Endorsement of violence
Has violence been the trademark of 2008 in Egypt, asks Dena Rashed
as she listens in on expert opinions
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Clockwise from top: while police forces are criticised for using violence against citizens, some experts argue that they too suffer from the same frustrating conditions of society; Egyptian streets witness daily verbal and physical violence; with the increasing poverty and unemployment, many choose an erratic approach to solving their problems; crowdedness, frustration and chaos are major factors for violent behaviour; Noha Rushdi spoke out for women who suffer from sexual harassment photos: Mohamed Wassim & Al-Ahram archives
In one day in the crime sections of four different newspapers, a grisly collection of crimes and acts of violence is displayed. A random selection from Wednesday 24 December returned a kidnapping of an adult from his bed as he lay next to his wife, then his murder by a gang of seven due to an unfinished feud he had with one of the kidnappers. The same page detailed the story of a man killing his brother over an inheritance, and another man setting his brother-in-law's apartment on fire over a fight. Meanwhile, we also have the story of a woman poisoning her husband because of their constant fighting over money.
While crimes of this kind have existed since the dawn of humanity, discussions on violence, verbal and physical, have certainly multiplied recently, particularly with the appearance of new broadsheets and television talk shows.
The past year was witness to several landmark cases. The death of Islam, a primary school student, after being hit by his teacher, shed light on the use of violent physical punishment in schools. As such it received intensive media coverage. While the teacher was sentenced this month to seven years in jail, there are other similar cases that many tend to forget weeks after the crime is committed. Among these cases in public schools are those of high school students using violence against teachers, reported cases of teachers and headmasters fighting during school days, and sadly numerous other dramatic incidents featuring violent behaviour against young students.
However, schools are by no means the only arena where violence has increased. In recent years, there has been a noticeable change in behaviour and attitude among many. Impatience, exasperation and most importantly the use of violent retribution have become commonplace. It is worth noting of course that violence is not always physical. It can also be verbal and no less destructive. In the streets of Cairo and also other parts of the country, people have grown less tolerant of each other, whether pedestrians or drivers. With every day that passes, people are subjected to more and more insults, from strangers or otherwise.
Psychiatrist Hisham Rami addresses the issue with a different assumption. He does not go with the flow of opinions screaming: violence has increased in our society. "Do we have valid statistics to prove that violence or violent crimes have increased in the past years," asks Rami. He claims that before the 1952 Revolution, there was even more violence. "There were the infamous female serial killers Rayya and Sekina and also the male serial killer Khot El-Se'id in the first decades of the century," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "State violence, as reflected in torture, was also prevalent in the 1960s. We don't have accurate numbers to prove that, yet we know it."
Rami argues that what there is more of today is media exposure, which highlights and sensationalises news that is sure going to sell: that focussing on crimes and violence. "Plain news, like who's getting married, does not interest anyone. Violent news pieces do," he said.
This type of exposure inflicts irreversible damage. Rami believes his theory can be supported by studies conducted on the effects of media and movies repeatedly showing violence, especially on youth and children. "Observational learning is what happens, followed by people feeling desensitised to violence, leading to disinhibition and normalisation of the act of violence," said Rami.
While the specialist argues that violence has always been there, he pinpoints other behaviours that lead to violence. "Frustration is one feeling that in the absence of the skills to solve it, either leads to aggressiveness or apathy," he says. But aren't people driving and walking in the streets sometimes behaving like time bombs? Ramy points out two factors: crowdedness and frustration. Although these are present in the whole world, they show differently in Egypt. "I have been in the UK and they have what is called road rage. People get into fights easily. Yet what does not make it prevalent like here in Egypt is the law," he added. "In Egypt, there is a third factor, chaos, which helps spread such acts. What happens in the stadiums during football matches is an example. People can be very violent because they believe that with the chaos they can get away with their acts, but if there were knowledge of retribution, they would likely curb their behaviour."
While major crimes are always highlighted and discussed vehemently in the media, public debate continues to play a positive role, despite the criticism press and television get for highlighting violent behaviours. The year 2008 was characterised by a very positive attitude in the media, particularly towards violence against women in the form of sexual harassment.
The incidents that took place last Eid in December, of mass sexual harassment in Gamaat Al-Dowal Street in Cairo, similar to those that also took place during Eid Al-Fitr in October, acted as a horrible wake-up call to society. Yet as Rami argues, sexual harassment has always been there, but the media's exposure of these crimes has made it more pressing for swift reactions.
According to a June 2008 study titled Clouds in Egypt's Sky conducted by the Egyptian Centre For Women's Rights (ECWR), 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women living in Egypt were subjected to sexual harassment. Last June a young woman, Noha Rushdi, was harassed in the street by a truck driver. Her insistence to report the case made her into a role model when it comes to standing up for women's rights. The man was sentenced to three years in prison, an unprecedented sentence in Egyptian courts.
Notwithstanding Rami's arguments, Nehad Abul-Qomsan, one of ECWR's founders, believes that 2008 has no doubt witnessed a "no-tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment. I was amazed by the media response to our campaigns against sexual harassment. I was afraid the campaign would be ridiculed or attacked, but I am glad it gained the attention of the people," Abul-Qomsan said.
Professor of sociology Saneya Saleh, who teaches at the American University in Cairo, also believes that sexual harassment has been the main issue of concern this past year. "My young female students have been complaining about harassment, and in light of Rushdi's case, many females will no doubt feel encouraged to report their harassers to the police," she said.
Yet Saleh believes that the general attitude of the people has changed. Like psychiatrist Rami, she believes the media has a negative role to play in spreading more violent attitude. "I read four newspapers on a daily basis and there are so many pages dedicated to crimes and violence, in addition to TV serials that also portray violent and negative themes," she says.
Through her years of teaching since 1975, Saleh believes the attitude of students has greatly changed. "Education used to be the aim in going to university. Now many just come to pass the time, and therefore become more reckless," said Saleh. Meanwhile, she pointed out that there are other problems in society facing more underprivileged students, who do not have the same opportunities as the AUC students. "Youth become more frustrated as the economic conditions becomes more difficult, they can't get married at the time they might have hoped, while parents who have young daughters are becoming very demanding when it comes to their marriage demands," she added. "Besides, many just want a job."
For his part Raouf El-Menawi, former assistant to the minister of interior, has many theories for the change in the attitudes of people. As a former police officer, he believes that violence has indeed been on the rise over past decades. The culture of violence, as he puts it, has to do with the increase in poverty, leading to the growth of shantytowns, where people have no personal space to have a life.
"This past year street children have also come into the spotlight. They too have become a source for more crimes, in addition to other sets of problems, all violence-related, such as rape, drugs and sexual harassment," El-Menawi argued. He also believes that unemployment, in addition to the lack of the proper religious guidance and the lack of a political role for youth, are all reasons that lead to violent behaviour. "When people have no aim in life, they have no hope, so they basically choose the behaviour that suits them," he said. El-Menawi also argued that with no political role in colleges, youth don't have a role in shaping society. This in turn leads to further alienation. "Moreover, people have started to hold on to the superficial religiosity imported from the Gulf since the 1970s, and are failing to focus on the core of Islam which is tolerance, justice and morals," he added.
El-Menawi has a culprit in mind. "The government is to blame, because it can't provide viable solutions for these problems. In addition to that, there is a deficiency in the legislation, especially when it comes to minors' crimes."
While El-Menawi acknowledges the increase in societal violence, the executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) Moetaz El-Fegeiri, acknowledges another form of violence: namely, state violence. "This year has set a precedent in levels of state violence," he said. While he also argues that people have become more violent in general, he finds that the government with its legislative and executive powers should have more control on its behaviour. What El-Fegeiri finds alarming is the increase in the number of torture cases inside police stations. "When state violence is directed towards political activists, they can speak out and struggle, but when violence is against average citizens, they will not usually have the same powers," he said.
El-Fegeiri also argues that sectarian clashes persist in Egypt, though the government won't admit their seriousness and the increasing danger they pose. Last May, a dispute in Minya governorate over a land left one Muslim dead and three Copts injured, in addition to the kidnapping of three monks from Abu Fana Monastery. This month also, as some Copts rented a factory with the aim of turning it into a church without a licence, has spurred clashes with some Muslims who protested their move. That led to the injury of eight Muslim protesters and five Central Security Forces officers. "We can't just say that everything is alright, there are problems that need to be addressed properly by the state," he said.
As representative for the CIHRS, El-Fegeiri has many concerns over the role of the police and their engagement and sometimes their neutral presence in cases like the burning down of the Ghad Party headquarters last November. "Yet when the party members assembled later on this month, the presence of the police was noticeable," he said.
The past two months have also witnessed the occurrence of three cases where young police officers used their guns even while off-duty in fights in the street in different areas. While the police's image has been tarnished in different occasions, El-Manawi hopes people don't just see the negative sides of the police. In fact in 2008, one young police officer sacrificed his life as a drug dealer held his own wife hostage. The police officer chose the dealer's wife safety and was shot dead. Also another young police officer rescued a girl who was kidnapped to a remote area in a microbus and chased the assailants, yet sadly got shot as well.
"There is too much burden on the shoulders of the police officers, with 80 million people in this country, there are only 35,000 police officers. They are not machines and we can't just keep on breaking down on the police force for the incidents that happen," he said. He makes a case for the policemen: "They are not well-paid and endure bad work shifts and long hours. They are not supermen. They have a positive role too and it should be highlighted as well."
While each party has a different side of the story, there is one main point that seems to be common between the different sides -- and that is a common desire to witness a better year in 2009, along with a sense of the need to implement the law with fairness, equality and transparency in order to curb the chaos that has overtaken the lives of the people. Although Abul-Qomsan is not too optimistic about 2009, she hopes to witness a law specifically targeting sexual harassment. "We need to face our problems and push decision-makers to address all forms of violence. At least we now acknowledge our problems," she said.