Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Minor infractions, major damage

By Salama Ahmed Salama

Salama Ahmed Salama If anything good can be said to have emerged from the recent incident in Port Said it is that it has once again thrown into the spotlight the lamentable absence of law and order from our streets. Laxity in the administration of law and order in trivial matters, it has again been shown, opens a path to much more serious wrongdoing, just as it takes only a spark to kindle the fiercest of fires.

Only a year ago officials and politicians joined hands to praise the enactment of a law that was supposed to eradicate hooliganism from our streets. The law, it was claimed, would see tranquillity return once more to our neighbourhoods and ensure that the young and old could live safely among a community of the law-abiding. When, I wonder, will we ever learn that passing a law is not quite the same thing as enforcing it, and that if it is enforced, it will only be effective if it is enforced entirely without discrimination.

The reckless man in Port Said could hardly have ventured on his attempt had the authorities not underestimated the danger, or been negligent in their assessments. But the incident remains a telling example of the chaos that is rife on our streets. Small infractions, which range from street fights to the practical dictatorship of thugs over entire areas, particularly microbus and taxi stations and marketplaces in popular districts, negatively impact on the everyday quality of life of ordinary citizens, yet they seem to pass unnoticed by the authorities.

Indeed, some areas have now fallen into the extortion trap in which gangs of thugs impose themselves on an entire district, proclaim themselves its protectors and extract protection money. Regrettably, in many cases, these gangs operate in collusion with security personnel, sharing their illegal profits. There are even allegations that young urban police personnel have established a monopoly for themselves in the operation of service taxis.

Hooliganism and thuggery at this level is bad enough. What is worse, though, is the way that those who consider themselves to be occupying important positions abuse their privileges. Members of the People's Assembly, businessmen and film stars have all taken it upon themselves to hire bodyguards in a ghastly display of influence, power and money. It is a development that has lead to a series of incidents that have tarnished the prestige of the state, with supposed representatives of the people brandishing firearms in police stations and swindling others of their property with the help of pitiful cronies. Thankfully the state reacted swiftly to deprive these people from their immunity to prosecution.

And after witnessing the conditions that are rife in our society one member of an Arab royal family resident in Egypt recently dared to assume the right to discipline his staff by locking them up, refusing to respond to a court summons or to cooperate with the police.

Yet it is in politics that such hooliganism is at its worst. At election times candidates routinely seek the help of thugs to intimidate their rivals and seal off constituencies for themselves. And often the police stand helplessly by, paralysed by the fear that these hired bullies are the cronies of some influential candidate, or else of the ruling party's nominee.

And so we reach the state of affairs in which a hooligan with a record of violations of the law, who for some reason or other went unpunished, rushed to intercept the motorcade of the president. Surely he cannot be identified as anything other than a thug. And though it is needless here to delve into violations of the law by the offspring of newly rich tycoons in the seaside resort of Marina, it is important to highlight the trail of events that leads to such consequences, for where else can they possibly end, but in tragedy?

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