The Khaled Said case has offered a graphic demonstration of the emptiness of the pledge by the government of Egypt when it renewed the country's decades-long period of emergency 'aw that it would limit its application to terrorism and drug-related crimes. Khaled Said's brutal murder is a chilling reminder of what emergency law -- and Interior Ministry impunity -- means for Egyptians. Frustration with that impunity is what leads protesters to take to the streets.
In many ways, the case of Khaled Said is tragically symbolic of everything that is wrong with the state of emergency under which Egyptians have been living for almost three decades. In such an arbitrary and opaque system, torture and ill-treatment are a natural byproduct. And in fact, torture in police custody has been systematic and well documented since the 1990s. Khaled Said's case is unusual only because his murder was witnessed by so many, captured on film, and distributed to thousands via Facebook.
The renewal of the state of emergency in May 2010 represents a decision to extend the Interior Ministry's state of impunity. What was meant to be an exceptional state of affairs has now become the norm. A parallel justice system has been created and is now well entrenched, with its own courts, its own prosecutors, its own security forces -- and most importantly its own arbitrary set of norms (which the government claims are actually laws) that regulate the security apparatus's conduct. Under this parallel system, security forces have the right to arrest any individual, search any home, detain people because of their beliefs or opinions they expressed, and are never under any obligation to charge or release. Indicted individuals receive harsh imprisonments -- sometimes the death penalty -- after a grossly unfair trial.
Yesterday a demo was held in Alexandria and across the country in memory of Khaled Said. These come after the second autopsy of Said came out, repeating the unconvincing conclusions of the first — that he died of asphyxiation after swallowing a bag of drugs — despite the grisly image of his beaten-up face that has been circulating on the internet and published in newspapers. Mohamed ElBaradei joined the protestors, as did other political figures like Ayman Nour, lending a political side to the protests.
One wonders after the lackluster performance of reform movements — admittedly amidst leaden repression and complete unresponsiveness to calls for reform within the regime — whether the general call for political reform would not be better replaced with a specific campaign for justice. It's become pretty clear that the Egyptian police and judicial system is extremely dysfunctional: it's strong in terms of imposing order, but in a legitimacy free-fall. The current dispute between judges and lawyers (embarrassing to the entire legal establishment) is another sign of this malaise. The manner in which Habib al-Adly, perhaps the most powerful minister of interior of Egypt in decades, has been able to escape accountability from the regime (never mind the population) for the multiple screw-ups he's been responsible for is astounding.
The campaign for political reform is certainly worthy, but the regime has been able to hide behind a legalist façade to deflect it: demands for constitutional change are something parliament should consider, not something the opposition just gets since it has not been elected to implement them. The opposition has little to show for genuine popular support for electoral reform and new constitutional amendments — even if it's pretty obvious these things are sorely needed. It might be best to focus instead, as a first step, on a call for action on the much more concrete need to reign in the security forces, whether in their actions against citizens or during elections. If accountability has to start somewhere, it should start with the ministry of interior.