Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Spiral of Retribution in Egypt | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55293402

Tens of thousands of Egyptians packing Tahrir Square in 2011, with Islamist groups dominating the demonstration. (Khaled Desouki / AFP)

Each generation has its own vocabulary and terminology that come to prominence in great social and political events. In Egypt, the slogan of retribution has spread far and wide, having been raised by a lot of political and non-political forces since January 25 2011. It is an expression of the demand to hold accountable those responsible for the violence and killing of demonstrators, and to hold accountable the former or current officials responsible for the bloody clashes that have occurred in the midst of the turbulent transitional phase.

This new expression that has appeared in the Egyptian political arena has its implications. For example, for appropriate punishment there is a need to know what the offender did exactly, and although this may be possible in individual crimes, during major political events there are a lot of different interpretations and circumstances. Sometimes when a slogan is circulated in a society through political literature, especially if through the elite, it can effectively be a call for mob justice.

In the past, the term ‘to hold one to account’ was used in similar circumstances whenever there was social or political anger. Yet the expression is best suited to political action, in the sense that it should not undermine the rule of justice and the judiciary. Indeed, the judiciary may have a different opinion on the matter that the public cannot see, which is usually the case in revolutionary circumstances when the public wants rapid convictions and quick fixes-which in most cases would not constitute real justice-only to discover later that they were in fact highly unfair.

In Egypt there were two schools of thought after January 25 2011. The first believed that traditional justice was not suitable for holding elements of the former regime or those who committed the killing of demonstrators to account, and therefore there should be something along the lines of a revolutionary court to issue quick and deterring sentences.

The second, which was ultimately the course of action taken, was recourse to normal justice. One of the main slogans of the 25 January revolution was in fact justice, and Egypt has had previous experience of revolutionary courts where history has proven them not be fair. In many cases they were simply kangaroo courts with per-prepared sentences, seeking to settle scores rather than achieve justice.

The problem is that despite the adoption of the latter school of thought, the political elite has continued to provoke the emotions of the street and has raised the slogan of retribution rather than accountability or prosecution, thus creating a gap between what is expected from the courtrooms and the sentences that the judiciary actually issues. This has led to confrontations and chaos in the courtroom itself, violating the prestige of the judiciary and its decisions taken.

What we are seeing today is a natural byproduct of the arduous journey that comes with calls for retribution. These calls were raised constantly after the events of the soccer match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry, a club located in Port Said, which led to the deaths of more than seventy fans in somewhat strange circumstances. Now, after death sentences have been issued against twenty one of the accused, anger has broken out once more in the cities of the Suez region. This has led to the imposition of a curfew and state of emergency, with the number of those who have died so far outnumbering the number that was sentenced to death. If the families of these latest victims also demand retribution, the spiral will never end.

I do not wish to belittle the gravity of what has happened, whether in terms of the initial soccer riots or the subsequent events in Port Said and most recently in the Suez region, but this is not the time to outbid one another with slogans of retribution or mob justice. It is the duty of the political elite, in all its guises, to rise to the occasion and think politically, not in terms of revenge, so that we do not see the emergence of a rift between the people of Egypt. The fact that three significant provinces are outraged means that there is a genuine problem, and it needs political wisdom to deal with it.