Egypt’s Trust Deficit
By Jess HillFebruary 9, 2012
In Egypt, violent protests have rocked the capital for over a week. Why does this keep happening? It’s all a matter of trust.
The violence in Port Said was sudden and barbaric. Minutes after the final whistle blew, the bleacher doors were flung open, and thousands of people stormed the pitch. Witnesses say men in dirty street clothes chased fans of the Al-Ahly team with knives and metal bars, bashing them in the head. One young Al-Ahly fan, dressed in the red-and-white colours of his favourite team, had his eyes gouged out. Two sisters, both just days shy of being married, were killed. The stadium lights were cut, and panicked fans suffocated as they were crushed against locked gates by stampeding crowds.
Seventy-four Egyptians died in Port Said last week. Who is responsible? Why did riot police simply watch on as people were beaten and stabbed? Was it a set-up, planned by the security forces? Are Egypt's military rulers to blame? Or was it merely permitted by police in revenge against Al-Ahly fans, the Ultras, who played a pivotal role in last year’s uprisings?
A parliamentary fact-finding committee is investigating the deaths, but the results won't matter. Egyptians all over the country believe the authorities planned it. As far as they're concerned, the proof is in the eyewitness videos and accounts, and in the precedent: The Ministry of Interior has been torturing and killing Egyptians for decades. For many Egyptians, there's no reason to believe this would be a step too far.
That's because essentially the Ministry of Interior is the same institution it was under former President Hosni Mubarak. And while Egyptians still believethat the country's security forces are capable of planning the massacre of innocent football fans, Egypt has no chance of stability.
Many Egyptians need to see major structural change urgently - starting with a civilian government. Until then, the country will continue to be rocked by violent demonstrations, such as the one that's been raging for the past week in downtown Cairo.
SINCE LAST THURSDAY, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the road leading up to the interior ministry, has looked like an urban warzone. All day and night, demonstrators have been engaged in pitched battles with security forces, demonstrators armed with rocks, police armed with tear gas and birdshot. Young men draped in Al-Ahly flags stand on top of cement blocks that used to be part of a wall in front of the Ministry of Interior. Ambulance sirens wail all over downtown, and young men on motorbikes speed back and forth from the ministry to the makeshift field hospitals, delivering demonstrators knocked out by heavy tear gas inhalation.
That's one side of the demonstrations - the one most frequently reported in the media. But go into Mohamed Mahmoud Street during the day and it becomes clear that these demonstrators are not just young men running amok.
"The majority are Ultras and street kids, but aside from them, you'll find all kinds of people there," says Mohammed Elgammal, 33, an engineer who has been attending the protests since they started last week. "Teenagers, elder people, religious people with beards, women in the veil, girls with no veil, youngsters."
On Sunday, Feb. 5, I joined hundreds of women who'd marched from the Parliament, across Tahrir Square and up to the Ministry of Interior. Representing the mothers of people killed in Port Said, they held cardboard signs with slogans such as "Enough killing, enough lies" and "Egypt will remain in mourning until there is retribution." One of them was particularly direct: "Stop Killing Our Children - LEAVE."
Tear gas hung over us like haze as the women marched up toward the ministry. One woman at the front, her wire-rimmed spectacles peeking through her black veil, led a chant at the top of her lungs, calling for the fall of the military regime. A burly young man carrying a huge, black flag marched behind them. "He's always at the women's marches," said Alia, a 20-year-old student. "He's like a guardian."
The deeper we walked into Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the hazier it became. Women in their 50s and 60s reached into leather handbags for tissues; others handed out surgical masks, which were largely useless against the gas. As we got closer to the ministry, the crowd became more cramped, and tense. Just in front of the line of security, a bizarre scene: young kids, teenagers, elderly men and imams from Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the world's chief centre of Sunni learning. The imams were trying to convince the crowd to take their protest back to the Square, but nobody was listening.
The women were pushing towards the front, in an effort to confront the security officers guarding the interior ministry. Suddenly, one man started pushing violently in all directions. The women were pushed back through the scrum and back out into the street. Later, another journalist told me that the security officers had told the men in front that they were about to "open up," and that if the women didn't move, the men in front would have nowhere to run.
EGYPT'S MINISTRY OF INTERIOR is the most hated institution in the country. The former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, was despised even more than Mubarak. Under his watch, Egyptian security forces became notorious for arresting Egyptians without charge, imprisoning them in secret locations, raping male and female prisoners and sometimes torturing them to death.
These security forces killed more than 900 people during the uprisings last year. Al-Adly, "the most hated man in Egypt," has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud but has not yet faced trial for ordering police to fire on protesters.
Besides al-Adly, just one security officer has been brought to trial (he was sentenced to death in absentia, after fleeing the country). Others charged with or suspected of murder have simply been moved around: In July last year, 27 generals and senior officers were forced into early retirement and 54 lower-ranking officers were shifted to jobs where, as the public was told, they would no longer interact with civilians. Another 600 (out of a total 33,000) were purged from the force. Al-Adly's replacement, Mansour el-Essawy, called it "the biggest shake-up in the history of the police."
But shuffling officers around and forcing old generals to take their pension is hardly due punishment for killing over 900 people, most of whom were protesting peacefully. And it does not seem, to the tens of thousands of Egyptians who've been subjected to imprisonment, rape and torture at the hands of the interior ministry for the past 30 years, to be justice.
When the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989, the German government launched tens of thousands of investigations against members of the former Communist regime in East Germany. Most critically, however, it opened the files of the Stasi, the state's massive secret police apparatus. Individuals were permitted to search their own files and, solely based on the evidence in these files, Stasi informants could be removed from office. "We need to win our people over to accepting that they are now free and governed by the rule of law," Reverend Joachim Gauck, the man responsible for protecting these files, told author John O. Koehler in Stasi. "To achieve that, we must build up their confidence and trust in the public service."
In Egypt, there is virtually no trust in the public service, least of all in the police.
Putting former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, on trial is not enough to win back the trust of the Egyptian people. For that, the Egyptian government needs to do what other former dictatorships, such as East Germany, have done: Address the crimes that were committed by the state.
But there's no sign of that happening anytime soon in Egypt; most of the perpetrators are still in power.
"If you put the absolute best person in the position of interior minister right now, civilian or police, he will not be able to do anything to reform the ministry," Bahey Eddin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told Egypt Independent. "The military council continues to refuse any real change."
And so, while the military council remains in power, the protests continue.
FIFTEEN PEOPLE HAVE DIED and more than 1,500 have been injured in the past week in protests across the country.
Most Egyptians are fed up with the protests, and exhausted by the violence. What's the point of all this? Why don't they just protest in the Square? What can be gained from confronting police? Why can't they give the parliament some time?
But when I ask people if they think the security forces are responsible for Port Said, almost all say yes. And most think the security forces planned it.
The impoverished young men fighting the police outside the interior ministry have suffered the most at its officials' hands. "The police had daily arrest quotas, so they'd just drive around arresting poor, young guys," says Mohammed Elgammal. "Sometimes they'd plant hash on them, other times they'd just keep them in jail, beat them up, and let them go."
Though not all of these protestors have political motivations - many are just there to fight - Elgammal says a lot of them are more aware than people think.
"You'd be surprised," says Elgammal. "I've talked to many of these people in the (Mohamed Mahmoud) street - they know what's going on, and they know that (the killings in Port Said) are not just a case of football fans hitting each other. They know the agenda behind it.
"That's why they keep escalating things here," he says. "I mean, people take shifts - when they go home, someone else replaces them. That can only come from two things: too much rage, and too much belief."
So what would make them stop?
"Two things. First, the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces] would need to announce presidential elections very soon. Second, a complete restructuring of the Ministry of Interior - a complete restructuring. Not just removing a minister and bringing in another one. We need to restructure. We need to see the policemen in the streets, having this initiative towards the people: 'We are here to protect you.'"
ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 11, it will be one year since Mubarak abdicated. To mark the occasion, an informal coalition of groups is calling for a campaign of civil disobedience, starting with a general strike. The call is backed by some weighty players: dozens of universities, revolutionary groups and some of the country's most powerful trade unions (with members numbering in the millions).
The group's chief demand is for SCAF to immediately handover power to a civilian administration (instead of June, when the military has promised it will step down). On top of that, they demand the immediate holding of presidential elections, the formation of an investigative committee that can investigate crimes committed by the ruling authorities since January 25 last year and "revolutionary tribunals" to try them in, and the purge and overhaul of the Ministry of Interior.
The general-secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahmoud Hussein, has condemned the campaign, calling instead on Egyptians to double their work rate in order to "rebuild the country and not bring it down."
"These calls are extremely dangerous and threaten the nation and its future," he says.
But it might be equally dangerous for the government to ignore these demands. So long as the military maintains control over Egypt, the country will remain perilously unstable.