x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

State institutions dragged into the flames in Egypt

Protests have been common in Egypt in recent years, but its a worrying sign when the institutions of state become targets.

On the streets of Port Said this week, the omens for Egypt's future looked bleak. Thousands of protesters, in a perpetual ferment since the beginning of the year, took to the streets again, torching a security headquarters and targeting police. By yesterday afternoon, six people were dead, including three security officers, and hundreds had been wounded.

Egyptians are used to street protests, even fatalities, since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. What makes the Port Said violence so ominous, however, is the target: not a leader like Mubarak, or a political force like the Muslim Brotherhood, but the very institutions of the state. "We want retribution," crowds shouted. "It is now war between us and you, interior ministry."

Port Said does not speak for Egypt. Since the football massacre in February of last year, there has been a stain on the city's psyche. And yet it is impossible to separate this recent violence from the polarisation that has riven the country. The death sentences handed down in January, mostly to Port Said residents, in the football massacre case were the immediate spark of the worst violence in the city. The court's decision was widely seen to be politicised, sparing security officers and timed to relieve pressure ahead of the revolution's second anniversary. Protesters believe the supposedly neutral tools of the state have turned against them.

There was no rule of law under the Mubarak regime, but there was order, although it was an order that favoured the dictator and his cronies. In that space, state institutions - and in particular the judiciary - were allowed to develop, although they were ineffectual in checking the regime's excesses.

Those key state institutions are again in danger of being compromised. President Mohammed Morsi may have won an election with a slim popular mandate, but his behaviour since then has been decidedly undemocratic. Many Egypt analysts believe there is a struggle under way for control of the interior ministry - not control on behalf of the office of the presidency, but as a tool of Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood allies. As these institutions become politicised in the partisan bickering, Egyptians will continue to lose faith in a self-fulfilling pessimism about the integrity of the state.

At one point during Monday's clashes, the military moved in to separate protesters and police. The police, in turn, reportedly responded with tear gas and live fire. It was a reminder of this divide that is turning Egypt against itself.