Should we be held accountable for what we say?
Several similar incidents are reminiscent of the sacking of the Minister of Justice Ahmed Al-Zind. Public figures were transferred to courts or judged by public opinion due to controversial statements, whether they were expressing their opinion or it was simply a lapse in judgement.
It seems the issue was not exactly what he said, but rather in recent times Egyptian society has put more of a spotlight on “slips of the tongue”. Insults and threats that call for speakers to be “beaten with shoes” have led to the deterioration of public discourse.
What is happening in Egypt is not at all surprising. Ibn El-Muqaffa says: “Tongues pronounce what is hidden in souls, revealing secrets and destroying their holders.”
Social media sites presented many examples of “slips of the tongue”, whether unintentional, as is implied by the phrasing, or whether it did actually reflect the position adopted by the speaker, but his remark was uncalculated.
In 1989, former minister of interior Zaki Badr clashed with Wafd Party MP Talat Ruslan under the dome of the parliament, after Badr insulted the party’s iconic figurehead Fouad Serag Eddin and one of his relatives. This angered Ruslan and prompted him to slap the minister in the face. In return, Badr beat him with his shoe. The political leadership called for the then prime minister Atef Sidqi to intervene and stop the violations by the interior minister.
However, Badr did not pay attention to the advice of the prime minister and continued to insult whoever opposed his security policy. At the beginning, Badr’s attack was limited to opposition leaders, until he crossed a line during a conference with the Diplomatic Institute’s officers in Banha city, where he insulted a number of state symbols, including Sidqi, former secretary general of the National Democratic Party Youssef Waly, former minister of information Safwat El-Sherif, and former minister of housing Hasballah El-Kafrawi.
Badr verbally abused former minister of endowments Mohamed Ali Mahjoub and the majority of governors, revealing his plan to kill 530,000 Egyptians. He added that he had ordered mayors and sentries to kill and bury all bearded people or those wearing white gallabeyas. Hence, former president Hosni Mubarak decided to sack his minister of interior as his severe lapse in judgment abused the system and its symbols.
The minister of information under Muslim Brotherhood rule, Salah Abdel-Maksoud, is best known for his sexist comments. The first incident occurred when Syrian TV anchor Zina El-Yazji was hosting him on a talk-show; he told her at the beginning of the meeting, “I hope your questions will be hot like you”. Abdel-Maksoud’s comment prompted the anchor to politely embarrass him. This was not the only incident. On another occasion, he was asked by a young journalist about the freedom of the press during a press conference. Everyone was surprised by his reply: “If you came back to my place, I would tell you.”
General Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister under Mubarak’s rule and the first prime minister after the 25 January Revolution, as well as a former presidential candidate, said in remarks to BBC that he suggested Tahrir Square be turned into London’s Hyde Park, where protesters can gather and buy food and “sweets”. This remark stirred the public opinion against Shafik, which prompted him to submit his resignation on 4 March 2011 to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which was running the country at the time, headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
During a visit to Mahmoud Saeed Museum in Alexandria in 2015, the former minister of culture Abdul Wahid El-Nabawy mocked the appearance of the curator in front of museum employees. After answering many questions from the minister, the curator said to him: “I have a problem: having worked here for seven years, I’m long-overdue a salary increase as per the law.” El-Nabawy replied to her: “And I have a problem with fat employees.” Moreover, he told the director of the museum: “This girl is fat; you should make her go up and down the stairs 20 times a day so as to lose weight.” He was eventually dismissed from government.
As society grows more troubled, badly chosen comments from those in power face even graver consequences at the hands of the public.