Street violence has returned to Egypt, leading to the death of thirty-two people on Saturday, January 26. The violence came in reaction to this weekend’s verdicts in a case involving the deaths of 74 soccer fans in the city of Port Said in February 2012.
In response to this weekend’s riots, President Mohammed Morsi imposed a curfew and re-established emergency law in three cities in the Suez Canal and Red Sea area. While this move may temporarily reduce the street violence, it is unlikely to return political stability to the country.
Many protest-weary Egyptians, who crave normalcy and are eager to see the return of economic growth, will undoubtedly welcome an end to the violent demonstrations. At the same time, the return of emergency law, which after several decades was finally lifted in May 2012, will likely reinforce perceptions of Morsi as an autocratic Islamist leader unwilling to reform Egypt’s state institutions.
Since coming to power, the Morsi government has made a number of missteps that have led to growing discontent in Egypt. This includes a failure to hold accountable those responsible for the death of more than 800 people since the start of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011. Morsi’s apparent inability to appease his critics has also helped generate further anger toward his government. Finally, the rushed adoption of a controversial constitution, and the government’s failure to reform an economy in decline have, over the last several months, brought protestors to the streets in numbers unseen since the 18 day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
This weekend’s verdict against 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC soccer club has served only to reinforce deep-seated mistrust of Morsi. In its decision, the court sentenced the accused to death while also postponing (until March 9) verdicts against 52 other defendants accused of involvement in the worst incident of violence in Egyptian soccer history.
Anger toward the ruling was further aggravated by the absence of a written decision with the court’s reasoning for the sentence, as well as the court’s failure to include any of the nine mid-level security officials in its initial verdict.
Last year’s Port Said massacre erupted at the end of a match between Al Masri and Al Ahli SC, a Cairo Club. Supporters of the two soccer clubs, as well as a broad swath of the Egyptian public, believe that the violence was much more than a simple soccer brawl.
Rather, the incident has been widely seen as an attempt by the police and security forces, as well as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled the country at the time, to reign in Egypt’s militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans or “ultras.”
One of the largest Egyptian civic groups after the Muslim Brotherhood, the ultras organizations have been key players in supporting the protests since the early days of the revolution. Fans of Al Ahli and its archrival Al Zamalek were instrumental in toppling president Mubarak. The ultras were also important in the popular movement against SCAF rule and the growing protests against Morsi’s government.
At the core of this weekend’s violence is deep-seated hatred between the ultras and other youth groups and law enforcement. Egypt’s security forces are one of the most despised institutions, widely viewed as the repressive arm of the Mubarak regime and seen as operating outside the law.
Much of the violence in post-Mubarak Egypt stems from clashes between the ultras and the security forces. The ultras’ battle is one for karama or “dignity,” grounded in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or “Interior Ministry.”
That dignity is unlikely to be fully restored until the police and security forces have been reformed – a task Morsi’s government has so far largely avoided. Delays in holding security officers accountable in the Port Said case, combined with the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the last two years, has reinforced popular perceptions about the police and security forces, which scholars Eduardo P. Archetti and Romero Amilcar would describe as “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) concludes 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 alleges 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 among those who believe they have been wronged by the police and security forces.
In its report, EIPR proposes a series of measures that should be implemented by the Morsi government. These include legislation that would: 1. guarantee the independence of public prosecutors and separate them from investigative authorities; 2. establish an independent commission that would investigate cases of death and serious injury caused by police personnel; 3. create an independent commission to monitor detention facilities and grant civil rights groups access to detention facilities; and 4. amend laws that regulate the use of force and firearms by police and security forces.
In failing to couple its law enforcement measures with these reforms, the Morsi government has only hardened fault lines in post-Mubarak Egypt. The 30-day curfew will end only two weeks before the Cairo court issues its ruling on the remaining 52 defendants in the Port Said trial. That ruling is likely to become another flashpoint unless the president acts in the interim to demonstrate his seriousness about reform.
To be sure, Morsi is caught between a rock and a hard place. While he may well be sincere in his call for dialogue and claimed desire for change, his decisions seem to be shaped by the Brotherhood’s historical experience. An organization that lived clandestinely for much of its 80-year history, operated briefly during the Mubarak regime in legal ambiguity, and until today has not been formally recognized as a legitimate group, the Brotherhood has valued survival above all else. This frame of mind seems to affect Morsi’s political calculations, preventing him from reaching out and building bridges in a deeply divided country in the midst of a messy political transition.
Morsi’s fate, as well as that of the Brotherhood and all of Egypt, depends on his ability to throw off the chains of the past and embrace the outreach and compromise necessary to bring the country back from the brink.
*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