Police Refusal To Secure Egyptian Matches Spotlights Rift With Military

Cairo, Egypt

A refusal by Egyptian security forces to police soccer matches spotlights differences between the interior and defense ministries at a time that President Mohammed Morsi is under mounting pressure to reform the country’s law enforcement institutions, widely despised for their role as the enforcers of the repression of toppled president Hosni Mubarak’s regime and continued violations of human rights.

The rejection contrasts starkly with the military’s authorization last month of the restart of the Premier League that had been suspended for a year in the wake of the death of 74 soccer fans in a politically loaded soccer brawl. The military endorsed the resumption against the will of the interior ministry provided matches were played initially in military stadiums without spectators.

The importance of reform of law enforcement is highlighted by the fact that Mr. Mubarak like most Arab autocrats ran a police rather than a military state. The interior ministry’s police and security forces are with 1.25 million men more than twice the size of the military. Widely viewed as corrupt and brutal, they were responsible for domestic spying and surveillance, repression of expressions of discontent and the stealing of elections.

Moreover, the impact of the interior ministry’s continued opposition to the reinstitution of soccer has not only a political but also an economic impact at a time that Egypt’s economy is in decline. A study by Assiut University’s Gamal Mohammed Ali established that some four million Egyptians make their living directly or indirectly from soccer. Mr. Ali estimated that the one year suspension had cost clubs $178 million.

Crowned Cairo clubs Al Zamalek SC and Al Ahli SC had requested police security for two upcoming Confederation of African Football (CAF) Championship League matches. Zamalek made its request after securing military’s cost permission to play Gazelle FC of Chad on February 17 in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria’s Borg El-Arab Stadium, Africa’s third largest facility designed and built by the Egyptian Armed Forces Corps of Engineers (EAFCE), with fans present. Al Ahli is scheduled to play its next CAF match in March.

Mr. Morsi’s failure to initiate the difficult process of reform of Mubarak era institutions, foremost among which law enforcement and the judiciary, is at the core of mass protests in the past month that have cost the life of more than 60 people. The president last month declared emergency rule in Port Said and two other Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, Suez and Ismailia, and ordered the military to enforce law and order after a Cairo court sentenced to death 21 of 73 defendants accused of responsibility for the Port Said brawl.

Mr. Morsi was elected as the candidate of the Freedom and Justic Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood whose platform identified reform of the police and security forces as one of its key issues. The president initially seemed committed to the platform by replacing a number of senior police chiefs and intelligence officials, including Cairo Security Directorate chief Mohsen Murad and Central Security Forces (CSF) commander Emad al-Wakil, who were known for their opposition to Egypt’s transition.

Yet, Mr. Morsi weakened rather than strengthened his grip on the security sector by endorsing amendments to the police law that removed the president as head of the Supreme Council of the Police and further improved the administration of salaries and pensions in a bid to thwart discontent within the forces. His removal of pro-Mubarak commanders was counterbalanced by his appointment of General Khaled Tharwat as head of the recently established National Security Apparatus (NSA). Gen. Tharwat was in charge of the security forces’ domestic spying and surveillance as well as a unit dedicated to countering the Brotherhood under Mr. Mubarak.

To be fair discontent within the security forces reflects a sense within their ranks that police and security forces despite their brutality are as much a victim of the Mubarak regime as are others. Sources close to the security forces describe an institution that feels defeated and humiliated by public animosity and repeated verbal and physical attacks much like the Egyptian military defeat after its virtual 1967 destruction in the Six Day War against Israel.

“Many (officers) are in need of psychological rehabilitation. The revolution broke some of them, while others became more brutal and violent…. Both situations are equally bad,” said former Public Security major Tamer Makki, who is a member of the upper house of parliament in an interview with Omar Ashour, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, Director of the University of Exeter’s Middle East Graduate Studies Program, and the author of a recent report on the Egyptian security sector.

Law enforcement is set to again become a flashpoint on March 9 when the court rules in the case of the remaining 52 accused, who include nine mid-level security officials. The sentencing of the 21, all supporters of Port Said’s Al Masri SC, sparked the violent protests in part because security officials were not included in the first batch of verdicts. The court’s delay of the sentencing of security officials fuelled public anger at the fact that no official has to date been held accountable for the death of more than 800 protesters since the initial mass demonstrations that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office.

The pressure for reform of the police and security forces was further fuelled by the leaking of the summary of the prosecutor’s case in the trial that charged that the police were as culpable as Al Masri fans and executives in the lethal Port Said brawl. The leak coincided with a human rights report that concluded that concluded that “the Egyptian police continue to systematically deploy violence and torture, and at times even kill. Although the January (2011) revolution (against Mr. Mubarak) 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.”

At a recent meeting with human rights activists, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki denied the allegations and insisted that it was the interior ministry’s internal responsibility to reform its forces. One participant said on Twitter after the meeting that Mr. Mekki’s remarks were “far worse’ than anything he had from Mr. Mubarak’s justice minister.

Amid political volatility and a growing belief among Egypt’s youth and militant soccer fan groups, one of the country’s largest civic groupings after the Muslim Brotherhood, that it will take street rather than electoral politics to ensure real post-revolt change, reform of the security sector could emerge as Mr. Morsi’s make-or-break litmus test.

The president is caught in a Catch-22. Street protests and repeated attacks on his presidential palace coupled with the emergence of vigilante groups associated with various political trends makes him more dependent on the security sector – the very force that constitutes his Achilles heel.

Says Mr. Ashour in his report: “Ultimately, no democratic transition is complete without targeting abuse, eradicating torture, and ending the impunity of the security services, with effective and meaningful civilian control of both the armedforces and the security establishment. This will bethe true test of both Morsi’s presidency and Egypt’s democratic transition.”

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