A statement by the Prosecutor-General, even though negated, is widely seen as providing legal cover for Islamist militias
Negation, as defined by the dictionary, is the denial of some statement or another. In Egypt, negations by state officials of statements they made some little time earlier have become part and parcel of daily life. The President, cabinet members and their subordinates issue statements, only to nullify them shortly afterwards once they are met with public disapproval. Matters reached the point where the previous official spokesman for the presidency Yasser Ali was dubbed the official negator. Egyptians now have no way of knowing which statement to believe, since they no longer understand whether statements and negations are serious or are meant to introduce unpopular ideas that will nevertheless be ultimately implemented. The result is total confusion.
Legal cover for militias
The total confusion scenario recently took place with the announcement by Egyptian Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdullah that citizens have the right to arrest “vandals”. “Egypt’s Prosecutor-General urges all citizens to exercise the right afforded them by Article 37 of Egypt##s criminal procedure law issued in 1950 to arrest anyone found committing a crime and refer them to official personnel,” the statement declared.
The following day the prosecutor-general’s office said that “the statement of the Prosecutor-General did not include granting ‘judicial arrest’ powers to citizens, but rather granting the judicial arrest to officers as defined officially in the law.”
Judge Hassan Yassin, assistant to the prosecutor-general, said that criminal procedure laws in all parts of the world include articles similar to article 37 granting citizens arrest rights in case they are present at the time a crime is committed.
A number of Islamist political groups welcomed the initial statement of the Prosecutor-General. “Political powers have the right to have their own police force, to fight crimes in the street,” Alaa Abul-Nasr, secretary-general of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya’s Building and Development Party said.
But many politicians, party leaders and lawmakers fear that the initial statement by the Prosecutor-General would allow for the dismantling of State institutions and the formation of armed militias, a reason for additional strife and chaos in an already disturbed community. It is widely seen as a reflection of the government’s failure to provide security. Even though citizens’ arrest is a right granted by law since 1950, reminding the people of this right at this point in time provides cover for the establishment of groups modelled after the notorious “Enforcing Virtue and Battling Vice” groups (vice police).
Director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP) Nasser Amin strongly criticises the Prosecutor-General’s statements, and calls them “irresponsible”. These statements cannot be interpreted, he insists, away from the announcement by the Islamist al-Gama’a al-Islamiya that it has already established “people’s committees” to restore security. A video has been circulated of a street parade by an Islamist militia in Assiut, in uniform and raising the black flags of radical Islam.
Because the general climate is already tense, Amin says, the Prosecutor-General should have also reminded Egyptians of article 30 of the same law which limits the arrest rights to when the offender is caught red-handed, or when the offender is caught on the scene of the crime. If the offender leaves the scene, he can no longer be arrested. Article 25 restricts the role of citizens to notifying the authorities that a crime has been committed; it is then the role of the police and the prosecutor’s office to find the criminal and arrest him.
Journalist and writer Abdallah al-Sinnawi agrees that the replacement of the police by Islamist groups is a disastrous attempt that can surely place Egypt on the brink of civil war.
Judge Zaghloul al-Balshi, deputy to the president of the court of cassation, says that Egyptians have always handed offenders to the police in a socially-accepted action. But now the situation has become perilous because the security breakdown has led people to take the law in their own hands, and they see the Prosecutor-General’s statement as providing legal backing for their actions.
Their own brand
Security expert and former director of the State Security Intelligence, General Fouad Allam, points out that the rising crime cannot be all put to the account of the security failure. Rampant unemployment, political conflict, and social violence are all to blame, he says. These problems need to be tackled for better security to reign.
“The ruling MB regime has exerted enormous pressure on the Ministry of Interior to repress the opposition,” Mohamed Zarea, former member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and head of the Arab Penal Reform Organisation (APRO) says. When these attempts failed, he says, the MB resorted to other means to quell the opposition such as the Prosecutor-General’s controversial statement which opens the door for the Islamist movements to enforce their own brand of law.
Hafez Abu-Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), sees any action that grants arrest rights to citizens as an attempt to provide legal cover for the formation of Islamist militias. “This is alarming,” Abu-Seada says, “because it puts an effective end to the State of law, and places Egypt on the brink of civil war.”
24 March 2013