By James M. Dorsey
President Mohammed Morsi’s imposition of a curfew in three Egyptian Suez Canal and Red Sea cities may temporarily reduce violent street opposition to his policies but like this weekend’s initial verdict in the case against those responsible for last year’s death of 74 soccer fans in Port Said will do little to return political stability to the country.
While the move caters to a craving among many protest-weary Egyptians for a return to normalcy that would help put the country on a path of economic growth, it reinforces perceptions of Mr. Morsi as an autocratic leader with an Islamist agenda rather than a man willing and capable of reforming state institutions molded under his toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, in a country that has just emerged from three decades of repressive emergency rule.
At the root of growing discontent in the country is the government’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for the death of more than 800 people since the eruption of mass protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, Mr. Morsis’s apparent inability to convincingly reach out to his critics, his rushed adoption of a controversial constitution, and the government’s failure to tackle an economy in decline.
This weekend’s initial sentencing to death of 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC soccer club and postponement until March 9 of a verdict in the case of 52 other defendants accused of responsibility for the worst incident a year ago in Egyptian soccer history has served only to reinforce deep-seated mistrust of Mr. Morsi. This is all the more the case given that the court has yet to publish its justification of the sentencing and did not include any of the nine mid-level security officials in its initial verdict.
Supporters of Al Masri as well as crowned Cairo club Al Ahli SC and a broad swath of Egyptian public opinion believe that the violence that erupted last year at the end of a match between the two in Port Said’s stadium in which mostly Al Ahli fans were killed was much more than a simple soccer brawl.
The incident is widely seen as an attempt that got out of hand by the then military rulers of the country and the police and security forces to cut militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans or ultras down to size.
The multitude of ultras organizations, one of the largest civic groups in Egypt after Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, with supporters of Al Ahli and its Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek in the lead played a key role in the toppling two years ago of president Hosni Mubarak, subsequent opposition to military rule and protests against Mr. Morsi’s authoritarian style of government and failure to address a worsening economic crisis.
In imposing curfews and calling on the military to restore law and order in Port Said, where 32 protesters were killed this weekend in the hours after the announcement of the verdict, as well as in Suez and Ismailia, without linking it to reforms of the police and security forces as well as the judiciary constitutes at best a band aid that allows the wound to fester.
At the core of the violence is a deep-seated hatred between the ultras and other youth groups and law enforcement, the most despised institutions in Egypt that are widely viewed as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime who until today are a law unto themselves.
In fact, much of the post-Mubarak violence stems from clashes between the ultras and security forces. The ultras’ battle is a battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or interior ministry which they are happy to confront at every opportunity.
That dignity is unlikely to be fully restored until the police and security forces have been reformed – a task Mr. Morsi’s government has so far largely shied away from. The foot-dragging in holding security officers accountable in the case of Port Said and the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the last two years has reinforced perceptions of the police and security forces as institutions that in the words of scholars Eduardo P. Archetti and Romero Amilcar are “exclusively destined to harm, wound, injure, or, in some cases, kill other persons.”
A human rights report published last 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.”
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.” The ultras lead the pack of those the police and security forces believe have wronged them.
The group proposed a series of measures that the Morsi government could implement and in which it should have embedded its imposition of curfews. 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.
In failing to couple law enforcement with reforms, Mr. Morsi is likely to only harden fault lines in post-Mubarak Egypt. The 30-day curfew in the three cities ends barely two weeks before the Cairo court rules in the case of the remaining 52 defendants in the Port Said trial on March 9. That ruling is likely to constitute another flashpoint unless the president convincingly acts in the meantime to demonstrate that he is serious about reform and not just another autocrat.
To be sure, Mr. Morsi is caught between a rock and a hard place. While he may well be sincere in his call for dialogue with his critics and expressed desire for change, he seems more a man shaped by an organization that lived clandestinely for much of its 80 year-old history, operated briefly under Mr. Mubarak in a legal nether land and until today has not been formally recognized rather than a leader capable of reaching out and building bridges in a deeply divided country in the midst of a messy political transition.
Mr. Morsi’s fate and with it that of his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well as in other parts of a region that is at the beginning of a decade of political change from which Muslim Brothers potentially stand to benefit depends on his ability to throw off the chains of his past and embrace the kind of outreach and compromise necessary to bring Egypt back from the brink.