Friday, February 13, 2009

Justice and the New Traffic Law

In an attempt to invigorate Egypt's new Traffic Law that went into effect last August, hundreds of drivers were arrested last month in various cities for driving in the wrong direction. According to the new law, driving in the wrong direction is penalized by up to three years in jail.

Laws, theoretically speaking, are devised, passed and enforced to serve justice and create order. But this new law is shrouded in multiple layers of injustice and inequality.

First, the law's many clauses are replete with tough penalties, arguably to restore order to the messy, chaos-ridden streets of Egypt, The Egyptian populace could happily accept this severity had they acknowledged that law in their country is, systematically and sincerely, enforced upon all citizens.

But that is certainly not the case. Laws in Egypt are, to borrow the phrase of Sir Francis Bacon, "like cobwebs, where the small flies are caught and the great break through." By and large, application of law in Egypt is inconsistent, and prone to prejudice and discrimination. In addition, corruption is rampant and connections to the powerful and the haves is a safety valve to law offenders.

That is where the famous Egyptian saying 'the law is on vacation' derives its validity and endurance. For example, how ironic it is that, on one hand, nobody has been held accountable for the death of the some 1000 passengers who were aboard the ferry 'Salam 98' that drowned in the Red Sea three years ago, but, on the other, hundreds of drivers were, in the blink of an eye, arrested and sent to court for violating traffic laws?

The state has decided to flex its muscles on drivers and flatten them on other citizens. How just is that?

Secondly, over the past few decades, the personal security of people and the inviolability of their possessions have been sacrificed on the altar of 'regime security.' For the most part, police officers are accustomed to believe that the safety of the President and his family and entourage comes first, hence they are entitled to receive more attention, and absorb a larger budget. As a result, an increase in theft, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, harassment and burglary has been reported since a bigger and bigger slice of the Interior Ministry's budget has over time been reallocated to expenditure channels that are wary of threats to 'state security.'

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Interior has apparently suspected that these types of crimes are less threatening than traffic violations.

In simple words, an average Egyptian is now more vulnerable to criminals and thugs who are mostly not chastised, but this same average Egyptian is more severely punished for minor offenses, such as traffic regulations. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, he/she loses on both counts. How just is that?

Thirdly, lawmakers failed to realize that planning for Plato's republic is different from planning for an anarchic and frenzied city like Cairo.

Instead of devising a comprehensive plan for the development of huge Egyptian cities such as Cairo and Alexandria that integrates the knowledge and expertise of urban planners, engineers, sociologists, and economists, lawmakers naïvely thought that the new decree would magically decrease congestion and restore order. That could be a textbook example of putting the cart before the horse.

In effect, the helpless drivers are paying for everybody else's sins. Road infrastructure (traffic signs, traffic lights, lane markers, etc) are either nonexistent or in poor conditions. Likewise, urban planning has been alien to Cairo, which was allowed to swell in the past few decades into one of the world's biggest metropolises, without taking into consideration the effect of that growth upon the city's social development, economic activity and everyday life. The result has been over crowdedness, ailing services, suffocating pollution and chronic road congestion.

The archive of Egypt's legislation is also full of decrees that were, for decades, so leniently enforced by municipalities, such as using the basements of buildings for parking purposes. Instead, basements have been used for commercial purposes and, consequently, double-parking has become commonplace.

Against the backdrop of these realities, the law has taken its toll on drivers whose 'good conduct', lawmakers believed, was bound to bring back order and tranquility to Egyptian streets. How just is that?

The wise words of French political theorist Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) could not be more relevant:
"There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because the law makes them so."

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on February 12, 2009.