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Egypt has got its priorities wrong

The regime is more likely to enforce petty rules to protect its sense of authority than laws that serve the public good.

Ayman Nour, the man who dared to run in Egypt's first "free" presidential election without the regime's permission, was released from jail yesterday ? supposedly on health grounds.

Nour founded the opposition el-Ghad ("Tomorrow") party in 2004 with a liberal-democratic platform, but it was frequently harassed by the Mubarak regime.

In 2005 he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for what the Egyptian prime minister described as "serious crimes". He had been accused of forging some of the signatures required by the law in order to register his political party. The charges against him were generally regarded as trumped up but, even if true, they were only a violation of an unfair law designed to make the formation of opposition parties as difficult as possible.

The Arabist blog has an article discussing his release and making some perceptive points about its possible significance in terms of US-Egyptian relations.

Despite his release, though, Nour remains convicted ? which means he cannot run again for public office because of his "criminal" record.

One thing that has often struck me about the Nour case is that it highlights the authorities' diligence in enforcing petty laws and regulations where the regime's own pre-eminence is threatened, in contrast to its lack of interest in enforcing laws that serve the public good ? protecting people from collapsing buildings, burning trains, etc.

Compare Nour's treatment with that of Mamdouh Ismael, the owner of a Red Sea ferry which caught fire and sank in 2006 with the loss of more than 1,000 lives. A parliamentary inquiry blamed the ferry company for the disaster and, according to a recovered data recorder, the company had overruled the captain's request to return to port after fire broke out on board.

Ismael, a well-connected member of the upper house of parliament, was allowed to flee Egypt ? allegedly with help from senior officials. He was tried in his absence two years later along with four others and acquitted of all charges. Meanwhile, the captain of a passing ship which had failed to stop and assist was sentenced to six months in jail.

The issue here is not whether Ismael was rightly or wrongly acquitted but the regime's priorities: more concerned about a challenge to its authority than a shipping company's duty of care towards its passengers.

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