Notorious Egypt police back under spotlight after killings
James M. Dorsey
AFP PhotoA stampede at a Cairo stadium earlier this month, much like a politically-loaded football brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said three years ago, is shining a spotlight on Egypt’s unreformed, unabashedly violent, and politically powerful police and security forces amid confusion over what precisely happened and how many fans died.
Amid security forces holding fans and fans holding police responsible and conflicting assertions of the number of people who died in the incident one thing stands out: the deep-seated distrust and animosity between significant segments of the Egyptian public and an unreformed security force that was long the hated symbol of the regime of toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The factor played a key role in persuading the military in 2013 to overthrow Egypt’s first and only democratic elected president and has since left a bloody of brutal violence as evidenced by the deaths of some 1,400 anti-government protesters in the last 19 months.
In a report, Amnesty International underlined the persistent lack of accountability of Egypt’s security forces. “The Egyptian government has, as of yet, failed to hold any security officers accountable for these killings. A fact-finding committee established by former interim President Adly Mansour to investigate the killings also failed to hold any security officer accountable for these killings.” It noted that the stadium deaths came barely two weeks after the killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh by security forces sparked widespread outrage.
A 31-year-old protester, al-Sabbagh, was shot, according to eyewitnesses, by masked policemen after they attacked a small procession aiming to lay flowers on Tahrir Square in memory of Egypt’s derailed 2011 revolution. An editorial in al-Ahram, Egypt’s foremost state-owned newspaper, in an unusual break with its towing of the government line, condemned al-Sabbagh’s killing as cold-blooded murder for which it held the police responsible.
The editorial was believed to signal differences within the government and a realization among some senior officials that excessive security force violence was fuelling anti-government sentiment and damaging Egypt’s image. That realization is likely to be reinforced by the stadium incident and could spark some degree of reform of the police and security forces.
The stakes for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are high given that police brutality was one driver for the mass protests in 2011 that forced Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. Stadia were a key arena where security force violence contributed to the build-up of resistance to the Mubarak regime in the four years prior to the president’s ouster.
As a result, professional football matches have either been suspended or largely played behind closed doors since Mubarak’s downfall. The closures did little to stymie soccer-related violence that peaked a week ago when a decision to allow a limited number of fans into the Cairo stadium erupted in demands for broader access and a total lifting of the ban.
The Amnesty report described various incidents of excessive force by security forces in clashes with soccer fans since the fall of Mubarak. Amnesty said security forces had employed force “on a scale not seen” since the uprising against Mubarak in early 2011 during six days of vicious battles on Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud Street in November 2011 in which 51 people were killed. It said security forces used live ammunition, shotgun pellets, tear gas and beatings.
Some two months later, security forces killed another 16 fans and injured hundreds of others in four days of protests in the wake of the Port Said incident. Fans accused the interior ministry of at the very least failing to protect the al-Ahly fans in Port Said if not having orchestrated the incident. Nine security officials were among 75 people charged with responsibility for the incident. Only two of the security officials were sentenced to prison sentences while 21 al-Masry fans were given a death sentence. The case is winding its way through the appeal process.
The most benign explanation for the bloody track record of the police and the security forces is that they lack training and experience in crowd control. That explanation fails to wash, however, given that the record dates back many years in which calls for better training of a force that routinely employed non-commissioned thugs to do its dirty work were deliberately rejected or ignored and in which the security forces did everything to maintain their position as a pillar of repression that for all practical matters was above the law.
In February 2012, police and security forces stood aside as 74 fans of storied Cairo club al-Ahly SC died in a stampede in a stadium in Port Said sparked by an attack by supporters of rival al-Masry SC and allegedly unknown armed elements. The incident is widely viewed as an effort backed by security forces and the military to cut down to size militant al-Ahly supporters who like their arch rivals from Zamalek SC played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak and protests against all subsequent Egyptian governments.
Like in Port Said, the Interior Ministry, which oversees the security forces, rejects any responsibility for the deaths a week ago in Cairo as a result of police firing tear gas into a narrow corridor of metal barricades and barbed wire as thousands of fans waited to enter the Air Defense Stadium. Yet, like in Port Said, a video shows that at the start of the stampede fans begged the police to open the stadium gates to prevent casualties. The ministry has dismissed the video as a fabrication.
The government, despite announcing that it was investigating the stadium incident, has left little doubt that it holds the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant, street battle-hardened support group of Zamalek, responsible for the deaths which it puts at 20 as opposed to a list of 43 names published by UWK that has gone viral on the Internet. Police, meanwhile, arrested UWK members even before the investigation has been concluded.
In response, UWK has sworn revenge. “We have no confidence in the justice system or the government’s willingness to ensure that justice is served. We now have 43 martyrs. We have no choice: Football will not be played in Egypt until justice has been served and the rights of our martyrs have been secured,” said one UWK member.