Ultra-violence spreads, and Morsi runs out of answers
In the days that followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's revolutionaries feared the plots of the deep state: the military and political nomenklatura of the regime, deep-pocketed businessmen and security agencies conspiring to save what they could of a system tailor-made for them. It may turn out that the fear was misplaced. What Egypt suffers most from today is not plots hatched in the shadows, but a shallow state that is cracking on the surface.
In parts of the country, citizens are in open rebellion against that state, which has long failed to provide economically and, since the 2011 uprising, has largely failed to provide security. In recent weeks, the targets of often-violent protests have been administrative buildings, the offices of provincial governors and anything associated with the police.
What prompts these protests is often a sense of injustice, as in the now weeks-long turmoil that has hit the Suez Canal region and Port Said in particular. The spark may have been the death sentences handed out to 21 football supporters from the city for their role in the February 2012 stadium massacre. The sense of grievance, though, is wider and is obscuring the fact that football hooligans need to be held to account.
Like the droogs of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, some young Egyptian men seem to have grown fond to taking to the streets for some mindless ultra-violence. They may fancy themselves as freedom fighters, but they are bullies.
In Cairo, Ultras from Al Ahly, the leading Egyptian football team, have for weeks staged protests to block major thoroughfares and the metro system. They have used violence and intimidation. The torching of a police social club, the country's association football federation, a fast-food restaurant and the offices of a newspaper on Saturday is the culmination of an environment in which these Ultras feel increasingly emboldened to act antisocially whenever they feel wronged.
In doing so, they are holding society hostage and blackmailing institutions such as courts, threatening mayhem if they do not deliver verdicts they deem acceptable.
The Ultras (and their Port Said counterparts, the Green Eagles, who have also been rioting) may have genuine grievances with the trial, but do not stop to think that they that started the fight. Police may have been negligent, but Ultras have instead woven a tale of grand conspiracy and demanded verdicts that exonerated their side while punishing others. When the state finds itself in a position where it must consider whether it will be worse to offend one group of football supporters or another, justice loses.
The Ultras were heroes of Egypt's revolution, but they are turning into monsters, and are having a damaging halo effect. Every teenage male in Cairo will claim to be an Ultra now, and it seems every street sports their insignia and favoured slogan, "All Cops Are Bastards." It is fashionable for what are essentially children to block roads, throw rocks at police and attack ordinary citizens. Protests have degenerated into rioting - aimless, vindictive, out of control.
How did things get to this point? In good part it's because the authorities failed to heed one of the central lessons of the 2011 uprising: that the people are fed up with the police's reign of terror. The Egyptian uprising was launched on January 25, Police Day, and one of its icons, Khaled Said, is a martyr to police violence. Dozens of police stations were ransacked and set alight on January 28 as the protests gathered steam, in part because police tackled what were largely peaceful protests with often extreme and deadly violence.
The collapse of the interior ministry and its forces is what made the overthrow of Mubarak possible. Yet no government since has made even a tentative attempt to address police reform. Accountability for past crimes has been slow or absent. Egypt has gone through five ministers of interior who tried various tactics: a slapdash rebranding of security services and early retirement, morale-boosting through salary increases, the appointment of hardliners from the old regime, and, currently, a minister who is seen as a Muslim Brotherhood proxy.
While a game of bureaucratic politics is being played in Cairo, on the ground across the country the police have started acting like a gang. After the death of an officer in Beni Suef, a poor town south of the capital, his alleged murderer was beaten to within an inch of his life by police as high-ranking officers looked on and did nothing. Police engage in collective punishment, ransacking private apartments to send a message to entire neighbourhoods. They are also suspects in a string of kidnappings of prominent activists.
In tandem with this behaviour is an open rebellion against the administration of President Mohammed Morsi: in recent weeks, conscripts and non-commissioned officers have refused deployment in hot spots. After being seen as the regime's enforcers during the Mubarak era, they don't want to be used as pawns in a political crisis created by the Brotherhood. The police strike has reached 10 governorates and is starting to look like outright mutiny.
Finding a way out of this mess will not be easy for Mr Morsi. The chaos plays into the hands of those who yearn for a return to military rule - not just some of his political opponents, but many citizens who no longer want to see the police in their towns, such as in Port Said, where a petition to put the city into direct army control has been circulating. The rioting and police strike are a direct challenge to his authority, and the solutions he has tried - mostly appeasing and co-opting the interior ministry - are not working. His ability to act is constrained by his avoidance of consensus-building and the zero-sum game that now characterises Egyptian politics.
Yet, if there is one issue on which many Egyptians can agree on, it is that police reform and rioters must be tackled urgently. If civilian leaders do not begin providing solutions, then the narrative of either chaos or military rule will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: March 11, 2013 04:00 AM