By James M. Dorsey
Escalating street violence in the wake of a partial verdict in the Port Said soccer brawl case pits arch enemies – militant soccer fans and Egypt’s security forces – against one another, highlighting the urgency of moves for refrom of law enforcement in a bid to end the turmoil and return the country to a path of economic growth.
The violence that has already left at least 32 people dead and 300 others wounded was sparked by the sentencing of 21 of 73 defendants charged with responsibility for the death a year ago of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC in Port Said after a match against the Suez Canal city’s Al Masri SC.
The verdict provoked not only the ire of Port Said and frustration and mounting anger among Al Ahli fans that security officials and their political masters have yet to be held accountable for the Port Said incident. It also puts Egypt’s religious establishment in a bind. Under Egypt’s newly adopted controversial constitution, clerics at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, historically Islam’s foremost seat of learning and traditionally a rubber stamp for the government, have to ratify the death sentences.
The verdict, equally fundamentally, reflects growing popular frustration with President Mohammed Morsi’s autocratic style, the government’s failure to hold police and security officials responsible for death of more than 800 protesters since the eruption of the revolt that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, rapid economic decline – and the lack of reform of a police and security force widely seen as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime that has been allowed post-revolt to conduct business as usual with impudence.
A human rights report published this week by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) concluded that “the Egyptian police continue to systematically deploy violence and torture, and at times even kill. Although the January revolution was sparked in large part by police practices and vocally demanded an end to these practices, accountability for all offenders and the establishment of permanent instruments to prevent their recurrence, two years after the revolution the situation remains unchanged.”
The interior ministry, backed by the cabinet at times, continues to defend criminal police personnel by denying the facts, justifying abuses or turning a blind eye as policemen facing criminal charges pressure their victims to change their statements to undermine the case. Consecutive governments have also lacked the political will to prioritize the issue of security sector reform, and even after the election of the first civilian president. As these systematic abuses continue, policemen remain above the law and immunized from criminal accountability,” the report said.
EIPR charged that the “police, acting like a street gang, enforce vigilante justice on those who wrong them, in utter disregard for the law or professionalism.” Militant soccer fans or ultras who played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak, subsequent opposition to military rule and recent protests against Mr. Morsi lead the pack of those the police and security forces believe have wronged them.
This week’s violence that started already before Saturday’s Port Said verdict follows a pattern developed over the last two years of pitched street battles between security forces and the ultras and other youth groups who spearheaded the country’s popular revolt that has the makings of street gangs fighting it out.
"The violence was the latest in a seemingly endless series of confrontations between the disparate forces of the revolution and the still-unreformed institutions of the Egyptian state. Skirmishes lasted for hours near the headquarters of one of those institutions: the Interior Ministry. On (Cairo’s) Yousef El-Gindi Street, where the government built a wall to keep demonstrators from approaching the ministry, the clashes settled…into a violent, halting rhythm.
The crowd of mostly young men and teenagers would approach the government wall blocking access to the ministry and hurl stones and the occasional Molotov cocktail at the riot police positioned on the other side of the wall. Then, tear gas canisters would come streaming in from the other side of the wall, sending the protesters scrambling, hacking, and red-faced with pain... Police in riot gear appeared on a rooftop behind the wall, hurling rocks and debris down at the demonstrators. Fires were lit in the street… The Ultras arrived with a roar, shooting flame throwers and beaming green laser pointers at the government troops on the opposite side of the wall,” wrote Jared Malsin on Vice.com.
In a new development, this week’s protests also marked the emergence of the Black Block, a group of protesters reminiscent of soccer hooligans in Europe and Latin America believed to largely consist of ultras who dress in black and whose faces are concealed by black masks, a tactic used by the fans during the revolt against Mr. Mubarak. The group vowed on its Facebook page to protect demonstrators against the security forces and what they termed ruling Muslim Brotherhood thugs, a sentiment that ultras repeatedly express. They say that years of abuse in Egypt’s stadiums by law enforcement have made them intolerant of police brutality.
The emergence of the group reflects an escalation in the mushrooming confrontation with the police and security forces that underlies much of Egypt’s post-Mubarak violent protests and symbolizes the ultras’ battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or interior ministry.
That dignity is unlikely to be restored until the police and security forces have been reformed – a task Mr. Morsi’s government has so far largely shied away from. While reforming law enforcement is no mean fete, EIPR, in its report has proposed a series of measures that the Morsi government could implement and that would likely go a long way to break the cycle of violence Egypt is caught up in.
The measures include legislation that would guarantee the independence of public prosecutors and separate them from investigative authorities, establish an independent commission that would investigate cases of death and serious injury caused by police personnel, create an independent commission to monitor detention facilities and grant civil rights groups access to detention facilities, and amend laws that regulate the use of force and firearms by police and security forces.
Saturday’s court verdict and the escalating violence puts the ball in Mr. Morsi’s court. A first stab at reforming law enforcement alongside greater transparency and moves to reach out to the government’s critics would open the road to reducing political volatility and creating conditions for economic recovery.
The question is whether Mr. Morsi is up for the task. A man formed in a group that was clandestine for much of its 80-year history and in recent years operated in a legal nether land who now occupies the seat of power, Mr. Morsi has yet to demonstrate the politically savvy needed to draw Egypt back from the abyss.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog