Rioting ultras, striking police officers may ease Egypt reform

Rioting ultras, striking police officers may ease Egypt reform

James M. DORSEY Hürriyet Daily News
Rioting ultras, striking police officers may ease Egypt reform

Egyptian protesters close the main street by the Nile river in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The death toll rose to two in Cairo on March 9 after violence erupted following a verdict in the Port Said. AP photo

The fall-out from the deaths of 72 football fans in a politically-loaded stadium brawl has brought the need for reform of Egypt’s Mubarak-era law enforcement and judiciary to a head. Football supporters in Egyptian cities are protesting the verdict in the trial of those accused of responsibility for the incident, while security officials are striking against being made scapegoats in the country’s political crisis.

Protests sparked by this weekend’s confirmation of the death sentences of 21 Port Said football supporters, the conviction of only two out of nine police officers accused of responsibility for the worst incident in Egyptian sport history, and the acquittal of 28 of the 73 defendants, reflect intensified public anger rooted in widespread distrust of the security forces, as well as the judiciary’s failure to hold to account officers and officials responsible for the deaths of more than 900 protesters since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled two years ago.

The problems with law enforcement and the judiciary are compounded by the fact that Port Said-related demonstrations that are now in their second months have persuaded security forces to stage their own protests. Rank and file officers are speaking out publicly for the first time, with walk-outs across the country and refusals to engage in crowd control.

Police’s dilemma 

Egypt’s 1.7 million-strong police and security forces, widely viewed as the repressive arm of Mubarak’s regime and largely unreformed since his departure, feel caught between the rock of President Mohamed Morsi’s insistence on cracking down on protests and the hard place of the public denouncing their brutality. Reminiscent of scenes during the uprising two years ago in which the military refrained from cracking down on protesters demanding Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, striking police in Egypt’s second city Alexandria put up banners saying “Police and the people are one hand.” 

The reminiscence of the military’s role in the 2011 uprising is, however, a double-edged sword. Protesters in Port Said welcomed the withdrawal of the security forces, but criticized the military for not protecting them from the police in weeks of clashes.

“Our demands haven’t been met. The army isn’t protecting us. Have they done anything to meet our demands?” said Ibrahim ElMasri, a former Al-Masri player and spokesperson for the families of those sentenced.

The complexity of law enforcement’s dilemma and the difficulty of reforming its institutions is that they have operated for much of the past three decades without oversight, employing a rank and file that had little education or training. In addition, there is little love lost between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the security forces who often targeted the group in the days when it was clandestine or existed in a legal netherland. Striking policemen say they are also opposed to what they see as attempts by Morsi to infuse political Islam into their ranks.

The strikes and walk-outs in 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces, some of which demanded the resignation of the interior minister, nevertheless open the door to security sector reform. They indicate significant support for change in institutions that were widely seen as implacably beholden to the former regime. Sources close to Morsi argue that the president is seeking to reform law enforcement gradually, but has been hampered by the need to restore law and order amid mounting protests.

Fan’s internal debate

Rival militant, highly politicized and street battle-hardened soccer fans in Port Said as well as Cairo agree on little, but last year’s brawl was not spontaneous. Supporters of Al-Masri and Cairo club Al-Ahli, who counted 70 dead among their ranks in last year’s incident, believe it was an effort that got out of hand to teach a lesson to fans who had played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak. 
As a result, last weekend’s failure to convict all nine officers, coupled with the absence of a justification of the court’s verdict, has reaffirmed perceptions that law enforcement and the judiciary are politicized, and constitute laws unto themselves.

The verdict has sparked separate internal discussions among Al-Masri and Al-Ahli supporters on how best to respond. Al-Ahli fans feel, on the one hand, that justice has been served with the confirmation of the death sentences. However, one significant part of the group wants to maintain its attacks on the Interior Ministry, which controls the security forces, until officers are held fully accountable. That sentiment is fueled by the supporters’ years of confrontation with security forces. 

Ultras Ahlawy, the Al-Ahli supporters’ group, denied reports on March 9 that it was responsible for fires at the offices of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and al-Watan newspaper, after the latter reported that they had met with the Muslim Brotherhood in advance of this weekend’s verdict. The ultras did admit, however, to storming and setting on fire a police officers’ club near the Al-Ahli ground on March 9.