Egypt’s Security Juggernaut: Why Morsi Embraces Corrupt Police

By Robert Joyce

CAIRO—The name “Mubarak” lingers on many of Cairo’s subway maps. The downtown station that formerly shared the dictator’s name has since been renamed Al Shohadaa (Martyrs), but commuters can still make out Mubarak’s name, despite efforts to scratch it out. The everyday persistence of the word “Mubarak” is a reminder that Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished, and the legacy of Hosni Mubarak still haunts the nascent democracy.

The marches and rallies, signs of constantly growing civil society in Egypt, continue in Cairo today. This past January 25th, the anniversary of the revolution, protests popped up across the city. While these were overshadowed by the simultaneous violence, it is worth remembering that for most Egyptians, political participation is a peaceful activity. The hope and pride of an empowered youth remain on display at these demonstrations. For the participants, the revolution continues and they will not give up their newfound voice.

Dissatisfaction persists, even after the revolution, because the revolution’s goals of “bread, freedom, and social justice” have not been met and because the ruling Muslim Brotherhood has done new wrongs to society, according to protestors. The rallies have energy. Indignation towards the sitting government is mixed with a patriotic responsibility to be there and take ownership of the situation. The slogans are powerful, including the familiar demand for the fall of the regime, calling the Brotherhood “thugs,” and mocking the current president, Mohammed Morsi, as a minion for the Brotherhood’s Murshid or “supreme guide.” Describing how activists view the last two years, Ahmed El-Badry, a recent computer engineering graduate from Cairo University, said the revolution was continuing in “waves.”

“We say these are the waves of the revolution. The first wave, the second wave, and we believe this is the third wave. The first wave was when we removed Mubarak, the second was when we removed the Supreme Military Council, and this is the third wave, against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The waves are battering Egypt. Economically, the Egyptian pound has plummeted, from hovering between four and five pounds to the U.S. dollar to now almost seven. Unemployment has increased, wages have stagnated, and foreign companies are pulling out. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have dropped below their bare minimums, sending the government in a scramble to hold on to as many euros and dollars as possible. The most recent episode of unrest surrounding Port Said has delayed, again, negotiations for an IMF loan.

Politically, Morsi’s opposition has organized behind several former presidential candidates, among them Mohammed El Baradei the Nobel Prize winner and former IAEA Director General. Both sides have accused each other of encouraging violence and continued unrest. Although the revolution’s anniversary has brought more engagement from each side, progress is far from certain. Further, its unclear that compromise from the top will lead to calm in the streets.

Life in Cairo hasn’t gotten any easier. Every couple of weeks, the country’s instability creates a major disruption. Residents regularly have to plan alternative routes to home and work as the city’s Nile-crossing bridges could be blocked by demonstrators or police. In the lead-up to the sentencing of 21 people in response to the Port Said soccer massacre, die-hard fans, called Ultras, climbed down onto the tracks of the metro lines, preventing service. These disruptions cause Cairo’s already congested roads to completely suffocate. Gasoline shortages, electricity and Internet disruptions, and other infrastructure problems add to residents’ concerns.

Acknowledging the mess, El-Badry compared the revolution’s effect on Egypt to lifting the lid on a stagnant garbage can—the pungency is overwhelming, but must be dealt with before progress can be made. 

The worst disruptions are caused by violent clashes between security forces and the more combative demonstrators. Different than those who are regularly active in politics, these mostly young men have a specific motivation, more removed from party politics: hatred of the country’s police and security forces.

Egypt’s Ultras, diehard soccer fans, often take a leading role in these clashes. A rally song from the Zamalek White Knights, quoted in the online Middle East magazine Jadaliyya, captures the contempt. Sung to police forces, it goes, “We have not forgotten about Tahrir, you son’s of bitches.”

Two years ago, it was Police Day that sparked the demonstrations that would play out as the start of the revolution. The holiday was seen as a horrible irony for many, celebrating a police force capable of the sort of brutality that killed Khaled Said, who’s death inspired the infamous Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said.” The page gained hundreds of thousands of hits and its airing of police abuse was credited with sparking the Police Day protests. The success of the revolution, according to an editor of Jadaliyya, Hesham Sallam, who also recently co-authored a report on security sector reform published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, is often referred to as “people’s defeat of the police.”

Most damaging, justice has escaped the families of the over 800 protestors killed by security forces during the 18-day revolution and since. “In light of the absence of any credible transitional justice framework, there is also much public outrage at the fact that many senior police officials have not been held to account for past abuse,” Sallam says.

Now, groups of young men who are frustrated by the failure of justice, take every opportunity to lash out at security forces, creating violent scenes. Reprisals from security forces fill the streets with tear gas and escalate the clashes. Writing for Al Ahram, Khaled Fahmy, head of the history department at the American University of Cairo and a political activist, summarized the centrality of the state of Egypt’s security sector: “The serious crisis we are experiencing is primarily caused by the corruption of the security sector, and is enforced by a lack of political will to end this corruption.”

Egypt’s central security forces are a juggernaut, self-contained with their own internal interests and financial resources. Even if considered separate from the military, which itself controls up to a fifth of the Egyptian economy, corruption and years of unquestioned power has made the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the central security forces, a force that Morsi has had trouble controlling. When in November security forces refused to stop demonstrations at the Presidential Palace, Morsi was forced to call in Brotherhood members to “defend” the Palace, resulting in bloody clashes.

The Minister of the Interior was replaced shortly after that incident. A recent Egyptian Independent article suggests that the new Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, was selected because of loyalty to the Brotherhood and will continue the ministry’s politicization.

To break the cycle, many human rights organization have called for the wholesale reform of Egypt’s security sector. The Egyptian Initiative for Person Rights has detailed abuse cases by police forces in a recent report, and has called for legislation aimed at curtailing the use of violence. The USIP has recommended that the security forces be downsized, transparency increased, and their mission narrowed to exclude economic interests.

Reform of the ministry could defuse much of Cairo’s street clashes, break the cycle, and bring much needed stability. Morsi, however, doesn’t seem to be listening.

Morsi “has shown no political will to grapple seriously with police reform,” says Sallam.  Adding that Morsi’s reluctance “is an indication that he is dependent on the same coercive apparatus that Egypt inherited from the Hosni Mubarak era. … Morsi cannot dismantle the state’s coercive apparatus, because he needs it to quell his challengers.”



Robert Joyce is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Robert Joyce.]


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