If the map of the world has become part of the psyche of all Egyptians trying to search for a model to follow amid talks of which system of governance could be the most suitable in the “long walk to freedom,” to quote Nelson Mandela, it is important that while letting our eyes sail through oceans and travel across continents not to lose track. Before doting on the Turkish experience, lauding Latin America’s impressive transition from brutal autocracy to full-fledged democracy, and citing East Europe’s outstanding ability at shedding the Soviet cloak, let us first spend some time in our own continent and take a scrutinizing look at this neighbor who we owe much more than we could imagine.
On January 28, the day on which Egyptians came to realize that what started on January 25 is much more than a momentary uprising by a few disgruntled youths who had nothing better to do, hours of marching came to a sudden halt when it was time to salute that red and white flag that proudly fluttered on top of a small building in west Cairo. “They did it and we will follow suit,” we shouted in front of the Tunisian embassy and with every minute our voices got much stronger as we imbibed the power of our newly-liberated brethren without whose inspiration we would have still been sitting at home and confining our growing indignation to a couple of tweets here and a few Facebook posts there.
Egyptians do owe their freedom to Tunisians and there is no debating that, yet we will be making the gravest of mistakes if we assume that the role of Tunisia in shaping the future of Egypt had ended with the day we decided to reenact the Jasmine Revolution or with the advice Tunisian protestors gave us regarding different ways of fending off riot police, dealing with tear gas exposure… etc. Instead of only examining the way democracies—the majority of which have been well-established for quite a while—work around the world, keeping a close watch on the steps undertaken by the nascent democracy of Tunisia as it works on achieving the goals of its revolution should, for me, be our first and foremost priority at the moment. Think about it. Does a toddler learn to walk from the few minutes older twin brother or the adult distant relative?
In addition to the several steps taken in order to ensure the materialization of the revolution’s objectives, like the several committees formed to monitor the government’s performance and oversee the drafting of the new constitution and which are all made up of members of the civil society, the appointment of Lazhar Akremi, a lawyer and civil rights activist, as Tunisia’s interior minister offers the ultimate proof of Tunisia’s insight as far democratic transition and political reform are concerned. Out of the several Tunisian initiatives that can be emulated in Egypt, this one acquires a special meaning, for it concerns the most-hated institution in pre-revolution Egypt—not sure this has changed much after the revolution—and one of the main reasons that drove Egyptians to oust the former regime. The purging, reformation, restructuring, or whatever you want to call it of the Interior Ministry has, therefore, been closely linked to the assessment of the success of the January 25 Revolution and its ability to effect the change that would guarantee the elimination of human rights abuses committed by this formidable enemy of the Egyptian people.
By choosing Mr. Akremi for this position, the Tunisian government has made true the dream of countless Egyptian activists: making the Interior Minister, and consequently the police, a civil force. For many people, mainly citizens of despotic regimes, the words “police” and “civil” might be contradicted whereas taking a quick look at the names of the police force in several parts of the world proves how untrue this assumption is. Check how many countries call their police force “civil” or “civic” guard. However, this is not the case with dictatorships in which it is either the military or the police or both that are in charge of subjugating the citizens. In both cases, the institution abandons the original mission for which it was formed. The military’s main role is no longer protecting the borders and the police’s main role is no longer protecting the people with both only focusing on protecting the regime. Eventually the arms—from a handgun to an F-16—initially provided to safeguard the country and those who live in it become the regime’s fastest and most effective means of silencing opposition and maintaining unrivaled hegemony. In the case of Egypt, the police were playing the role of the military juntas in Latin American dictatorships so that the word “civil” or “civilian” came to be the opposite of “police” and of anything related to the Interior Ministry in general, especially that for decades the minister had to come from the police. Breaking with this tradition, a la Tunisie, is, I believe, the only way the police can go back to its original raison d’être—the enforcement of law and order, the elimination of crime, and the protection of citizens’ lives and property. Much easier said than done of course!
“Appointing a civilian interior minister constitutes a crime against the Egyptian society,” said former deputy head of Egypt’s notorious State Security Bureau and who now calls himself a security expert. Why is that? Because, according to him, turning the ministry into a civil body is bound to make those working in it—policemen I assume—lose self-confidence and become frustrated. The outcome of this trauma, also according to him, is a widening gap between the police and the people. If anyone reading this can make any sense out of it, please let me know. Maybe the major general’s words will be much clearer if we read between the lines and replace the spoken words with their intended meanings. This “self-confidence” is apparently the tyranny on which policemen had been thriving for the past three decades and the “frustration” is the result of the loss of the pleasure derived from feeling that they are the masters and the citizens are the slaves. Of course the gap will widen because the cops will no longer feel superior and the people will for the first time realize that the police’s job is safeguarding their lives rather than taking them. We have two major problems here: Who do we ask? And who are we talking about?
What do you expect to hear when you ask a veteran policeman who for years belonged to that specific department of the police whose main duty was eliminating any attempts at struggling for freedom? And how come you’re referring to the impact of the reformation of the police force on those policemen who had operated under the former regime? Do we need to revise the meaning of the word “purging”? Well, maybe we do. In this context, it means neither seeking advice from nor applying the reforms on any member of the old guard simply because none of them knows a definition of the role of the police other than the one which they learnt at the academy and which they had been religiously playing for decades. Renouncing any of that would imply an acknowledgment of belonging to a bestial militia that had no scruples about violating all the possible rights granted to members of mankind both by international treaties and the human conscience—the first they were obviously not familiar with and the second they had obviously never had.
I remember an old Egyptian TV commercial that started with the sentence, “Destroy your old bathroom immediately.” Obviously, it was a ceramic tiles commercial that delivered the message that the desired result will never be reached unless you start from scratch. This could be the perfect slogan for the Egyptian police; it can even replace the clichéd “The police are at the people’s service.”
Forget about wasting so much time and effort analyzing the layers of meaning of the word “civil” and whether it was coined to be the antonym of “army” or “police” and examining the different takes on words like “purging” or “cleansing” or “reforming.” How about using words as simple as “human” or “humane” or “humanizing”? Much easier and more accessible, right? Replace the beasts that perceive any moving object as food with human beings with a heart that feels and a brain that thinks and the brand new bathroom will end up being your favorite part of the house and the best proof that patching your blanket will always leave you cold and that in renovating a building that is falling apart you will always end up without a roof above your head.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: email@example.com)