Saturday, 13 August 2011

London Riots & Egyptian Revolution: the Lessons Not to Draw

I remember when London was the best place to get arrested- if you were Arab and not Irish, that is. That was back in the seventies, when I was a student at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. At the time, the terrorists setting bombs in the ‘Tube’ and blowing off people’s legs on the escalators were the Irish Republican Army, not Al Qaeda; Arabs and Iranians were the ones shopping on Bond St, being overcharged on Harley St, and looking for London apartments as safe havens from potential revolutions in their home countries.

Then there were all the students, like me, studying at the universities. One graduate student we knew, a Jordanian, had just heard his mother had died back in Jordan; he was devastated. “I’m going to go get drunk and pick a fight,” he muttered as he stomped out the door. The next morning his friends bailed him out of jail after he took a swing at a London policeman who tried to arrest him for drunk and disorderly conduct.
“Why did you have to pick on a policeman?” I lamented.
“But a Bobby is the safest person to pick a fight with!” He retorted. “The worst that can happen is that he’ll lock you up to cool off overnight. I wasn’t so drunk as to get into a fight with a hooligan who could really do me some damage.”

I no longer live in London but I still visit regularly; I spent most of June there this summer, taking long walks in Hyde Park and enjoying the live music wafting across the Serpentine from the Boathouse. So it came as a shock to see the images of arson and looting on a scale I never saw even at the height of the revolution in Egypt this past winter, when there was no police presence at all on the streets for four days and nights in a row and the prisons were broken into and criminals let loose. Every street set up an effective neighborhood watch against isolated criminal elements or the even greater threat of Mubarak regime henchmen deliberately trying to create chaos and panic.

No, the London riots were a manifestation of anomie that had nothing in common with the societal solidarity of the Egyptian revolution, when citizens displayed a civic-mindedness unknown under ordinary circumstances.

If Prime Minister Cameron and the British public are enraged, it is understandable. But to exploit that rage to crack down on civil rights is to go down a dangerous road. If it becomes legal to interrupt cell, Blackberry and internet connection to foil ‘rioters’, who is to decide when there are rioters and when there are legitimate protesters, as there were in Egypt? Once such laws are on the books, they are near-impossible to abrogate or to monitor in the application; Mubarak ruled under just such ‘emergency’ powers for thirty years since the assassination of Sadat, and even a revolution has not succeeded in abolishing those laws, they are still in effect.

Another measure is evicting the entire family of a convicted rioter from subsidized public housing. Is this not a form of collective punishment? Civilized societies reject collective punishment, retaliation against an entire community for the act of one individual. But even from a pragmatic, let alone moral, point of view, what is to become of the parents and young siblings of a teenage looter? Is putting people on the streets not putting society in even greater danger of criminality?

Another measure being debated is more ‘muscular’ police action, along the lines, perhaps, of the U.S. Taken too far, such action can lead to abuses that risk alienating entire societies from their police forces and delegitimizing the police, as happened in Egypt.

There has been much criticism of the London police, who initially seemed to stand by and let the looters carry on under their eyes. In Egypt, when the streets were left lawless and unsecured during the revolution, it was understood that the police’s intention was to humble the public into acknowledging their indispensable role. This backfired in Egypt. But the parallel in the U.K. is curious: the London Police stood by during the rioting just as a 20% budget cut in the force had been announced. This reduction in the police force is highly unlikely to be put into effect after the riots.

The Egyptian Revolution and the London riots are worlds apart, but there are lessons to be drawn. Keep London the safest place in the world to be arrested!  

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