Archive for November, 2011

Letter from Cairo: A day in the life of an Egyptian voter

http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/29/179926.html

How I managed to get over that overwhelming antipathy to the unjustified determination to hold a democratic procedure in circumstances that I personally saw as flagrantly undemocratic remains a mystery to me till this very moment. This aversion to a long-awaited process for which a revolution erupted and a decades-old regime was ousted would sound outrageous in normal times, and for the majority of those watching Egypt while huddled under velvety blankets that provide perfect shelter from both the cold and the truth, yet it feels so natural for those who forfeited the comfort of their warm beds and ventured into the battlefield that was Tahrir Square. I, for one, believe in pyramids and I think Abraham Maslow would have become one of history’s lunatics had he placed self-actualization at the bottom and basic needs at the top, for anyone can see how impossible it is to think of professional career or intellectual development when you have no access to food and shelter. Similarly, I found it highly nonsensical to give citizens the right to choose their representatives in parliament while robbing them of their human dignity, and at times their lives, to engage in a practice in the absence of the essence upon which it is supposed to be based.

The fact remained that elections were to take place a few hours later and I, like many disgruntled Egyptians, had one of two choices: boycott altogether as a statement against a hollow formality that does not by any means mirror a parallel transformation in human and citizenship rights or spoil the vote through writing the one phrase that has been echoing in Tahrir for the past 10 days: “Down with military rule.” I was never in favor of the second option, not because I didn’t want the army to return to where they came from and leave us in peace, not because I didn’t realize how tempting it is to show the military council the exact number of Egyptians who want to do away with them, but rather owing to my conviction that if squares are for protesting then ballots are for choosing and I would rather not mix this with that. On the eve of the elections, I gave in to physical and mental exhaustion and left the demons that I had constantly tried and failed to exorcize to lead me through a turbulent night in which my principles were put to the test and after which I was certain that while people would be flocking to polling stations, I would be nibbling on popcorn and watching Hangover- Part II.

The first morning light saw me hopping out of bed like a school kid late for the bus and to my surprise I found myself totally braced up for whatever action that will chart Egypt’s future and totally rid of any guilt trip that I expected to accompany such a decision. In some mysterious way, I made peace with myself. Fighting on two fronts enhances the chances of winning, I seemed to have been repeating all night or maybe my demons decided to give me and themselves a break before moving on to the next battle. So off I went.

At exactly 7:00 am, I was behind the steering wheel and at 7:15, I arrived at my polling station only to be stunned by a spectacle I have never seen throughout the 30 plus years I have lived in Egypt. The queues were infinite and everyone looked as excited as if they were getting ready for a fishing trip. I tried to imbibe the same attitude as I took my place at the end of the women’s queue and got ready for a voting-day-out. I gathered that I have a minimum of three hours until I can set foot into the grounds of the polling station itself and only God knows how much time it would take inside. I unzipped by bag and reached out for my iPod, the only way I can kill all that time besides maybe making some phones and checking Twitter and Facebook to see how things were going in other parts of the country, but I changed my mind as I realized how stupid I would be to waste such a priceless chance to be among that big of a throng, especially when it is all women who did not stop talking for a split of a second.

From the first moment, it was easy to detect an amazing microcosm of Egypt in this queue. I saw a considerable number of women who look like me, jeans and no headscarves, some apparently Christian, a lot who look like the majority of Egyptians, conservative outfit and headscarf, and a few who looked pretty hard line, covered in black from head to toe. The first group, Muslims and Christians, were obviously the liberal bunch who voiced their fears of a religious state and started speculating on what the likely scenario would be in case Islamists win a majority. Christians, the ones I recognized by the cross they were wearing, gasped and screamed and talked about relatives in North America and chances of asylum “anywhere but here.” The second group was the most diverse for while some of them did not mind liberal forces coming to power as long as they preserve the Islamic identity of Egypt and not come near the article in the constitution that makes this clear, others saw moderate Islamic parties the only solution to maintaining this balance and argued that Christians are overreacting; some of them were all for parties and candidates that represent the revolutionary youth regardless of their political affiliations because according to them “these are the good ones who really love the country.” The third and last group, of whom I only saw two, was quite predictable. They said little about the elections besides portraying the ultra-conservative Salafis as the sole saviors of the people and the sole guardians of God’s laws and talked more about women’s role in bringing up men who will run the country and also in cleaning the streets … Don’t ask me what the last bit meant because I decided against asking her and I don’t regret it!

As much as I enjoyed being in the middle of that patchwork of Egyptian society and seeing everybody speak their mind in front of others they knew would disagree with them, I have to admit that being among only women is quite tiresome not only because you can’t have one moment of quiet or because there is too much focus on details, but also because many women in Egypt, and this is not the first time I have noticed this, think it is totally fine to touch each other and are quite shocked when you complain as if this was done to you by a man. This reminded me of the one time I decided to get on the women-only car in the underground and one of the passengers literally sat on my lap then when I objected, she snapped, “Aren’t we both women?” Kids were another issue for if you add to the trouble of standing for hours and listening to a dozen people talk at the same time little creatures pulling at your pants or running between your legs or punching you in the knee, you can easily go out of your mind.

Every half hour, part of the male queue and another of its female counterpart was admitted to the polling station where inside they were divided alphabetically among rooms where they were supposed to cast their vote by filling in two papers, one for party lists and another for independent candidates. You get to know the number of your room and your own number on the list of voters in this room from the internet or via a phone service, and I have to admit I was so impressed with seeing each and every one holding a little piece of paper with those two numbers. This made things a bit easier when we went into the polling station even though it took ages to admit voters one by one in their respective rooms. When I finally submitted my ID and was handed the voting cards, I was as elated as I could be. Yes, I was happy to be doing this, but I am afraid my aching calves and pulsating feet were starting to take precedence. After voting for my candidates, I dipped my finger in some blue ink (which I estimate would take at least two weeks to come off) but I am fine with a little democracy mole at the tip of my thumb!

After I was done I maneuvered my way out as I marveled at the madly increasing numbers and the endless queues that extended all around the polling station and into the neighboring streets.

I passed by the men’s queue and made a huge effort to listen to what they were saying, but I failed. Some had earphones plugged in, others had their heads buried in newspapers, and many had their fingers tapping nonstop on their Blackberrys. None talked! As I walked past no less than 500 mutes on my way to the car, I thanked God for being a woman and felt suddenly reconciled with the squeezing and the kids and the headache and realized how proud I was to see my female compatriots of all looks and sorts and regardless of what ideology they are out to defend aware of the role they need to play in determining the future of this country that is in bad need of the passion of each of its citizens. They were not squeezing each other and had no kids, and I have to give them that, though!

It took me 15 minutes to reach the polling station in the morning and exactly three hours and a half to return home. I can’t deny that I was on the verge of throwing a fit each time I saw nothing in the horizon but zillions of non-moving cars and that by the time I arrived I was as stiff as a wood plank and my stomach was screaming with hunger and my head was shutting off for lack of caffeine. But I can’t deny that every time I was about to lose my temper, I looked around at my fellow motorists, who usually jump each others’ throats in traffic jams and treat driving as a video game, only to see patience and contentment and to find myself cooling down and recalling a unique experience that deserves giving what it takes to see it happen.

I also remembered how depressed I got in the morning when the streets were empty and my demons started messing up with my head again: “You are the only one!” and felt that only a spoiled brat who wants to catch a hairdresser’s appointment would get cranky in such a situation and not one that claims to be a patriot whose top priority is seeing that power is really to the people. I chose to be the second and started thinking of how delicious my first post-election dinner would taste!

Letter from Cairo: The bow not taken

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/24/179031.html

With a congested nose, a sore throat, a short breath, a pulsating head, and an excruciating pain in every single muscle in my body, I listen to the Field Marshal explain why he made me go back home semi-paralyzed. You owe me an explanation, I think, and you better come up with a good one even though nothing I can think of might justify what you did to me. Even if I am naïve enough to believe whatever excuses you are about to fool me with, let me remind you that I am not alone. In fact, how I feel towards you might only be a fraction of the grudge —that is the most euphemistic term I can think of at the moment — that is building up inside everyone you hurt in one way or another. After all, I am still alive and have not so far been permanently deformed by one of your bullets.

But wait a minute, people say, you might be a little bit too hard on the man for how do you know he is directly involved in what is happening in Tahrir Square? Is there any proof he gave direct orders to security forces to shoot at protestors and spray them with toxic gases? I have been hearing this kind of gibberish — another very polite euphemism — since January when many were wondering if Mubarak knew the Interior Ministry was firing live ammunition at peaceful demonstrators. I am fed up with these questions and even more fed up with repeating the same answer again and again, but let me do so one last time for the record. In a totalitarian regime, all the threads gather in the hands of the sole leader and there is no way any institution in the country, no matter how influential, or any official, no matter how senior, can make any decisions or take any measures, especially ones as serious as the killing of unarmed civilians, without his approval if not his outright instructions. It is not much different in democracies where by virtue of your position you are held accountable for any violation in the state bodies that fall under your jurisdiction regardless of whether you are directly involved or not and even if you only get to hear about it in the news. This is based on the logical assumption that the moment you take office, you become in charge of everything your job description dictates and like you take credit for achievements, you also accept blame for failures. This is called “political responsibility,” a term almost never heard of in our part of the world where boats sink and trains crash and the minister of transportation stays and where citizens are tortured to death in police stations and the minister of interior is not even reprimanded.

In case the concept is too difficult for my fellow-oppressed to understand, perhaps it might help them to read about former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who resigned after only 15 months in office for not being able to handle the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the nuclear crisis that followed. Of course I don’t need to point out that with disasters of that kind it is always easy to point fingers at Mother Nature and emerge absolutely guilt-free.

But seems like bowing is a strictly Japanese custom that requires a degree of elasticity our stiff-backed leaders do not posses and the subsequent pain is too much for joints that have for years been maintaining the same posture. Osteoarthritis maybe!

Un-budging and standing tall, the statuesque Field Marshal starts off with how “sorry” he is for the people who were killed. Sorry? I thought this is the word you use for stepping on someone’s foot or interrupting a conversation and similar violations of social etiquette, but for dead people? Well, maybe in the case of Japan when you are not in any way responsible for their death, but when you are the cold-blooded murderer? I bet it was in a situation similar to this that the word “cheeky” was coined and maybe in the same situation the Egyptian proverb about mourning your victims saw the light.

You don’t only refuse to confess to your crime, but you go on forever about how infallible you are and how keen you have always been to protect the people and see the goals of the revolution they sacrificed their lives for realized. You also try to give an entire population who sees you killing their folks a guilt trip through telling them how hurt you are to hear such unfair accusations hurled against you and you stress how noble you are to forgive such a grave effrontery. You also remind all Egyptians that they would have been all doomed had you not interfered to save them from a certain death and that unless you jump on board their life boat right here and now, you are bound to land in the bottom of the deep blue.

I feel that I and my fellow compatriots are such ungrateful bastards and that we better come back to our senses before it’s too late. As I feel horrible to discover how unfair I turned out to be and pick up a tissue to wipe the tears of regret that have started trickling down my cheeks, I start coughing my heart out and I wake up from this trance to the tons of chemicals I inhaled and to scenes that keep hopping in my face of people gasping for breath and others soaked in their blood and others trying to come to terms with loved ones lost in the split of a second. As if the exposure of some strange substance that is reportedly used in chemical warfare is not enough, I start getting cramps in my stomach and a crippling nausea attacks me ferociously. At the moment I am about to faint with repulsion and indignation, I frantically seize the remote control and flip through the channels and in every single one I see nothing but Egyptians betrayed, battered, humiliated, and brutally punished for asking for their basic rights.

I feel a deep pain in my chest as I try to breathe the sigh of coming back to reality and regain my dwindling power for another day of struggle against a tyranny that we mistakenly and naively thought was gone for good.

I get up and do some stretching exercise and take pride in my amazing ability to bow.

Letter from Cairo: The curious case of the supra-constitution

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/18/177885.html

The word “supra” is Latin for “above” and is used in the English language to mean “outside of,” “beyond the limits of,” or “greater than.” The word “constitution” refers to a set of principles according to which a state is governed. This was pretty easy to find, but unfortunately dictionaries do not usually provide definitions of two-word mergers unless the outcome is a meaningful third as in the case of zillions of prefixed expressions. Hence, every dictionary has en entry for “extraordinary,” “supernatural,” “antisocial,” “counterrevolution,” and “malformation” but in none will there be a trace of “supra-constitution.” Of course it’s not that hard to guess the literal meaning of those two words combined, yet it is quite impossible to arrive at the meaning implied by their suspicious union. The constitution is supposed to be the highest form of statutes in a given democracy and, therefore, envisioning a document endowed with more supremacy becomes quite far-fetched; trying to figure out the reason for attempting to devise such a document that does not, by definition, make any sense turns out to be quite mind-boggling.

To be honest, I have to admit that I actually heard the expression “supra-constitutional” before in reference to international human rights laws, which are believed to transcend the constitutions of countries. This basically meant that conventions stating the basic rights any human being should be granted regardless of which country he/she comes from should be endowed with a higher status than individual constitutions and which might focus on issues mostly pertaining to this specific country. So, if your country’s constitution in does not explicitly mention that you are, for example, entitled to a dignified treatment regardless of race, religion, or class, you are not deprived of this right since by virtue of being human you fall under the jurisdiction of international treaties presumably created for safeguarding this species. Whether this really provides you with any kind of protection and whether the country you come from finds its own constitution binding to start with is not of great help as far as trying to find a meaning for “supra-constitution” is concerned.

The above-mentioned definition presents the “supra-constitution” as a noble attempt to create a universal shelter for all the inhabitants of the planet and to place human rights above all border-bound constitutions and politically-oriented laws. Not exactly realistic, but definitely commonsensical. Any sane person, and I claim to be one, would perfectly understand the rationale behind such a holistic approach to humanity, but would miserably fail to fathom how one single country can have two constitutions—one “supra” and another “infra.” Actually, the latter does not even exist and only God knows when and if it will see the light.

Like the birth of freaks is accompanied by turbulent acts of nature, several paranormal incidents heralded the inception of the “supra-constitution.” It all started with the referendum on a bunch of constitutional amendments, the most important of which concerned the writing of the constitution. According to the new article, which was approved together with the entire bouquet—people said “yes” or “no” to all the amendments and not to one by one—the constitution is to be written by a committee of 100 parliament members to be elected also by parliament members. The question that popped up right there and then was: What members? Which parliament? We didn’t have the second, so logically the first was nowhere to be found. But came the answer: The new elected parliament. So the elections will take place without a constitution? Indeed. Aren’t a couple of amendments enough to walk the country through something as minor as parliamentary elections? Of course they are.

And Egypt, thereby, welcomed the Constitutional Declaration, the name given to the document approved by 77 percent of the voters. Let me point out that the referendum was on nine articles, but we were so good to be rewarded with 63. Let me also point out that the outcome of the vote was the fruit of a relentless campaign launched by Islamists in which average people were brainwashed into believing that disapproving of the amendments would mean writing a constitution from scratch and therefore removing Article 2 that makes Islam the official religion and Islamic law the main source of legislation, which will of course be immediately followed by canceling Islam from Egypt and forcing Egyptians to convert to Buddhism and imposing fines on citizens who abstain from eating pork! It never occurred to the 14-plus million who said “yes” that Islamists wanted to make sure they stand the biggest chance of forming this committee and were counting on administering an intensive Islam-is-under-attack dose that would certainly win them a parliamentary majority. At that time I asked myself a simple question: If using religious slogans is illegal in elections, shouldn’t the same apply to referenda? Apparently not! Somebody wanted those who said “no” to religious manipulation and who saw no alternative to a civil state to cower in fright as they see the specter of a theocracy looming in the horizon and cry out for help. I went crazy trying to guess who!

Well, that kind of worked. The Constitution First campaign betrayed a great deal of nervousness on the part of liberals who looked to have suddenly realized that their chances of taking part in writing the constitution were diminishing by the minute. It was then that they insisted the constitution be drafted before the elections by a committee that includes all sectors and classes in the Egyptian society. Too late, Islamists scoffed as they accused their opponents of revoking the results of a democratic process in which the people chose how they want the constitution to be written. I can’t blame them. I would have never missed such an easy and logical — quite a rare combination—chance for the whole world and I would have definitely flashed the democracy card in their faces and maybe even stuck my tongue at them.

It looked like a dead end. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces could not just cancel the result of the referendum at the time it claimed to be the sole guardian of the Egyptian revolution and the heroic advocate of democracy, but it could still take into its arms those scared children and rock them to sleep with a little lullaby: “Close your eyes and have no fear. The monster’s gone; he’s on the run, and mommy’s here!” Another little document can do the job. It’s pretty simple. Let’s just tamper with one little article in the Constitutional Declaration and make a tiny change in the number of its members from the parliament so instead of 100 they will only drop to 20. The remaining 80 will be chosen to cover the whole spectrum of the Egyptian society through including representatives of 20 different sectors like the judiciary, university professors, trade unions, businessmen, farmers, Muslim and Christian clergy, and guess who? The Armed Forces. Who chooses those representatives? Too much guessing I suppose!

But this violates the provisional constitution and breaks the rules according to which the permanent constitution will be written and disregards the referendum about the constitution. What has this gotten to do with that anyway? This is a “supra-constitution” and this is how we might arrive at a potential definition. A “supra-constitution” is a document where you add articles that are not in the constitution and twist or annul or reinterpret articles that are in the constitution and, by virtue of being “above” the constitution, it is not subject to referenda and such trivial processes that only make people fight. It can also contain some articles about human dignity, freedom of expression, faith, and movement, the protection of individual property, the right to a clean environment and a proper education and similar principles that make the document look as “supra-constitutional” as human rights organizations meant when they started using the term and that should make us the one self-sufficient country in which any universal statute is rendered absolutely unnecessary.

It will also contain the price, the terms of the allegiance you will forever pledge to the makers of the “supra-constitution” for allaying your fears and appeasing the likes of you who dread the day Egypt will be an Islamic state: The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces is untouchable. You have the right to form a civil state, but you will forever remember that your loyalty stays with the army; you have the freedom to file lawsuits and protest corruption and promote democracy, but are absolutely prohibited from looking into issues related to army including the budget, which is to feature as one entry and one single digit in the state budget, and any legislation related to the army. The civil president needs to take the approval of the military council before declaring war. The council also becomes authorized to form a new committee to draft the constitution in case the first one fails to do so or in case the constitution it comes up with violates the Constitutional Declaration which the council is violating at this very moment … Oops! Forgot the “supra-constitution” is entitled to violate as it may. Sorry, I and my stupid fellow-Egyptians will need some training on that!

I remember one time our beloved bygone president once gave the Egyptian people the choice between his regime and chaos, the latter always used to denote Islamist rule. Now our beloved seemingly-never-to-be-bygone army is giving us the choice between full military control and the same kind of chaos.

I guess now I understand what or who “supra” refers to and I am sure I have absolutely no clue what “constitution” is supposed to mean.

Letter from Cairo: All the king’s fools

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/11/176501.html

I have been intrigued by the figure of the “fool” since I started studying Shakespeare in school. In fact, the idea was so absurd that I had never imagined this kind of job, if we may call it so, existed outside the realm of fiction and that for centuries, almost every European monarch appointed someone under a name that is commonly regarded as an insult and that this someone knew that he was labeled as such and was ok with it or at least took no obvious measures to change the situation.

I also found the relationship between the king and his fool quite disturbing to say the least, for the fool enjoyed a handful of privileges that might not be made available to anyone else in the court, including even the king’s own wife and children, yet he was always threatened with the immediate withdrawal of those very same privileges as well as with a bunch of severe penalties for making the best use of them in accordance with what at the time would be called his job description stipulated. In addition to being amongst the closest of the king’s entourage, which had certainly been quite an extraordinary advantage for the masses from which he originally came, the fool was granted particular rights which the king’s longest standing ministers and most trusted advisors could at time be stripped of since in many cases only he was given the liberty to openly criticize the king’s actions and bluntly point out his follies and this was by no means accompanied by any attempts on his part to mince his words or to evade the possible consequences of censoring the man no one in the entire monarchy dared defy.

As unrealistic as it might seem, the most autocratic of kings took in the fools’ harsh remarks and even acted upon them when it was necessary and this was where the rationale of this quite peculiar relationship revealed itself. The king needed a mirror that would show him his face as it really was and there could have never been a better candidate, for unlike courtiers, politicians, and members of the royal family, the fool was practically not after power, fortune, or glory and therefore spoke only the plain truth, one that was devoid of any ulterior motives or hidden agendas and that reflected a kind of reality those around the king might prefer hiding from him for some reason or another. The fool was also the perfect man for the job because, as his title demonstrated, he was looked upon as touched by some kind of insanity that made his outrageous behavior excusable and thus made the king’s leniency towards him not considered by his court as a sign of weakness. This same insanity was also thought to endow the fool with certain gifts of which normal people are deprived like insight and the ability to read minds or predict the future. A physical deformity would serve the fool well in this case, for it made him all the more different and reinforced the belief that he was not to be treated in accordance with rules common to other human beings and that he might even be possessed by some guiding spirit that made him utter words of wisdom which did not become a man who was simply mad or delirious.

However, there are always times when you smash that mirror into pieces the moment you realize how ugly your face is and how unready you are to accept this revelation for a fact. The fool was never utterly safe and all the privileges he might be envied for by all those unable to direct the slightest blame at the king could in a spilt of a second bring about his destruction. The king might present his fool as mentally deficient and might pretend that he did not take his words seriously, but deep down he knew how perfectly sane the fellow was and how dexterously he used — and at time overused or even abused — the license given to him to lash out at his master. Like any despot who would rather exterminate all his people than have any of them expose him for what he really was, the king’s tolerance could wear thin when the assault was too much to take even from a man generally considered out of his mind and the time might come when he struck back with corporal punishment, banishment, or even death.

Let me also tell you that with all the space the fool was given to criticize the king, he was not really at liberty to do so whenever he felt like it, for he had other tasks to perform like dancing, singing, and telling jokes and he was basically there to entertain the king, which becomes obvious in the clown-like costumes he was known to wear. This entertainment might at times take the form of personal advice or political commentary, but only when the king’s mood permitted it to be so. This means that if the king embarked on some reckless action that he knew very well would infuriate his people and court alike and might even be detrimental to the entire kingdom yet that he is adamant on doing, he might order the only person who would tell him to his face how stupid he was to mimic the mating call of the wild boar or to jump around the throne like a baby orangutan. And in no time, the sage turns into a pet.

History never ceases to repeat itself and only wise nations benefit from humanity’s past experiences and that is exactly what the current regime of Egypt is doing as it is apparently seeing the merits of bringing back to a country taking heavy toddler steps towards democracy a tradition that offers the ideal example of creating a semblance of freedom and programming its spokespeople to talk only when they are given permission and to shut up or let out any kind of gibberish when their talk becomes too critical to be tolerated and too true to be voiced.

For some odd reason, the arrest of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah took me back in time to the era of court fools as I suddenly realized that this is what the Higher Council for the Armed Forces is trying to create of those activists who mistakenly interpreted the freedom they have been given following the revolution to be limitless and who felt too safe to see detention, military trials, and charges of incitement coming their way.

Unfortunately, Abdel-Fattah was not a trained fool for he didn’t know when he should stop and was not aware of the consequences of pissing the king off. He was unable to make the distinction between criticizing the army for the way it runs the country or the lack of a clear time frame for the transition of power on one hand and accusing the army of murdering civilians and hijacking the revolution on the other hand. That was the line any professional fool would have never crossed and that was the time he would have identified as solely dedicated to dim-witted jokes and acrobatic stunts.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah is no such “fool” and neither are his fellow activists nor any of the Egyptian revolutionaries. None of those will dance around the king while he is dragging the kingdom to its doom for then they will be busy uprooting that throne he mistook to be eternal and making sure he realizes that it is only thanks to them he is sitting there, that pets are not always friendly, and that fools are always labeled as such only by those who most deserve this designation and spare no effort to earn it.

Letter from Cairo: A tale of two tortures

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/11/04/175361.html

The torture of citizens suspected of or proven to be involved in criminal activities is mistakenly thought to be only associated with dictatorships and a quick look at the record of human rights violations committed by a democracy like the United States proves otherwise. Let me first point out that by the word “democracy” I only mean a country in which a president and parliament members are chosen through election regardless of whether or not the rest of democratic principles, and there’s plenty of those, are actually applied. Torture, whether for the purpose of extracting confessions or out of a pure uncontrollable sadistic desire to abuse a weaker party, is by no means exclusive to dictatorships, for not every democracy practices what it preaches and not every elected government is transparent about its repressive policies against a given enemy, real or imagined.

There is, however, a major difference between both, for in one you have a regime that is officially accountable for its actions to the people that chose it while in another you have a head of state that answers to no one about anything. The first would feel embarrassed in case its involvement in any action that violates the set of rules to which it supposedly subscribes or the treaties to which it is signatory is disclosed while the second would do it over and over again with such impunity that could make some doubt that this is wrong and start to believe they maybe too stupid to understand the noble cause behind the mean deed. From this emerges the huge discrepancy in the way each of the two engages in a procedure that every law criminalizes and all codes of ethics prohibit.

When pictures of an Iraqi hooded man standing on a box with an electric wire attached to his hands, a man tied with a leash, and several naked men piled on top of one another came to the open, U.S. officials sounded like five-year olds remorsefully standing in the naughty corner and in the speed of light a series of never-again-mommy type of statements flooded the media. “The first thing I’d say is we’re appalled as well,” said the then Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, in an obvious attempt not only to strongly condemn the abuses, but also to absolve the administration from any kind of involvement in an act that cannot by any means be committed by the army personnel of a democracy claiming to save humanity through invading territories that suffer under the yoke of monstrous dictators. Kimmitt kind of disowned those soldiers and made it very clear that they are not representative of their fellow freedom fighters or of American citizens and expressed how sorry he was to have let the people he and his army were out to protect down. “So what would I tell the people of Iraq? This is wrong. This is reprehensible.”

A touch of transparency was also necessary at a moment that detrimental to the image of the U.S. in front of the International Community and it was then the turn of the big man, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in an impressive show of honesty announced the presence of more pictures and videos that show the different types of abuse Iraqi prisoners were subjected to and it was actually the Pentagon that showed them. And because retribution is the only way a sin might be forgiven, this was followed by a spat of court martial trials and prison sentences for those directly involved in the practice of torture and dishonorable discharge or demotion for those implicated by virtue of political responsibility. Bottom line was whether or not you think the abuses were approved, explicitly or tacitly, by the U.S. administration was beside the point, for all the denouncing statements, the public apologies, and the prompt punishments presented the superpower as the perfect democracy that does not hesitate to impose the strictest of penalties on its own citizens the moment they are proven to have deviated from the moral path it has charted for itself and for the rest of the world. You would know that those soldiers, sadist as they were, were sheer scapegoats that had to be sacrificed for the nobler cause of acquitting good old America from the most disgraceful charge that can be leveled at a country that labels itself democratic: double standards.

And till this very moment, Abu Ghraib remains the biggest skeleton in the United States’ war on terror closet, but no one can deny that they have done their best to keep it locked in.

When the picture of a 28-year-old Egyptian man with a fractured skull, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw, and a disfigured face were all over the internet, officials assumed that all Egyptians are either blind or stupid or both and insisted that the deceased was not subjected to any sort of torture and that he died after swallowing a bag of marijuana for fear of being caught by the police. Of course, the widely-circulated and more logical version of the story ─ that he was beaten to death for having in his possession a video that showed police officers dealing in drugs ─ was officially dismissed as the product of the sick imagination of a few delinquents who are out to destabilize national security serve foreign agendas. Anyone who had the slightest doubt could always go back to the fabricated forensic report to make sure none of this gibberish held water. Only after the regime was ousted did the brave young man, who was amongst the main triggers of the revolution, get a proper chance to be vindicated and with the first report discarded and another issued stating that the marijuana bag was indeed forced down his throat and that he was brutally beaten, a sigh of relief was let out by the millions awaiting the final act of justice. Too soon it seemed, for while first-degree murder sounded like the most logical charge, the two policemen were found guilty of manslaughter and while nothing less than a life sentence felt like a fair verdict, they got seven years each.

Khaled Saeid will forever haunt the Egyptian regime both before and after the revolution and will forever remain a symbol of a dictatorship that brazenly washes its hands of the blood of the very victims it kills in cold blood.

When a 24-year-old Egyptian prisoner was announced dead after brutal torture by the guards for smuggling a mobile phone SIM card into his cell and after eyewitnesses confirmed he was sodomized, beaten, and forced to drink detergents through a tube inserted in his mouth, the same template was flashed in the face of despondent Egyptians who had not yet gotten over the absurd verdict that a few days before equated pre-determined murder with pick-pocketing. Once again, the victim turned out to have been poisoned after swallowing an overdose of narcotics. The circumstances in which the autopsy took place and the integrity of those who carried it out remain a mystery that will probably be solved after the next revolution … or not.

The death of Essam Atta is the unfortunate proof that little has changed and the cruel lesson that Egyptians should not expect an apology because they do not deserve one and because whoever governs them owes them nothing whatsoever.

While torture remains the easiest and fastest way of dealing with a wide range of problems for both, democracies take the time and effort to embellish the ugliest of truths and to emerge repentant in the very situations they had no scruples about a few minutes before they were made public while dictatorships feel they need not go through the hassle simply because atrocities are their middle name and there is no reason why anyone should be shocked when they are committed or why anyone should expect the wrong to be righted when it is revealed.

You are screwed anyway, but who screws you is what makes the difference. You either get an apology or you are told to go to hell. None heals the scars nor brings back the dead, but one makes you live in the illusion of democracy while the other keeps welcoming you to dark dungeons of dictatorship.