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Changing Egypt One Civil Interaction at a Time

September 19, 2011

Exposed to public scrutiny via the news media, public officials may have to change the ways they interact with the citizens.

It is a fundamental principle of my discipline, anthropology, that the details of everyday life matter tremendously in understanding social change. So it was with great interest I read two recent news articles remind me forcefully that, rising media censorship or no, this is a new Egypt.

The first is a report in Al-Masry Al-Youm and in the Daily News of a bus driver named Emad Abdel Azim who was allegedly tortured and sodomized by police in Alexandria. That this was done under the direction of Captain Emad Abdel Zaher, who was previously the officer in charge of the two policemen currently on trial for the public beating to death of Khaled Said, adds an important political dimension to the stories.

During the Mubarak regime, such allegations would rarely see the light of day. In the new Egypt, they make front-page news and lead to an investigation of the officer by the public prosecutor.

Equally interesting is a charge widely reported, that a policeman was harassed and “verbally abused while on duty” by two sons of a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader–in fact, Mohamed Morsy, the president of the Freedom and Justice Party–when he pulled them over and asked to see the driver’s license, which he refused to show.

Under the Mubarak regime, high-ranking commercial and political figures were among the few people immune to police abuse. The fact that First Lieutenant Mohamed Fouad filed a complaint at Sharqiya Security Directorate against the Morsy Brothers, and that this was widely reported is significant.

In the past, a man such as Morsy would be expected to use his extensive social networks (wasta) to get his sons off the charge. In this case, media scrutiny has led to the Freedom and Justice Party officially stating that Morsy will not interfere and that rule of law will apply.

The real power of a free media is not simply the breaking of investigative stories on government corruption but the capacity to expose the many little everyday incidents whose cumulative effect is to allow civil society to operate, Even if neither victim wins his case, the knowledge that media reports can, and will, appear and frame the characters of public officials in a country where elections can (as we all hope) change governments, should have a tremendous effect on the directions of social change in Egypt.

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