“But I have nothing to complain about!” This sentence, usually accompanied with a shrug and at times a “talk to the hand” kind of attitude, has become quite a common response to calls by political activists and pro-democracy groups for action to be taken against the regime and which started gaining ground a couple of years ago. In a couple of words, the speaker seems to be saying a whole lot of things that all boil down to one single conclusion: he or she has never come into direct contact with the ugly face of a regime that meant little more than the bad guy in any movie — possibly evil but most likely untranslatable into real life terms. This simple sentence, uttered in the most casual manner in response to the most serious of matters, is, in short, a euphemism for “I don’t give a damn!”
I remember how depressed I was for a long time after Khaled Saeid, the 28-year-old Alexandrian who had in his possession a video that proved the involvement of police officers in drug dealing, was beaten to death by security forces. I remember how a friend of mine, who first panicked at the thought that some tragedy must have befallen a loved one and then upon knowing the reason for the state I was in scoffed, “It’s not like he’s a relative of yours or something.” Her indifference shocked me, but I was adamant on making her acknowledge the magnitude of the incident. “You are a mother,” I snapped. “He could have been your son.” Well, I failed. “This will never happen to my son,” she confidently replied. “My son would never do things that allow this to be done to him.” I shut up at this point.
I could have gone on forever about how no one was immune, how you do not really need to do anything to meet the same fate and I would have gladly repeated that little piece of advice my mom gave me at a time when I was tempted to look underneath my feet and felt that looking at the bigger picture was too much of an effort: “Never be friends with someone who betrayed another friend before. Very soon, it will be your turn.” However, I decided against it, not for lack of stamina, but rather because I felt I had to be familiar with at least some of the mechanisms which informed that if-it’s-not-happening-to-me logic in order to deliver the message home, and I didn’t, so that was the end of it. I resolutely held on to this firm stance throughout the revolution and I exercised miraculous self-restraint when I heard comments like, “The regime never bothered me in the first place,” “Those people out there do not represent me,” “We were living in peace and this revolution screwed us,” … blah-blah-blah!
Predictably, my “goosfraba” tactic was too fragile and too contrary to my nature to last for long, for as it secretly kept wearing thin with every provocative piece of I-me-and-myself argument I have been hearing since the day the people rose to oust the regime, it officially and irreversibly vanished into dust the moment the emergency law made its heinous comeback and which happens to be the same moment a sizable portion of the population gave it a stately welcome.
Let me skip the bit about how critical a drawback it is for the revolution to see the very law that was amongst the causes of its eruption back even more forceful than before and let us instead focus on the logic — another one to which I have absolutely no clue — behind the support its extension is now garnering and the shamefully meager turn up at last Friday’s “No to the emergency law” protest. Thugs are running amok all over the country, a state of utter lawlessness is rampant, and only a procedure as deterrent as this one can stop them in their tracks and restore security to the Egyptian street, people seem to believe. However, you can’t help but wonder how they have come to reach that firm conviction without asking themselves if the crimes mentioned in the newly-added articles of the law — thuggery, destruction of public property, and possession of weapons — are not punishable by regular law and what difference it will make under which law their perpetrators are arrested if they will be brought to justice anyway. It is also intriguing how they totally overlooked other “crimes” the law targets and in which the entire catastrophe lie. If blocking roads and spreading rumors are rendered illegal activities under the emergency law, then this could mean bidding farewell to two of the most important gains of the revolution: the right to stage protests and freedom of expression and could also mean I should expect to be arrested the moment I set foot in Tahrir Square next Friday or the moment this article is published online. In short, this means we are once more the proud inmates of square one where it seems we are destined to stay and do nothing except lament the dream that never came true.
But who cares? As long as you “walk right by the wall,” as the Egyptian saying goes, keep a low profile, and go about your daily life as if nothing is happening, then you are more than fine. You stay at home when those delusional revolutionaries are protesting and you have never objected to anything the regime, former or incumbent, did or is doing. Therefore, the emergency law is nowhere near and will never be. Not really. Regardless of the crimes listed in the law, and which before the revolution became restricted to terrorism and drug trafficking, the emergency law gives the government and security forces unlimited powers that enable them to detain citizens indefinitely with neither a trial nor even a reason. Does anyone really believe that the tens of thousands of prisoners, some of whom stayed extra-judicially in jail for more than 10 years, were all terrorists and drug dealers? Any if they were, why weren’t they handed court verdicts in accordance with their offences?
Emergency Law for Dummies: The emergency law is when you wake up to find the walls of your house blown away and the clothes you slept in torn to pieces so that you end up naked in the middle of wilderness, waiting to be drenched with rain, struck with thunderbolts, and devoured by wolves. And there is no house made of steel and no clothes woven of iron and no place safe from the storm.
The emergency law is the state of no law … the art of it-could-happen-to-you.
So close that book of fairy tales and put your feet back on the ground, for the emergency law is not the mythic ghoul that kids soon realize has no existence beyond the colorful pages of bedtime nor is Egypt a wonderland of “drink me” bottles and “eat me” cakes and we better realize this before we all fall into that unfathomable rabbit hole that is bound to swallow our dreams, our dignity, and our country.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)