Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sacred verdicts?

Ismail Serageldin, former director of the bibliotheca Alexandrina, is being pursued on baseless charges in what amounts to a judicial outrage, writes Mohamed Salmawy

اقرأ باللغة العربية

I know the person who said, “The rulings of the judiciary are sacred and beyond question.” I do not know how we accepted that utterance which has no legal foundation. If the word of judges is holy, what does that leave to the word of God? Judges are human beings. They make mistakes like everyone else. This is why we have courts of appeal and why higher courts have overturned rulings of lower courts on the basis of some error. Since, clearly, judicial rulings are not infallible they cannot be holy. In all events, in Egypt, as elsewhere, there is no such thing as a law prohibiting comment on judicial verdicts. All judicial systems around the world have systems for reviewing and appealing verdicts. So how in the world did someone acquire the licence to invent that supposed sanctity?

I saw for myself how, in the case of the young novelist Ahmed Nagi, a verdict could be reversed time and again from one judge to the next. I was summoned to testify in that case, together with Gaber Asfour and the novelist Sonaallah Ibrahim. After hearing our testimony, the court ruled to acquit the defendant. Then, following an appeal, another judge sentenced Nagi to prison. When that ruling was appealed, a third judge decided that the whole case had to be thrown out of court and that the young novelist should be brought to trial before a different court. Clearly the first ruling was not holy; nor were rulings in the appeals.

The reason I mention the forgoing is due to the surprise verdict by a preliminary court in eastern Alexandria sentencing Ismail Serageldin, former director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, to three and a half years in prison for allegedly having violated certain antiquated government regulations that should not even apply to the Bibliotheca. One charge was that the library had subcontracted the management of its cafeteria without using the tender process that applies to government departments and agencies. Another involves the purchase of cars, some said to total over one million Egyptian pounds, for library use. Note, this is Egyptian pounds, and we are not talking about your average Bentley, Rolls, Ferrari or Jaguar, which cost infinitely more. Then there is that charge involving the appointment of advisers that the library does not need, to which I can only wonder how outsiders can claim to know what the library needs better than the people concerned in the library itself and the requests for which are routinely submitted to the board of directors for approval. The same applies to that charge of excursions for personal purposes at the library’s expense. How can anyone from outside the library’s management identify the nature of this or that trip or ascertain whether, during such and such a trip, the director had met with parties that had a cooperative relationship with the Bibliotheca or whether he had actually spent his time skiing on the slopes of the Swiss Alps?

The person in question here does not have to save up his monthly salary in order to travel abroad or drive a fancy car. Serageldin worked abroad for many years, steadily moving up the profession; ladder until he became vice-president of the World Bank. He was therefore able to afford an excellent standard of living in the US and to send his children to the best universities there. It should be stressed that he attained this on the basis of his personal skills and efforts, rather than depending on his family’s background. Would he leave that in order to come to Egypt in order to squander the money of one of Egypt’s most important international organisations on personal expenses that he can afford without having to purloin library funds?

I have the honour to be on the Bibliotheca’s board of trustees, the members of which include heads of states, ministers and eminent international personalities. I knew that the library’s records list Serageldin as having donated around LE3 million to that institution, which has helped Egypt’s name shine in international cultural fora. I have seen for myself in the library’s museum the rare antique carpets that  Serageldin donated to the museum out of the famous collection of his grandfather, Ali Ibrahim, who had one of the largest museum-quality carpet collections in the world. He also donated the library of his mother, an eminent professor of Islamic art. Her collection contained invaluable antique books that had been passed down through the family from generation to generation.

Serageldin was able to acquire international prominence on the strength of his encyclopaedic erudition and cultural sophistication. When he was nominated for the post of secretary-general of UNESCO (by Burkina Faso, not Egypt), 200 international figures signed a statement in support of his candidacy. Among them were 30 Nobel Prize laureates. I was present in the meeting President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi held with the Bibliotheca’s board of directors and can therefore testify first hand to the fact that every single member of the board without exception praised the library’s founding director for his ceaseless efforts and dedication for the past 15 years. President Al-Sisi told the members of the board that Egypt does not let its outstanding talents go to waste, and that Serageldin’s expertise will be put to good use. And, indeed, several days later the president appointed the former Bibliotheca director to the National Council to Fight Terrorism along with a number of other eminent Egyptian figures. At the same time, the Bibliotheca’s board of directors voted to create a research and studies centre in the library and to appoint Serageldin as its director.

Yet several days ago I received an angry phone call from a well-known international academic figure, a French archaeologist who loves Egypt and its history. Were the reports that he had read in the international press true, he asked? Did Egypt really throw Serageldin in prison the moment his term as director of the Bibliotheca ended? I responded that Serageldin had not been imprisoned. There was preliminary verdict that is subject to appeal.

The French archaeologist said that he and other international figures with whom he had spoken were prepared to appear in court in Egypt to offer a tangible demonstration of the international value of Serageldin and of the invaluable contributions to Egyptian and world heritage that he had made in the course of his management of that great cultural and civilisational project that is a source of pride for Egypt. He then added: “Egypt is not the backwards country filled with terrorists and human rights abuses, contrary to how its enemies portray it. It is the country of culture, civilisation, arts and enlightenment. It is the country of Naguib Mahfouz, Ahmed Zuweil, Youssef Shahin and Serageldin. It is the Nile, the Pyramids and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Help us protect it. Don’t give its enemies a free axe to destroy it.”

I remained silent. I could not find the words to respond.

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