Egypt’s justice minister has resigned after raising a public uproar by saying in a TV interview that the children of rubbish collectors workers are too lowly to become judges. The comments by Mahfouz Saber brought a heavy backlash on social media from Egyptians denouncing elitism and what some saw as the arrogance of Egypt’s judiciary, already under criticism for harsh sentences against government opponents. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said in a statement on Monday that Saber resigned out of “respect for public opinion”.
In an interview late on Sunday with the private TV channel 10, Saber was asked about charges of favouritism in the appointment of judges. When he said appointments are made according to objective standards, the interviewer said: “So the son of a sanitation worker could be made a judge?”
“Let’s not go too far,” Saber replied. “With all due respect to cleaners and those above or beneath them, a judge must hail from an appropriate environment… Thanks are due to a cleaner who raises and educates his children, but there are other jobs that they can take.”
He said if the children of rubbish collectors became judges they would face problems and eventually suffer from depression and leave.
In response, Shahata Muqdis, the head of Cairo’s rubbish collectors, told the Youm Al-Sabea newspaper: “The son of a garbage man can be smarter than your son. And the son of a garbage man won’t be ashamed of his father.”
There were multiple calls for Saber’s resignation. A group of activist lawyers, called Haqaniyah, demanded prosecutors investigate Saber on criminal charges of inciting hatred and violating the constitution.
Saber’s comments were particularly embarrassing since they ran contrary to the image that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has sought to promote of himself as a leader championing the poor and marginalised. One of the main objectives of the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak was social justice.
But many claim that little has been done to realise change in what many Egyptians see as an entrenched classist system in a country where nearly half the population of 90 million lives near or below the poverty line.
It was Egypt’s 1952 “revolution” – a coup by young army officers that toppled Egypt’s Turkish monarchy – that first tried to bring a more egalitarian society. The coup ended a centuries-old feudal system and introduced socialist policies. Egypt’s subsequent presidents came from relatively humble origins – for example, the father of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was in office in the 1950s and 1960s, was a postman.
But it never came close to achieving equality or a meritocracy in the country. To this day, the judiciary, the diplomatic service and the officer classes of the armed forces and police are mostly off-limits to the poor.
During Mubarak’s 29 years in power, inequality spiralled, with senior government officials and wealthy businessmen forging an alliance that ignored the needs of the country’s poor.
“The fault is not with the sanitary worker, but with our classist society,” Radwa Aboul-Azm, content manager at a large media company and a popular blogger, wrote on Facebook. “The minister did no wrong. He made realistic comments that hit us hard over the head. It’s like he slapped us.”
This article from agency reports originally appeared in Al Jazeera