Egypt police violence snowballing into national crisis
CAIRO // Egypt’s highly militarised police force is under scrutiny after at least 22 football fans were killed in a stampede that occurred after officers fired tear gas at them.
Coming on the heels of the shooting death of an unarmed female protester in Cairo, the deaths outside a military stadium have raised questions about whether police are deliberately using excessive force – perhaps to make a point – or simply lack crowd control expertise.
A week ago Sunday, police fired tear gas into a narrow corridor of metal barricades and barbed wire as thousands of young football fans were waiting to enter the Air Defense stadium in Cairo to watch a key league match – one of the first to be open to the public since the league was suspended in 2012.
Police claim they were unruly fans who tried to storm into the Air Defense stadium without tickets, a claim contested by witnesses and members of a fan association known as the Ultras, hard core supporters who model themselves after similar groups in southern Europe.
One thing is for certain: the recent conduct of Egypt’s police has turned into a pressing issue. If not resolved, it could snowball into a national crisis undermining the standing and credibility of the entire government.
Egyptian security forces have increasingly come under growing criticism since the 2013 overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi, and the fierce crackdown on supporters of his banned Muslim Brotherhood that followed.
As Egypt attempts to quell the rising strife within its borders, authorities and pro-government media have offered several explanations for the stadium deaths, including the contention that it was an attempt by enemies of the state to undermine next month’s parliamentary elections or that it was the work of the outlawed Brotherhood.
The victims, said one pro-government TV host Ahmed Moussa, must never be called “martyrs” as they were attempting to break the law.
Another, on a morning radio show, urged listeners to consider that the fans torched police buses and that there could have been injuries among the officers. There were no reports of police injuries during the riot.
The government ordered an investigation and president Abdel Fattah El Sisi called on those in charge of the probe to find the “root causes” of the incident.
Significantly, the interior minister, who is in charge of the police, has remained publicly silent on the incident.
Since Mr Morsi was ousted, Egyptian police have been at pains to show everyone that they are back in charge of the streets after their humiliating defeat at the hands of protesters during the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
Armed with a ban on street demonstrations not preapproved by authorities, they have violently dispersed demonstrations, regardless of how tiny or peaceful they are. They have also moved to crush any sign of dissent against the government.
At times, police in Egypt even appear to operate out of a desire to settle scores with old enemies, whether these are the young men and women who fought fierce street battles with them in the uprising or the associations of hardcore football fans such as the Ultras, who joined revolutionaries in street battles against the police in 2011.
The Ultras have never hidden their contempt for the country’s police and routinely taunted them with insulting songs during matches before the league’s suspension in 2012 following the death of more than 70 supporters. The league later resumed but, until recently, without fans in attendance.
Mr El Sisi has sought to quieten the uproar over the heavy-handed response by police to protesters, as well as other human rights abuses by the force.
Rights activists have long called for a restructuring of the force to conform with democratic values and to forge better relations with their communities, demands born out of the fact that the perceived brutality of police under Mr Mubarak was among the primary motives of the 2011 uprising.
But politics has repeatedly got in the way.
Mr Morsi, for example, paid much lip service to the need for police reform as part of his efforts to win over the secular and leftist revolutionaries.
However, he abandoned any intention of doing so soon after taking office in June 2012.
In fact, he exploited the force’s desire to settle scores with the revolutionaries by giving them free rein to crack down on street protests.
Many in Egypt, however, are hopeful that last week’s stadium deaths and the recent killing of the unarmed female protester will create enough pressure on Mr El Sisi to do something about the country’s police.
But for now, Mr El Sisi’s priorities are clearly security and the economy, something that would make him hesitant to rock the boat when he needs a strong police force to quieten the streets, fight a militant insurgency and portray an image of stability in the country – particularly ahead of next month’s crucial economic development conference in Sharm El Sheikh, where the president hopes to attract foreign investment.