Saturday, July 23, 2011

Egypt: Minister of What?

By William Fisher

Egypt has always been the land of endless surprises.

Lately. the biggest surprise, of course, was the Tahrir Square revolution, which toppled 30 years of Hosni Mubarak rule in 18 days.

Since then, the surprises have come fast and furious – almost too many to keep up with.

Now two of the strangest just happened.

The first is the creation, by the Ministry of the Interior, of a new position: Deputy Interior Minister for Human Rights. What’s strange about this is how totally other-worldly it is to see “Human Rights” in the same sentence as “Ministry of the Interior.”

During all of Mubarak’s reign, mere mention of the Ministry of the Interior was enough to strike terror into the hearts of most Egyptians. That’s because this Ministry was the home of the dreaded Egyptian State Security Investigations Service (SSI), the internal security service whose police force was guilty of the most unspeakable crimes against humanity: murder in detention, torture, enhanced interrogation techniques so Torquemadish as to make George W. Bush’s CIA look like The Boy Scouts.

The second big surprise is that, in a stunning show of independence from Egypt’s current military rulers, one of the country’s leading civil libertarians has turned the job down.

He is Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). His organization, along with a small number of like-minded and equally-courageous groups, have been standing up against Mubarak’s monsters for decades before it became fashionable.

In a statement, Hassan’s group said he was “not optimistic that the political context in which the post was created will allow it to have a real impact on the situation inside the Ministry of Interior.” On the contrary, the group added, “it may only serve to cover up a still ugly reality that must be changed, a task which is beyond the capabilities of the deputy - and perhaps even of the Interior Minister himself - to accomplish.”

CIHRS went on to say, “This does not mean there has been no change in the security establishment, but it has been very limited, as was made exceptionally clear in the events of June 28 and 29. Indeed, on those days, even some directives and orders from the Interior Minster himself were not obeyed. What, then, would it be like for a deputy in a newly formed position without roots or traditions in the ministry? A deputy who, moreover, comes from outside the police establishment? This situation makes the post even less effective than an advisory position or might be even used as an appealing front to market current policies to the national public and to donor nations in Europe and the United States.”

The chronic human rights problem of the police and security establishment, the organization said, “is too complex to be solved by the creation of a deputy human rights post in the Interior Ministry. Indeed, the problem is closely linked to the extent to which people realize the need for radical, far-reaching reform in the Interior Ministry and other state institutions and ministries.”

It added: “The experience of the last few months contains little to indicate this realization among the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minster, or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”

The organization charged, “There is no political will to institute real change and to make a clean break with past policies. This will inevitably affect the possibility for the genuine reform of the first state institution targeted by the January 25 revolution on the national holiday of that very institution.”

Habib el-Adly, Mubarak’s last Interior Minister, is currently on trial for murdering anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square as well as money laundering and unlawfully acquiring public money.

This kind of pushback against Egypt’s military rulers – SCAF, The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – has grown exponentially since the historic day in February when the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and around the world heard the news that the dictator had resigned.

During the days preceding that historic day, pro-democracy forces has made the army their darling. After all, it was the army that refused to kill its own citizens. Since then, however, the trajectory for the generals has been downhill at great speed. It has become increasingly apparent that the military council consists of generals who are indebted to Hosni Mubarak. It also seems clear that the generals find governing a lot more complex than deploying tanks and cannons.

And, as for Bahey eldin Hassan, what can you say to encourage a man who is doing exactly what he’s been doing forever?

Somehow, thank you doesn’t seem enough.