The thin blue line

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

October 31 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Between anarchy and order stand the police. Their power is derived from trust and respect. Not brutality. Remember Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist? He was beaten to within an inch of death in Police Room 61 in Port Elizabeth and expired soon after.

Remember the rhino whip found in a police locker in Sheffield in the North of England in 1963? Remember Rodney King, bludgeoned by police wielding batons in Los Angeles in 1991?

This page could be filled with examples of police violence. Every Friday and Saturday night the British police face drunken mobs in towns and cities across the UK. There are no-go areas on the south side of Chicago.

It’s tough being a cop.

Augustus organized them in AD 6 after a particularly devastating fire. The seven squads of vigiles were firemen and watchmen each 1,000 strong, responsible for keeping order in the night.

The watch committees lived on as oversight bodies. The mid to late 19th Century saw the heyday of independent local policing in the UK. Watch committees, meeting weekly, had the power to hire and fire members of their forces. Corruption was their downfall.

The origins of the Ottoman police system goes back to the early 14th Century. Turkish warriors and settlers established a Muslim border state on the Byzantine frontier in northwest Anatolia. As they expanded into the Balkans, conquered Constantinople and seized Mamluke Egypt they shed their military uniforms to manage their conquered empire.

Police forces are appointed by governments to reflect it’s internal security policies. Not to become a law unto themselves.

Egyptian society needs to consider the ramifications of the two shameful cases highlighted in recent times. The wrist tap for the two officers who killed Khaled Saeid in Alexandra is diverting attention from the crime itself.

The circumstances leading to the death of Essam Ali Atta Ali inside Tora maximum-security prison similarly could divert the argument away from discussion of a culture of brutality within the Egyptian police force.

Steve Biko’s murder was a turning point in South Africa. The brutality of policemen in Sheffield brought about the reform of police management in the UK. Rodney King’s beating captured by an amateur cameraman impelled the LAPD to face its shame and to be reformed.

The exposure of blatant brutality in the ranks of the Egyptian police is the death knell of respect for the police and could be the end of the road for the militia as a whole if they choose to turn a blind eye as usual.

Historically it takes only one incident to bring a corrupt force down. These revelations could turn very nasty indeed for former regime candidates in the elections next month.

It’s hard for their opponents to finger former office holders still at large. It’s easier to tar and feather them with clear-cut examples of the brutishness that characterized their regime.


What should be done and what could be done?

Specifically, a judicial review should be ordered to examine the verdict handed down in Alexandria that sentenced the two police officers responsible for Khaled Saeid’s death to seven years’ hard labor in jail. The review should be conducted by judges known for their probity and equally for commonsense.

The death of Essam Ali Atta Ali should be reviewed first by a panel of senior officers. They should have their chance to prove they are worthy of the public’s trust and support.

It’s no good trying these cases in the court of public opinion. It’s time to fess up and bolster confidence in the judicial system. If there’s a cover up, it should be dealt with by the public prosecutor.

Am I naïve?

The people voted with their feet for democracy, which compels openness and transparency. Now they can endorse a ballot paper.

The electorate should ignore candidates for political office who refuse to face these uncomfortable truths. If the forthcoming vote restores known corrupt figures to the People’s Assembly the electorate will be responsible for the consequences. They will have only themselves to blame.

After that the parliament will have to decide how the new constitution can recognize the essential elements of democracy.

It is not for the military to elect a government. The party with the most seats will demand that privilege. If no party has a majority, a coalition government should be formed. You can imagine the brouhaha over who becomes the prime minister.

No doubt the constitution will have a thing or two to say about the powers of the presidency. In a democracy all power cannot reside in one person’s hands. The People’s Assembly and the Shura Council should ratify decisions by the president, whose spending power should be restricted to upholding the office.

For those who fear extremists taking over consider what happened in Ireland this week. The revolutionary candidate for the presidency, a former leader of the outlawed Irish Republican Army running for the once-banned Sinn Fein party was humiliated into third place with only 13 percent of the vote.

The front-runner, with a 15-point lead in the opinion polls a week earlier, crashed out after a brutally frank TV confrontation with his rivals. He came a dismal second. The winner was a human rights activist, a poet who started his campaign with one assistant in a drafty office with hardly a penny to pay the electric bill.

‘Happy’ Higgins Wins, proclaimed the Irish Times as stunned as everyone. Labor Party candidate Michael D Higgins was immediately congratulated by his rivals. To a man and woman they declared their faith in his promise to conduct the Irish presidency completely impartial of politics as two women before him had, the independent leader of all the Irish people.

If you’d asked me a few years ago when Ireland’s centuries of conflict and war would end, I’d have answered not in my lifetime. When I covered African wars way back when I said the same about South Africa and its apartheid system. When asked about Egypt I say I am confident commonsense will win out.

The warrior strategist Karl Von Clausewitz said two qualities are indispensable: First, an intellect that even in the darkest hour retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it leads.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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