State crime and street crime: Two sides of one coin?

When society is this corrupt, are the poor entitled to rise up and take what is ‘theirs’?

Criminal acts by the state created the environment for revolution [EPA]

Cairo, Egypt – The revolutionary process that erupted in this country on January 25, 2011, is an uprising against crime. This crime was structural and legalised – made legal by the political leadership of Egypt and their friends and business partners that practice it.

Various criminal forces – the police, the secret police, the state security – exist in large part to protect these criminals’ interests, with authority to enforce the ruling classes’ “law” without judicial liability. These forces were the first line of defence of the ruling system and this is why, in the first days of revolution, the population targeted them and broke the chains of their control.

I will argue that unless these conditions that allowed for organised structural crime do not change, street-level crime will only increase. With the government structure lacking the basic measures to provide for the widest portion of the Egyptian public, it comes as no surprise that many of those whom the rulers exploit and neglect are taking back what they think is theirs.

Furthermore, I will argue that, with the current criminal economic changes taking place, the poor have the right to crime, unless we put an end to the ongoing trend of structural theft.

Street crime

Since the January 25 revolution, the country has witnessed a rise in crime on its streets. I will not go into the details of any particular street crime. These stories I mention are not unique and surely can be expanded upon by every reader in Egypt. Rather, it is the discourse about the crime that I want, briefly, to engage with.

On a recent trip to Suez, my taxi driver looked me up and down before offering to give me a ride. He said that he wouldn’t give “just anyone” a ride, because he knew several other drivers who were robbed of their cars at knife or gunpoint by their customers in outlying areas.

He pointed at one street we passed and said: “I would never go down there.” 

A supermarket in the busy Munira neighbourhood, bordering downtown Cairo, reduced their working hours from 24 hours a day to 16. Massive metal gates have been installed after somebody in a car tried to rob a shop one night – even though it had security personnel.

On the morning of March 6, one of my friends found his car propped up on red bricks, without wheels.

In a village on the outskirts of the Delta city of Tanta, armed men robbed families in broad daylight, and two children were kidnapped. Unlike many similar cases in urban centres, where ransoms were demanded, nothing was ever heard from the kidnappers. According to rumours, the children’s organs were sold on the black market. The villagers believe that these crimes were permitted by the security forces – whose presence has been scarce since January 25, as they wait for their moment to return to the old order of things.

There are two intertwined reasons for the rise in street crime: the thirst for revenge, and the dire desperation of an underclass given permission by the ruling military junta to impregnate the population with a sense of fear, and a desire for the familiar “law and order” – with or without its old flaws. 

While Egyptians have begun to take over the streets from the police force that terrorised them for years, the criminals behind the gun no longer wear uniforms. But a more important difference is that these crimes have made a geographical shift: they are no longer strictly prioritising Egypt’s underclass for street crime; the rich are actually a much more lucrative target – and this is why the discourse of crime has expanded to the extent that it has.

Stories such as these are never ending. Some are exaggerated, some are rumours, but they all point to a changing reality on the streets of Egypt. “Everyday conversations have both an expressive and productive feature,” writes Teresa Caldeira in City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo.

In this anthropological study of crime, Caldeira explains that crime becomes targeted as the source for social regression. In Cairo, this might be expressed in statements such as albalad rayha feen bas? [“Where is this country heading?”] or albalad bazet [“The country is ruined”], in reference to rising street crime.

“The talk of crime itself and the fear provoked by it has the power to reformulate the view of our world,” Caldeira argues, thereby creating a simplistic understanding that too easily covers over deeper underlying reasons for events around us. 

State crime

State crimes are different in that they are invisible, though certain people feel their effects much more intensely. They pose much greater threats to our way of living. They are not attached with the same sensual experience or immediate threat that comes with street crime. We don’t feel the blade against our skin, only the dull pain of hunger in our stomachs. Furthermore, state crimes are so easily explained away by “experts” or grand narratives of state, history or religion.

The Alexandria neighbourhood of Muharram Bek boasts a police station renowned for the widespread use of torture within its walls. In December 2009, the police locked up a family and tortured them, as their 18-year-old son – Ibrahim Abdel Aziz – “interfered” in local business.

Ibrahim sold satellite TV subscriptions, and had been incarcerated without charge for a year, allegedly due to job-related problems. Upon his release, he learned that the two streets of his neighbourhood which he used to administer had been given to his competitor. The youth was determined to take back his old territory, and began cutting his old customers’ cables, seeking a way to threaten his competitor.

The police went with orders to arrest Ibrahim, and when they didn’t find him at home, arrested his parents and sister instead. They were tortured and held at the police station for 35 days, before a court deemed them innocent and released them.

The criminal police wanted to send their message – no-one disrupts their interests, legal or illegal – and it was a message heard loud and clear.

When workers at the Starch and Glucose Factory in Torah started a sit-in in 2008, demanding better pay, the administration reported the case to the state security officer assigned to the factory. He sent his state criminals to threaten the protesting workers and then incarcerated and tortured two of them in a nearby prison. The workers went back to work immediately, their demands unmet.

“We used to be imprisoned in our bodies, but today I am free to speak, I am not imprisoned from the inside or outside,” Abdullah, one of the workers who participated in the occupation of the same factory in February 2011, told me in an interview.

Both in 2008 and 2011, the workers protested against government officials’ criminal form of privatisation. Privatisation is not in and of itself criminal, but when you place a large quantity of valuable land, factories and institutions at the disposal of a few government members to auction off, the tendency – globally – has been to attain the maximum amount of personal gain.

A conservative estimate of theft comes from a think-tank – the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies – that advised on much of the privatisation process. Now, it estimates that “the assets that Egyptian officials sold off since 1991 have netted only about $10 billion, $90 billion less than their estimated value”.

A court case is still pending as to how a Kuwaiti investor managed to purchase two factories belonging to the Starch and Glucose Company at a price absurdly below market. When the Kuwaiti investor decided to downsize, with the aim of using the factory land along the Southern Nile bank for other purposes, Mahmoud Ateya – who worked at the factory for 27 years – was forced to quit, along with 700 others. “Either I left or they were going to reduce my pay, or fabricate criminal charges against me,” Ateya told me. “So we are thrown out on the streets.”

One Saudi entrepreneur admitted openly when he was taken to the court that he paid as much on the books as under the table to government officials, when he purchased the Omar Effendi store chain. With the lack of any serious judicial inquiries or punishment of the beneficiaries of these deals, public funds remain in personal bank accounts, while workers who invested their lives remain on the streets. 

Post-Mubarak state crime

It is Wednesday, February 29, and winds are blowing down street signs and sand across the Cairo-Alexendria desert road. Just about halfway between the two cities is Sadat City – a haven of slavery within the sturdy walls of the Egyptian private sector. Here, both local and foreign investors come to benefit from Egyptian subsidised gas and electricity, extravagantly low land rent prices – paid by the Egyptian population – and beyond all, to exploit the Egyptian work force. They do all these within the “legitimate” Egyptian law.

The labour law was penned in 2003 as Ahmed Nazif’s cabinet began the speeding up process of neo-liberalism in Egypt. The law was meant to increase liberties on both sides: including the right for business owners to fire workers within a certain timeframe – in exchange for increased liberties for workers to unionise. The only hitch was that the latter is never implemented. In most private factories today, if you organise, you lose your job. In parallel to the renewed labour law, “austerity” became a central tenet of government policies; this meant downsizing the public sector –  and doing so in the most brutal manner.

At the Legrand plant, the workers have been striking for the past 34 days, as of writing, demanding better compensation in line with the 2003 law. One of the workers, Zakareya, told me: “We will protest for one month, in the second month, we will bring our families to join us, but in the third, we will turn into criminals. 600 families turned criminal.”

The current government, in the spirit of the old, is on the verge of signing a new pact with the IMF, which by all indicators will include the agreement to impose a Value Added Tax (VAT). The VAT imposes taxation on consumption, which the poorest in Egypt spend a majority of their wages on.

The VAT is a model of taxation by which the government taxes the population based on consumption rather than income. As workers are pushed out of permanent employment due to government policies such as those in the privatisation programmes, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country are forced into irregular jobs that do not guarantee them a steady paycheck at the end of the month, that don’t provide them with healthcare and that may be lost at any moment.

If the government is to impose VAT, it is just one more form of policy that will rob the Egyptian population of any chance of a decent standard of living. It is a criminal logic imposed from above that the largest percentage of the population – the poor – will pay a larger part of the costs than the rest who could easily afford to pay more.

In 2004, during the fast-track neo-liberalism era of Mubarak’s reign, a flat-tax law was penned, whereby the maximum income tax bracket was slashed from 35 per cent to 20 per cent. That policy remains in place today.

These policies are crimes.

Many call the VAT the poor tax, should we not consider a stolen set of wheels the rich tax?

Prior to the revolution, street vendors lived in constant fear of the police driving them away, taking their merchandise or locking them up. Now, all over the country, street vendors have taken control of the streets. Their occupation of public spaces is their way of fighting back against a criminalised state structure in which they have no place.

Thus, without large capital to rent or purchase a shop on the main shopping area, these sellers can make their own share of profits in spite of government regulations. In Tunisia it was the self-immolation of Bouazizi, one such “informal” fruit vendor, who set a fire of rage across the region against the criminals who legitimise their actions with a statist narrative.

Alternatives to crime

The current political leadership – SCAF, the unelected government and a majority of elected parliamentarians – is using the excuse of an existing “economic crisis” as reason to entrench a criminal tendency, rather than to look for new solutions. These crimes include more loans for which the poor will pay, an entrenchment of open market policies that will lead to increased food prices, maintenance of tax evasion for the richest echelon of society and the maintenance of labour law conditions that favour entrepreneurs over workers. The list goes on.

The January 25 uprising, which started in response to suppression and the polarity of the standard of living, is a message clear enough that the burden of the cost of running a country such as Egypt must be broadened. This should also include, among other things, progressive taxation, significantly reduced subsidies for private industry, internal economic restructuring (instead of increased external loans) and independent monitoring mechanisms over public funds with judicial authority.

We must realise that the resistance taking place on the streets is a battle to undo the hegemony of capitalism, no matter if under the rule of the National Democratic Party (NDP) or the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or the Salafis or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

On October 28, 2011, businessman and Muslim Brotherhood economic adviser Hassan Malek praised the Mubarak government’s economic policies, stating they were merely plagued with corruption and favouritism. Malek’s statements point to a maintenance of the previus regime’s economic agenda under new oversight: that of their arch-enemies.

Furthermore, in recent months – since receiving a majority of parliament seats – the Brotherhood has taken significant steps to deepen the economic neo-liberal stance of the Mubarak regime that once repressed the movement. We have every reason to believe that the economic conditions that brought about the start of a revolutionary process are going to be maintained.

In Egypt, as elsewhere, the model of societal organisation of a deep partnership between capitalism and the nation-state is imploding. The mechanism of the nation-state today acts as a tool to control and suppress the masses on behalf of the ruling class. If the economic conditions during the Mubarak regime remain largely unchanged, then the logic of representation itself falters.

In 1993, Max Weber wrote that representation is a “structure of domination” (Economy and Society, p235). Since the revolutionary process started, every day countless numbers of Egyptians have been protesting or striking against the unaltered reality of their daily lives. This phenomenon is yet another example of the faltering of a nation-state’s governance.

As the ruling class has been forced to pass the mantle from one group of businessmen to another, the conditions for revolution against the rulers are maintained. If these realities do not change, eventually, street crime will become for many the only resort to try and achieve one’s right to decent living.

If we permit state crimes to continue flourishing, the population will continue to sow the seeds of its rulers’ crimes.

Philip Rizk is an independent film-maker based in Cairo, Egypt. He is a member of the mosireen video collective.

Follow him on Twitter: @tabulagaza

More from Author
Most Read