The Poor Always Bear the Highest Cost

In front of the High Court building, this scene unfolds:  Poor and low-income women, children, and men wait for prisoner transport vehicles to arrive carrying their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and daughters, who are scheduled to appear before the courts.  They wait to reassure themselves that their loved ones are well.  They wait to be allowed to pass through the iron gate and to be with their loved ones in the courtrooms until the “hearings” come to an end.  They wait to exchange hasty good-byes and steal final glimpses of their loved ones as they are once again taken away.

Those whose appearance suggests that they are not among the poorer classes are not prevented from passing through the iron gate and entering the High Court building or from bringing a lawyer to represent them.  The poor and those from low-income families, however, are unable to obtain a lawyer, and many are thus prevented from entering at all.

In front of the High Court building, a second scene unfolds:  A poor, elderly woman does not stop crying as she searches for her son, who was taken from their home by the police some months ago and never returned.  The woman does not know his exact whereabouts, and the only news she has received about him is contradictory information passed to her by a “kind-hearted” police officer who lives nearby.  At times, he says, “Your son is in Tora Prison,” so she goes, bringing with her a care package of food and other necessities for her son as well as some money.  She returns disappointed after the prison administration informs her that her son’s name “is not on our lists.”  Other times, she is told, “Your son is detained in the Ain Shams police station,” so she goes again, carrying with her the care package and money, only to be similarly disappointed.  Today, she has come to the High Court building after the kind-hearted police officer told her, “He will be brought in a transport vehicle to the High Court building – come so that you can see for yourself that he is well.”  As always, she has brought with her the care package and money.  She is accompanied by a male relative, and they learn that the police vehicles have not yet come.  When the vehicles do finally arrive, she leaps up to see her son, but he is not among those who have been brought to appear before the courts.  She screams and bursts into tears, throwing down the care package before crumpling to the ground herself, crying due to the pain caused by the disappearance of her son and out of fear for his life, lamenting that her heart is fading and her body no longer able to bear waiting outside the doors of the prisons, police stations, and courtrooms.

In contrast, the rich and powerful do not lack ways to find out where their loved ones are being detained.  Nor do the families of detainees and prisoners who are well-known to the public lack ways to find them, except temporarily or in cases of enforced disappearance (of which there are many).  The suffering of the poor and those from low-income families, however, is multiplied when they are not granted their rights and freedoms – including the right of family members to know the whereabouts of detained relatives, to conduct regular visits, and to be assured that their loved ones are being treated in a manner that respects their human dignity and guarantees them a fair trial.

Inside the High Court building, a third scene unfolds:  A young woman in her twenties and dressed in black stops me, asking if I will listen to her case and perhaps provide her with some useful advice.  As I listen, she tells me that her younger brother is among those “arrested in the recent events” and that she knows where he is being detained.  She shares that her brother suffers from epilepsy and needs to take multiple pills and medications to prevent his condition from deteriorating.  She tells me that on many occasions she has brought his medication to the place where he is detained, yet she has not been able to get it to him due to the suspicions of the police officers about the nature of the pills and their failure to be convinced by the medical papers documenting her brother’s condition that she presents to them.  She goes on to say that one of the workers at the detention center offered to take the medication to her brother in return for a sum of money, more than she and her family could afford, as they barely have enough money to make ends meet.  She then asks me, “To whom can I go to protect my brother’s right to receive the medicine he needs?”  She asks for no other assistance.  I suggest that she go to human rights organizations and provide her with the names and phone numbers of some such groups.  I also suggest that she could go to the Complaints Committee of the National Council for Human Rights to ask it to intervene on her brother’s behalf and explain to her how to get to its headquarters in Giza.

Again, it is clear that the rich and powerful do not lack ways to ensure that their detained loved ones receive the medical attention that they need.  Nor do the families of those detained or imprisoned for political reasons or other reasons known to the public lack such means, except temporarily or in cases of enforced disappearance or when the detainee’s whereabouts are unknown (as in the case of Mohamed Sultan).  The attempts of the poor and those from low-income families to ensure proper medical attention and humane treatment for their detained loved ones, however, are precluded by their empty pockets and their social networks which leave them far from the circles of power and influence.  The ability of the poor to seek help for their detained loved ones is further impeded by the obstacles which confront many human rights organizations and other initiatives aiming to defend detainees.  This is the case regardless of whether their loved ones were imprisoned for criminal acts or detained for political reasons or in the context of what the young woman in the High Court building called “recent events.”

The poor – “the salt of the earth” – comprise the overwhelming majority of this nation, yet they always bear the highest cost.  In their context, there is no distinction between violations to rights, freedoms and human dignity and the economic and social crises, poor living conditions, and inadequate services they suffer from in Egypt today.  There is similarly no difference between initiatives to “donate for Egypt” – which lose their voluntary nature when dealing with the poor and low-income families, turning into “obligatory donation” initiatives by taking their money before they even receive it (as in the recent decision by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation to deduct one pound out of the salaries of state employees to go towards the “Long Live Egypt” fund) – and changes in policies regarding subsidies without well-studied, effective guarantees to prevent increased suffering of the poor.

The poor always bear the highest cost.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk 

Image: Photo: People walk past an Egyptian army tank positioned outside Cairo's Tora prison (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)