Problems on hold
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), which celebrates its 15th anniversary on 16 October 2017, is the modern-day Library of Alexandria that was established to emulate its namesake in the Greco Roman era (332BC to 640AD). The ancient library was built some 2500 years ago by Alexander the Great’s successor in Egypt, Ptolomey I, and acted as a beacon of knowledge and the epitome of intellectual and scholarly activity in the world throughout more than six centuries. The modern BA came under the directorship of Ismail Serageldin when it opened 15 years ago, and continued as such till May 2017 when he resigned his post. Throughout his tenure, Dr Serageldin worked to regain the magnificent reputation the ancient library enjoyed of civilizational, intellectual, scholarly and enlightenment achievement. In this, he fulfilled his role to perfection.
Yet Dr Serageldin has been handed a three-year prison sentence by an Alexandria Misdemeanours Court on charges of money squandering and negligent management. This left Egyptians stunned with horror.
Watani too was among those stunned and horrified. But we kept silent, since we strongly adhere to the principle of refraining from comment on court rulings, and given that the case against Dr Serageldin is being now seen by a higher court. So there appeared to be no grounds for any comment on the ruling, especially that the legal reasoning behind it had not yet been made public. But we cautiously contemplated the issue: the stature of the BA, and the paradox that it should submit to bureaucratic legislation that goes against its very raison d’être, that of enjoying the necessary freedom to fulfil the civilizational, scholarly, and enlightenment goals required of it. We realised that the judges had looked into the case within the framework of the legislation that currently applies. The question, however, is whether such legislation serves the purpose of fostering and protecting the freedom of decision and movement required by liberal institutions that thrive on creativity and free thought.
This is not the first time honourable Egyptian figures are fettered with bureaucratic legislation that brings them under retribution of the law. The BA is an internationally acclaimed entity directly affiliated to the President, and managed by a Board of Trustees that includes public and intellectual figures of exceptional calibre from all over the world. Yet it has no law specific to it that would give an honourable director a freer hand in decision-making.
The problem thus has nothing to do with the judiciary or the ruling; the problem is that current Egyptian legislation does not provide the freedom that would shield a great achiever such as Dr Serageldin from legal pursuit and conviction, and that would instead shower him with the accolades he deserves.
As Watani explored the predicament, this is what we found:
• BA staff insisted Dr Serageldin was a figure of value and integrity. “We worked under him for 15 years during which the BA gained international stature. All he did was intended for public benefit; it was not ‘money squandering’.”
• Prominent writer and intellectual Youssef al-Qaeed said: “Ismail Serageldin diligently strived for the advancement of the BA till it earned a prestigious ranking among world libraries … He even gave up his salary, so how can he be accused of squandering public funds?”
• Former Media Minister Durreya Sharafeddine said: “I thought the BA had its own administrative rules that should be different from those governing any governmental administration. How could it have advanced while burdened with constraints that impede progress? Predicaments as this have driven many of Egypt’s creative, resourceful children to leave the country; they flourished and bloomed on other freer soils.”
• Former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour said: “The BA was founded in 2002 upon a presidential decree that entitled its secretary-general (director) to prerogatives that allowed him to assume the library’s managerial responsibility. Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, laws and provisions issued by President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down on account of the Arab Spring, were repealed. The BA director thus became subject to the provisions of normal laws that do not provide for administrative freedom. Dr Serageldin never committed any violations; he fell prey to legislative amendments that constrained his work.”
• Constitutional and legal expert Shawqy al-Sayed said that there was no criminal intention of squandering public funds in Dr Serageldin’s case. The violations attributed to him, Mr Sayed said, were not with the intention of violating the law or profiteering. His intention was to bypass the red tape in order to achieve progress. Such intention carries weight in court and is normally given due consideration.
As the popular saying goes, in every cloud there is a silver lining; Dr Serageldin’s case sounds an alarm for us to start working on providing a set of special bylaws to govern the management of entities of exceptional character, that by definition should be run by outstanding individuals, free of personal whim or corruption. Such individuals should be provided with the freedom needed to creatively advance the institutions they run, without a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads and threatening to bring them to ruin or disgrace.