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Hisham Barakat: The Dilemma of Justice in Egypt

Regardless of the speculations about who, how and what surrounds the assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, this incident speaks to the conflict of human rights, rule of law, justice, and freedoms within Egyptian society. Would enforcing one value result in contravening another?

The assassinated Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, was one of a significant few who engineered the repressive crackdown on dissenters in the post-President Mohamed Morsi era. Thousands of government critics, peaceful demonstrators, rights’ activists and others were detained under his term and sent to courts with multiple –clearly phony- charges that vary from vandalism all the way to threatening national security. Barakat’s cruel role in fabricating charges has not only helped President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi get rid of his opposition figures, but more importantly has fostered an unprecedented politicization of prosecutions in Egypt. Whether he deliberately intended to do so or not, he remains liable for the implications of such grave results.

Now the question is, did his role justify murdering him?

The answer doesn’t only depend on whom we ask. In fact, if we ask ourselves this question, some of us might get ensnared in a moral dilemma; we might agree that Barakat was a corrupt official but do we agree that killing him brings about desired justice?

Some Islamist activists used the term “divine retaliation” on their social media platforms to describe the incident which they considered a “triumph” over the authoritarian state that imprisons and tortures people on false accusations.

Especially in the absence of an independent judiciary and good governance, violent confrontation remains the only available form of resistance. However, another group counter argues this narrative. Despite their anger and frustration with Barakat, laws of the jungle can’t rule our lives and those who carry out vengeance open a door that might be impossible to close in the future.

Although both arguments reflect bias and reason, either by emotive eruption or by a particular political point of view, they both overlook the very notion of justice that should prioritize rehabilitative methods over retributivist measures. In other words, justice doesn’t consider all wrongdoers as irredeemable criminals because justice is not only about retribution and punishment. Its core value is actually about rehabilitating bad people and preventing good people from becoming bad!

The aforementioned incident is just one of many. More of these episodes will occur in the near future given the deteriorating situation in Egypt. Hence, we must go past the idiosyncrasy of this incident and address the problem without being drawn into narrow polarized societal debates. The actual dilemma in Egypt lays in the difficulty of enacting judicious solutions that would bring justice without contravening essential human values or undermining the future democratization process. This can’t happen when individuals take laws into their hands. It has to be done communally and through an institutionalized process.

Of course institutionalized reform in Egypt’s status quo seems impossible due to the rampant corruption as well as the iron grip of a military junta that sees no need to change the system that has made them powerful in the first place. But if we believe that state agencies are corrupt –which is truly the case in Egypt- then we should craft a mechanism of transitional justice without resorting to exclusionary and punitive methods that contravene the essence of democracy and justice.

Egypt’s opposition groups on the other hand lack any vision of an applicable project that involves transitional justice measures –or any other measures at all- that could fill in the gap in case of a sudden regime change. The current opposition rhetoric (both Islamist and liberal) is very shallow and vengeful which incites hostility and antagonism over logic and conscience.

The absence of logic and reason present another hurdle in Egypt’s path towards democracy. Both state agencies and opposition groups do not use reason and evidence to support their arguments. Instead, nationalistic and religiously motivated arguments are frequently employed to serve their interests.

Egyptian activists and politicians often preoccupy themselves with analyzing and theorizing about how to topple a political regime without presenting scenarios of post-regime change that promise justice without violating the substance of democracy.

Failing to achieve such a post-regime mechanism will result in dire consequences in the future. In fact, the absence of clear transitional justice measures and procedures in the aftermath of the January 25 Revolution was the most strategic pitfall that Egyptians are paying for today.

Now many people question if democracy is still feasible in Egypt? And if yes, where to start? Justice is the exigent and pressing field with which to start.

Amidst all this rampant corruption and authoritarian practices, restoring justice is the only remaining hope to reviving Egypt’s democratic trajectory: because only an impartial independent judiciary can guarantee the protection of the rest of the democratic values. If people believed and trusted their justice system, the circle of violence will gradually erode and the need for violent confrontation will dramatically decline. Going to a court is easier, faster, and more effective than killing adversaries (including state officials).

And thus, regardless of when the ruling regime changes, advocating for judiciary reform and working on transitional justice measures is a priority that could repair the damage and help boost Egypt’s struggle towards democracy.

To summarize. The absence of integrity and impartiality in state institutions does not authorize individuals to carry out justice on their own terms, simply because we also as individuals lack the very same integrity and impartiality. Factors like emotions, conflict of interests, and personal predilections will cloud our vision and mislead our judgment and thus escort the society to an even more problematic situation; one murder committed on one side will breed a strong desire for imminent revenge on the other side and thus drag the society on an endless circle of bloodbaths.

If Egypt opposition groups were able to organize and exert genuine non-destructive efforts – to reform and redress the judiciary system while working on an inclusive transitional justice project then they will be able to revitalize and restore Egypt’s democratic trajectory.

Should blind retaliation outweigh the desire to bring about true justice, then we should expect violence and lawlessness to triumph.