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Alaa Al Aswany Headshot

When Will They Stop Insulting Us?

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A few weeks ago the German public discovered that the president, Christian Wulff, had failed to declare a large private loan from a friend while prime minister of Lower Saxony. When prosecutors asked parliament to lift Wulff's immunity as president to investigate possible favors, Wulff resigned. In another scandal several weeks earlier, British Energy Minister Chris Huhne had to resign after he was charged with attempting to disrupt the course of justice by persuading his former wife to take penalty points he would have acquired through a traffic offence. The British public saw the minister's alleged conduct as unethical, which forced him to resign from his post. Such incidents happen all the time in democratic countries because the principle there is that government officials must be truthful and honest, and that if they get involved in any deceitful or illegal activity then they are not worthy of their office.

I remembered this as I was following the scandal over the sudden departure of the foreign defendants in the NGO funding case, which is still pending before the Egyptian courts. It was the Military Council that brought up the issue in the first place under mysterious circumstances, when it chose certain organizations and charged their leaders with receiving foreign funding. The strange thing was that these organizations had been working for a whole year right in front of Military Council, which at the time did not object to them. It is even stranger that the organizations repeatedly applied to the authorities to register but the Egyptian government dragged its feet on issuing them licenses.

I don't agree with foreign financing in principle and I hope legislation is passed to ban it outright, but it's odd that the Military Council's anger should be directed only at NGOs, while they ignore the religious associations and political parties that, according to government reports, have received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Gulf States. As usual the Military Council has applied a double standard, exempting its friends the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis from any oversight while launching a sweeping attack on civil society organizations, accusing them of creating chaos and of a plan to divide Egypt into five small states. The trial became a big media show in which the Military Council tried to portray itself as an ultra-patriotic body that would never submit to Western pressures.

Then, suddenly, the scandal broke: The judges in the case recused themselves from the case in protest of the pressures exerted by Judge Abdel Muizz (prompted by the Military Council) to lift the travel ban on the defendants. At that point Judge Abdel Muizz hurriedly transferred the case to circuit court headed by a judge who is a former State Security officer, who lifted the travel ban. An American plane landed at Cairo Airport and flew them out of the country in violation of basic legal principles.

All Egyptians felt insulted to see their national sovereignty and the laws of their country openly flouted -- the same humiliation they felt when they saw Egyptian women dragged along the ground and molested or when they saw young men run over by armored vehicles, blinded by shotgun pellets and shot dead with live ammunition fired by Egyptian troops. The contrast between the U.S. government, which fights to defend its citizens even when they are on trial, and the Military Council, which has offended the dignity of Egyptians again and again, leads me to ask: Why do Western governments protect their citizens while the authorities in Egypt constantly humiliate their own? I attribute this to three factors:

First, the nature of the system of government. The way a ruler comes to power defines his conduct in power. A president who comes to power though free elections is always subject to the will and oversight of the people. He cannot turn into a despot and ignore people's rights. The Military Council is now ruling Egypt by the same methods as Mubarak and holds office because it has the power needed to stay in office. So naturally they don't recognize the rights of Egyptians because they didn't choose the Council and they do not have the means to change it if they wanted to. The Military Council, like all despots, takes no account of the people. This contempt for the people usually spreads from the ruler to his ministers because they know that no one can hold them accountable. They never resign, and they ingratiate themselves with the ruler and flatter him because they know that as long as the ruler is happy with them he will retain them, however much they insult, plunder and lie to the people.

Second, the level of judicial independence. The judiciary in democratic countries is completely independent and no one, not even the head of state, can intervene in its decisions. The most senior official knows that the most junior prosecutor can summon him, indict him and potentially order him detained. Being prosecuted is a real nightmare that haunts any official in a democratic system, so they are careful to respect the law.

By contrast, the judicial system in Egypt is not independent, but in practice subject to the authority of the head of state, because the judicial inspectorate, which controls incentives and penalties for the judiciary, is subordinate to the minister of justice, who is in turn appointed by the president of the republic (or the Military Council). In the end the minister of justice fully controls the fate of judges. On top of that, it is the president who appoints the public prosecutor, who has the authority to investigate and indict. There is also the system of internal secondment, which allows some judges to work as consultants for large fees in certain ministries at the same time as they are judging cases, fundamentally undermining the principle of judicial neutrality.

To be fair, although the judicial system is not independent, most Egyptian judges are independent as a matter of conscience. But those who are pay a high price in terms of income and peace of mind. The rejection by the Cairo Criminal Court chaired by Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Shukri of the Military Council's pressures is just one example of what thousands of Egyptian judges do commonly in cases that are not famous and about which we do not hear. In 2005, more than two-thirds of Egypt's judges fought to achieve independence for the judicial system, and history will recall that these honest judges refused to bear false witness to rigged elections.

They are fighting, not for the sake of privileges or gain, but in defense of justice, although a small number of judges have been implicated for cooperating with the despotic regime, including participation in election rigging. In the wake of the revolution, many people called for the judiciary to be purged of the judges who supervised the rigged elections, but the Military Council retained them because it needs their services. The supreme judicial council even prepared a comprehensive law enshrining complete judicial independence but the Military Council blocked it because it would have deprived the council of control of the judiciary. Egyptians cannot regain their dignity and their rights without an independent judicial system.

Third, the prevalent concept of religion. In democratic countries no officials speak about their religion or their religious observances, but it is morals alone that are the criteria for judging people. You have the right to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish or embrace any religion, and it's up to you. Freedom of belief and worship are guaranteed to all. But your religion is your own affair, whereas your performance at work, your honesty, your diligence and the way you deal with others are the real. The head of state only has to lie once and his political future is over, he's dismissed from office and loses trust.

In democratic states, morals are the measure of piety, and, on the contrary, the superficial manifestations of piety alone are not proof of morals. This concept forms the essence of true Islam. Justice, freedom and equality are the fundamental principles which Islam was revealed to defend, and everything else is less important. But many people's understanding of Islam has become superficial and limited, particularly in the Parliament.

I now believe that many members of parliament have a limited and superficial concept of piety. Belief is detached from behavior. Appearances and rituals are now more important than what one does. These members of parliament are trying to pass a resolution requiring schools to suspend classes for the noon prayer, while they have done nothing to avenge those killed in the revolution and are incapable of criticizing the Military Council, which is responsible for massacres in which dozens of young Egyptians have been killed. In the case of the Port Said massacre they made do with condemning the Interior Ministry and did not dare utter a single word about the Military Council's responsibility.

Many members of parliament have long beards and prayer marks on their foreheads, but they have no qualms about applying double standards in order to please the Military Council. When MP Ziad el-Eleimy made a remark that insulted Field Marshal Tantawi, the pious members of parliament rose up to punish Eleimy, even though he made his remark outside parliament. Yet when a member makes disgraceful accusations inside parliament against a major national figure such as Mohamed El-Baradei, they refuse to reprimand the offender, and instead applaud and congratulate him. They applaud someone who accuses El-Baradei of treason, even though this is the same El-Baradei for whom the Muslim Brotherhood collected 600,000 signatures in support. But that happened before the revolution, when the Brotherhood needed El-Baradei's support. Now they need the Military Council's support.

Their positions change according to their interests. This political inconsistency is incompatible with morality, and everything that is incompatible with morality is of necessity incompatible with religion. Yet history teaches us that if we confine religion to formalities and ritual we may end up behaving immorally with a completely clear conscience. Egypt will change only if our concept of religion changes.

As much as it is an insult to our national dignity, the scandal over the sudden departure of the foreign defendants in the NGO case makes us face up to an important fact: Hosni Mubarak has fallen but the system he set up is still governing Egypt. The Military Council is an extension of Mubarak in ideology and in practice. They insult Egyptians exactly as Mubarak used to insult them. They will not stop insulting us until we achieve the objectives of revolution and set up a just and free state.