President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly apologized to lawyers Sunday amid an ongoing strike over police violations.
In a public appearance on Sunday to inaugurate a number of development projects, Sisi said offences by security personnel against lawyers would be treated as individual acts, according to the official Middle East News Agency (MENA).
The strike, organized by the Lawyers Syndicate, followed an assault by the head of Farskour police station in Damietta against lawyer Emad Fahmy.
The incident is the latest in a series of assaults by police against lawyers, which have been perceived by the latter as a systematic campaign.
“I address all state institutions to please take care of things, despite everything we encounter,” Sisi said, addressing Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, MENA reported.
“I apologize for every Egyptian citizen that has been insulted, because of the direct responsibility I have. I say to our sons in the police and anyone working in government institutions that they should take care, because they are dealing with human beings. Their jobs require them to bear the burden [of pressures],” he added.
Officials at the Lawyers Syndicate were quick to accept Sisi’s apology. Head of the Lawyers Syndicate Sameh Ashour praised the move, saying it is an indication that Egypt is on the right track. In a statement on his official Facebook page, Ashour thanked Sisi, deeming his apology as a victory in upholding the dignity of lawyers.
Head of the Lawyers Syndicate’s Eastern Cairo Division, Mohamed Othman, also thanked Sisi for the apology. “It is a truthful testimony against all those who wanted to smear lawyers in public,” Othman said.
The strike action initiated by the Lawyers Syndicate dates back to an incident in which lawyer Karim Hamdy was found dead in his cell at Matareya police station on February 24. An autopsy report concluded that he was tortured to death.
A group of lawyers protested in early March, demanding a transparent investigation into the case. They were summoned for investigation by the prosecutor general, who also issued a gag order on the case in April.
In the same month, 63-year-old lawyer Imam Afify allegedly died at the same Matareya Public Hospital, after he was severely beaten while in detention at the police station.
Rights lawyers expressed their anger that the Lawyers Syndicate had welcomed Sisi’s apology, especially following a verdict by Farskour Misdemeanor Court sentencing the police officer to three months in prison for assaulting the lawyer. The lawyer himself was also sentenced to one month for attacking a civil servant. Both can pay a fine to suspend their sentences.
Human rights lawyer Haleem Heniesh told Mada Masr that Sisi’s apology is not acceptable, as necessary structural reforms in the Interior Ministry are needed to hold members accountable for rights violations. “This apology is like a painkiller. It cures the pain temporarily, but the problem still persists,” he asserted.
Ashour’s rush to accept the apology might mean an end to the strike, and gain him leverage ahead of the syndicate elections, according to Heniesh.
Head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and rights lawyer Gamal Eid explained to Mada Masr that the value of the lawyers’ strike lies in the participation of the pro-regime wing. Eid referred specifically to Ashour and the heads of syndicate divisions, who openly support Sisi’s government. If Ashour is critical, he added, it means the Interior Ministry has definitely gone too far this time.
“If there are half a million people [the lawyers] who are ready to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of ending police brutality, this is threatening to the regime,” he said, referring to a declaration by Ashour on Saturday that the strike has engaged 90 percent of lawyers across the country.
Ashour added that lawyers who did not participate in the strike would be referred to an internal disciplinary committee.
For Heniesh, the spat between lawyers and the police is far from being merely political. Violations do not just target lawyers working on political cases, but also extend to lawyers who work on non-political cases, like Fahmy.
“This is why there is a need for a strong protest movement among lawyers. Participation in this strike reflects genuine anger among lawyers, which may ultimately result in a stronger movement, championed by a syndicate board that truly protects the interests of lawyers,” he explained.
Haniesh asserted, “Sisi’s apology would most probably suspend the strike temporarily, but it will continue once a new violation occurs.”