot of the common folk. Another could defend spending on the grounds that Egypt is way behind the USA, Russia and China on this GDP percentage scale and should up its arms procurement to match Swaziland or Burundi.

Both protagonists would be barking up the wrong tree. The fact of the matter is we don’t know how much Egypt spends on the military or what it is spent on. Neither is GDP a fair benchmark. Egypt is neither dystopian nor Utopian. It is a secretive society.

The core issue in the election is to vote for candidates on their character and their principals. Most voters haven’t a clue where to start. Secrecy is maintained by draconian laws to prevent what lawyers call reputational damage. A journalist might have a salacious tidbit about a candidate that could knock him or her off their high horse. You wont read it in a newspaper or magazine published in Egypt.

Egypt isn’t alone in collusive discretion. Those who knew John F. Kennedy well were aware of his bedroom antics, but kept mum. The American media in the 60s wouldn’t dare trash an icon.

British hacks knew Lloyd George kept mistresses all over London, but turn of the last century England wasn’t judged by the media barons to be ready to accept scandal involving its prime minister as news.

The British Minister of Defense’s affair with a prostitute Christine Keeler in the swinging 60s while she carried on with the Russian Ambassador was kept under wraps. Then a jilted lover aimed a pistol at her boudoir and Fleet Street was in full cry.

In Egypt tittle-tattle is doing the rounds about various politicians. Publishers face jail for reporting the prattle. The media could claim truth, but not as a complete defense; only to mitigate the compensatory damages.

Facebook users face even stiffer penalties. Lawyers in London and New York specialize in bringing damages suits on behalf of clients from all over the world against mudslingers who defame online. They’re very successful, often expanding the pool of defendants to their employers for not sacking aberrant libelers even when their aspersions are cast online.

The law prevents raising potentially damaging questions on TV and radio. An interviewer can’t get away with the intro: Here’s your chance to refute the allegation that you are a misogynist. The slur is cast. A reputation is besmirched whatever the man says.

Institutional secrecy and the right to privacy collide at election time. Voters want assurance that their interests have been looked after prudently and those seeking power are of sound character. Neither is possible as the law stands in Egypt.

JFK and Lloyd George would have been hounded out of office in the reformed times of the USA and the UK.

France is embroiled in debate over their protective statutes. Details of a potential president Dominic Straus-Khan’s dalliance in a hotel bedroom were revealed to them at a trial in New York. The case was dropped. Straus-Khan was toast.

If a celebrity politician found himself in the dock in Egypt, would all the evidence be revealed to the public?

Principles and principal mean totally different things. Voters need to know which candidates stand for them and which are in it for themself?

The American author Henry David Thoreau said aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something.

Unprincipled politicians don’t have a policy. Without a policy they lack an ideology. Egypt is heading for a dark place if leaders lack morals and ethics.

With morally and ethically sound leaders — however unschooled in formal government — Egypt can begin a journey worthy of a revolution.

Cronyism is a blight on democracy. In America a million people are elected to office during the campaign season: mayors, school boards, hospital governors and dogcatchers. It’s not all about the president.

Egypt’s elections are not just about the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council and the presidency. Those elected can influence the outcomes of a myriad of contests for local office. Some will have power to place high rankers on public bodies. Others can reshuffle their departments to reflect their views and satisfy their backers.

The election is a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn over a new leaf, to right wrongs, to shepherd in an egalitarian society that can unite to purge poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy out of the country.

It’s also the opportunity for isonomy, equality of political rights. Independents should not be shunted into a corridor by the oligarchs. Divisions in society are healthy. Minorities serve an important function: to hold leaders’ feet to the fire.

Jobs for the boys is a dastardly indictment of corruption. For one thing, what about the girls? Isn’t it time to level the playing field? There are thousands of factories and offices, restaurants and cafes, where women work for pittances, less than their male colleagues doing the same jobs. Enforcement of an effective equality law is a priority to bring in equal opportunity.

What about wages? You can surf the Internet to see what the recruiters think multi-nationals are paying their staffs. The salaries of Vodafone employees are published, including the top brass and you can see other corporations’ pay scales. According to the data, an industrial abrasives company pays most (EGP 1.6 million), AUC comes pretty close and Vodafone appears pretty parsimonious in comparison.

The point is Egypt has the right to know if public banks are paying more than private banks, or vice versa, what compensation packages comprise for government controlled entities.

They have the right to know if bawabs are telltales for torturers. Are secret policemen listening into mobile phones conversations? Are e-mails and texts being monitored somewhere in the desert?

Google’s Eric Schmidt said if someone’s doing something they don’t want others to know about, in all probability they’re doing something that’s wrong.

What happened to the author of Utopia? The 16th Century English lawyer, social philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony, and beheaded. Years later the Catholic church made him a saint.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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