Egypt and the falling standards of accountability

Rioters during a soccer match in Egypt

February 1, 2012. At least 72 football fans killed, more than 500 injured.  A stadium in Port Said, Egypt.

Three years, one week later: February 8, 2015. At least 30 football fans killed, more than 70 injured. 

June 30 Stadium, Cairo. 

In Tahrir Square today, there is no memorial marking the dead who fell over the course of the 18 day uprising that made that square so famous internationally. There is a flag — a large, fluttering flag, meant to symbolise the unity of the Egyptian people and the republic they are members of. In a few weeks, Egyptians will go to the polls to vote for an institution that is meant to represent the people of that republic. But that parliament is flawed before it even assembles — as is the republic that it will claim to represent. Because until accountability is assured and protected, the lessons will not be learned and history, with all its warts and boils, repeats itself.

Three years ago and one week ago, a tragedy led to more than 70 football fans dead — the biggest disaster, according to the then deputy health minister, in the country’s football history. It is now commonly referred to as the ‘Port Said Massacre’ — clashes where the police failed to intervene in the Port Said Stadium to save lives. No accountability for this tragedy has ever been reached — not by the government of the day, nor by the government of Mohammad Morsi that followed it, nor by any other government since, including the presiding one.

Accountability: There was none.

Yesterday, at least 22 football fans were killed at a stadium in Helwan, in clashes with security forces. Actually, we do not know how many were killed because at the time of writing, the numbers were still rising. Accountability: There… well.

Five years ago, Egyptians also went to the polls to vote in an election for a parliament under then President Hosni Mubarak. It lasted for a few months. Then there was Tahrir Square. There will be those today who will rewrite that period of history, when free Egyptians decided to seize the very meaning of what it meant to be a republican citizen. But too many people lived those days in person. Too many will pass on to their children what it meant to raise the flag of Egypt as free men and women. Not in expression of some sort of ultra-nationalistic frenzy, whipped up by the state. But as a genuine manifestation of unity & solidarity in support of a better, freer and more just Egypt. What some called as the beginning of a new republic.

There was no new republic. From the January 25, 2011, till February 11 2011, due to the use of excessive lethal force to disperse protests, around 850 people were killed by security services. Since then, many more hundreds have died — in total, well over 2000 protesters at the hands of state security services. A new republic would have held all of those responsible to account, regardless of which administration they served under in the past five years. Keeping in mind, there has been no administration in the past five years where excessive, lethal force was not used by state forces. Nor has there been any administration where accountably has been levied. As Egyptians prepare to go to the polls to vote, no one has been held accountable for those deaths.

Accountability: There was none.

Five years on, and a tall flag is flying over Tahrir Square — in a square where a young activist, Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, can be killed as she approaches the square to simply lay a wreath for the fallen. Witnesses and video footage strongly implicate the police on the January 24 this year, as they dispersed the protest that she and a few of her colleagues had put together. No one has been brought to justice. In two days, Egyptians will remember the fourth anniversary of the day that Hosni Mubarak left power. Shaimaa should not have felt the need, four years on, to lay that wreath all by herself. State officials and civil society leaders should have accompanied her, remembering the fallen before Mubarak finally departed office. Instead, she joined those who fell.

Accountability: There was none.

In a month’s time, Egypt will hold new parliamentary elections. Citing a diminishing public space for democratic dissent, and respect for human rights by the state, several political parties from across the political spectrum have decided not to participate. That is above and beyond the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies, who seek to reinstate Morsi as president — who was also hardly interested in ensuring accountability for the institutions of the state. When elections were held five years ago, few Egyptians thought the resulting parliament would hold the executive to account for any abuses of power. It’s not clear if there are many who really believe that is likely to be different in the next parliament.

But accountability is not an optional extra in a democracy. It’s one of its pillars. As Egyptians draw closer to the anniversary of Mubarak’s departure, they — and their rulers — might remember this simple fact. The uprising could have been averted if Egyptians had felt the system was working justly. They didn’t and the uprising was a direct result. It’s not likely there will be another uprising anytime soon but in reality, a new Egyptian republic of accountable governance is not some kind of lofty dream for idealists. Rather, it’s the best way to avoid a slow, but sure, deterioration of the old republic into a darker place.

This piece originally appeared in Al Arabiya News.