Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Patsy Cline is a Menace to Public Order

Cairo is still under a midnight curfew, and while I'm told that in many parts of the city it's observed halfheartedly if at all, my neighborhood, downtown, with its sensitive government buildings and proximity to Tahrir square, takes it relatively seriously. My particular block is so close to the interior ministry that it has a permanent checkpoint set up, and I have to show my passport to be allowed in late at night. Once, on a particularly tense night before the Tahrir sit-in was broken up, I couldn't get in at all and had to stay with a friend for the night. People do still wander the streets after midnight, but virtually all businesses shut down promptly – only a few brave, or enterprising, corner stores stay open.

The military keeps telling us that life should return to normal, but it maintains this curfew, and I am honestly baffled as to why. Cairo is a late-night town, always has been. I'm not the only expat who was charmed by the realization that a huge fraction of businesses are still open at three or four in the morning, and just in case I'm feeling lazy, they deliver. Never have I been happier than when I found out I could have cold medicine, cupcakes, even booze brought to my door in the middle of the night. I have to imagine that businesses are losing money from this curfew. Considering that everyone's so worried about economic recovery, keeping the city under lockdown is bizarre. What, exactly, is the army worried about people doing after midnight?

Perhaps this is a case of institutional inertia – the army is supposedly a slow-moving bureaucracy, and reversing the curfew may take time. Or perhaps it's because the army thinks like, well, an army. How do you restore order? Treat the city like a battlefield, control the space. And the best way to do that is keep it clear as possible. Thanks to the curfew, fewer people will go out late, and for those who do, merely being outside is at least technically a pretext to stop, question and/or disperse them. This is a fantastic tool for controlling an area.

But that's just a guess. Ultimately, I don't know the army's intentions and I don't know why they're doing this. What I do know is that there's a real danger of inertia setting in. For most people who don't live right next to a despised ministry, it's not such an inconvenience. You could definitely get used to it. The curfew isn't strictly enforced, and I haven't (yet) heard any stories of individuals getting arrested because of it. Even in ultra-fortified downtown, life under a not-harshly-enforced curfew is inconvenient and frustrating, but not oppressive.

But that opens the door to something insidious. If the curfew is not often enforced, and plenty of people are outside after midnight, technically, they could be stopped and questioned at any time because they are, technically, breaking the rules. If you wanted arbitrary power to harass people, you couldn't ask for a better tool than to have a common practice – being out late – be illegal but not usually punished. It turns a huge swath of the population into criminals, and it lets you, the army, choose when to enforce the rules and when to let people 'get away with it'. A selectively-enforced rule gives the person deciding when to enforce it a lot of power. Especially a selectively enforced rule governing freedom of movement. Egyptians have plenty of experience with the insidious terror of arbitrary authority, with having your fate rest on whether some policeman is having a bad day or not. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, as Carl Schmitt put it.

I want to be clear: I have not heard of this being abused yet, to my knowledge. This scenario of the curfew being used selectively to harass dissidents or marginal elements of society is, as far as I know, hypothetical. But so long as there's a curfew, there is the possibility, the opportunity, and the temptation to use it as a tool of arbitrary power, should the military, state security, or the police feel pressure mounting against them. It requires us to trust that an institution that has already resorted to Mubarak-esque tactics – using plainclothes thugs to break up demonstrations, arresting dissidents, torturing them, and then having state media say they're thugs and criminals and foreign agents – will not succumb to that temptation.

Perhaps I'm overly pessimistic, but I do worry about these things, late at night in my locked-down apartment, when I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.

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