Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

The judiciary under attack

As verdicts were handed down in the Port Said massacre case, public dissatisfaction with court rulings seems now
to have become the norm, writes Ahmed Morsy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Amid cautious anticipation in both Cairo and Port Said, the Port Said Criminal Court handed down its rulings in the Port Said Stadium massacre case on Saturday, in which 74 Ahli fans were killed and 254 injured following a football match between the Ahli and Masri teams in 2012.

The court confirmed death sentences against 21 defendants convicted of murder, and a further five received sentences of life in prison. Ten defendants were sentenced to 15-year jail terms, including the head of security in Port Said and the head of its investigations bureau, and six further defendants also received 10-year jail sentences.

The court ordered the release of 28 defendants, among them seven members of the security forces.

Reactions to the rulings varied among the relatives of those killed, most of them belonging to the Ultras Ahlawi group. While some of them welcomed the rulings, others expressed anger at what they viewed as the lenient sentences.

This anger gave rise to violent protests that eventually spread to the capital, with violence erupting despite calls from the leaders of the Ultras who asked their followers “not to push for violence since the rulings were basically adequate and the country is going through a difficult period.”

Nevertheless, hundreds of angry members of the group attacked the offices of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and the Gezira Police Club before setting the buildings on fire.

In Port Said, residents received the rulings in a state of self-restraint, while at the same time describing them as being shocking. There were some minor protests, but the deployment of the army one day before the rulings in the city, which had previously seen a month of civil disobedience, helped to keep these under control.

Since 26 January this year when death sentences were first passed against the 21 defendants, the Suez Canal city has been the scene of sometimes violent clashes between security personnel and protesters, causing the deaths of about 40 Port Said residents. 

Tharwat Selim, an official at the EFA, said that trophies won by Egypt in various football competitions had been stolen during the attack on the association’s offices in Cairo and that the building had been set on fire in the absence of the security forces.

The Ultras Ahlawi group, once well-known for its organised actions, seemed to be divided in its reaction to the ruling. The leaders of the group denied that it had been involved in the storming of the EFA, but in order to stem divisions in the group its website administrators were quick to announce the group’s responsibility.

“What’s happening now in Cairo is just the beginning. If all of those responsible for the massacre are not held accountable, just wait for more. We won’t be satisfied with rulings limited to those paid to carry out the crimes,” the Ultras wrote on their website an hour after the fires started on Saturday.

On their Facebook page, the Ultras Ahlawi said before the verdict that “if the rulings are postponed, chaos will spread in the country. Main roads will be blocked and public agencies closed.” The post added that “if the police are found innocent in the case, we will occupy the ministry of the interior and completely burn it down.”

“The rulings are not acceptable at all. Where is the justice in acquitting seven policemen? We should have taken revenge for our friends by ourselves,” one young Ultras member told Al-Ahram Weekly.

However, another older Ultras member said that “I believe the rulings are reasonable. This is the first time the head of a security directorate has received a prison sentence in a case of killing protesters since the beginning of the revolution.”

The younger members of the group were generally more impulsive and less willing to accept the rulings.

“I don’t understand how young people who are known by name can burn public and private facilities and terrorise citizens without being arrested. This work does not require the further militarisation of the police. It just needs the criminal investigation officers to be changed,” human rights activist and civil society figure Negad Al-Borai said via his Twitter account.

Al-Borai added that Egypt was in need of firm rule that could enforce the rule of law in the framework of democracy and respect for human rights.

Dozens of hardcore football fans marched on the same day from Mohamed Mahmoud Street to the High Court in Cairo in protest against the verdicts, chanting “the people want the execution of the field marshal” and “Interior Ministry members are thugs.”

They briefly blocked the underground at the Sadat station, but shortly thereafter traffic resumed. Panic erupted in the Bab Al-Louq area of downtown Cairo in the evening when armed men began smashing private cars and firing bullets into the air.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim blasted the acts of vandalism that followed the announcement of Saturday’s court rulings. “Unidentified assailants entered a social club in which women and children were present where they torched everything and fired shotguns loaded with birdshot into the air,” the minister said at a press conference on Sunday.

“I warn those who are trying to crush the police apparatus,” he added, stressing that the Egyptian Armed Forces would not step in to replace the police.

Ibrahim said that some of the rioters in Bab Al-Louq had been arrested and that investigations remained ongoing. He estimated the total damage at more than LE50 million at the Police Club and some LE6 million at the EFA headquarters.

Most of the streets leading to the Interior Ministry in downtown Cairo were blocked on Saturday, and the armed forces were deployed around the cabinet and parliament buildings on Qasr Al-Aini Street.

In Port Said, the protests were surprisingly peaceful until protesters entered the port overlooking the Suez Canal. Dozens of them set tyres on fire inside the port to express their frustrations at the verdicts.

However, no further escalation occurred even when the march reached the Port Said Security Directorate building that was guarded by the army.

Many people across the canal city have the feeling that Port Said is being used as a scapegoat to please the Ultras Ahlawi, and they repeated that “[President] Morsi has sacrificed Port Said to save Cairo,” describing the verdicts as “politicised rulings”.

“The rationale of the verdicts has not yet been submitted, and it is not permissible to describe the judicial rulings as politicised,” constitutional expert Nour Farahat said. The word “politicised”, he added, has now become fashionable whenever anyone does not like a court verdict.

“The public should know that the rulings are not final but are initial verdicts that can be appealed against before the Court of Cassation by the prosecution as well as by the defendants,” Farahat added.

“The judiciary was supposed immediately to announce the reasons for the rulings in order to make it easier for the public to accept them,” Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a professor of political science, told the Weekly.

Al-Sayed said that many factors had fed into the current crisis. “We should not imagine that all the Ultras are idealists,” he said, adding that thugs could have infiltrated the movement to exploit the situation.

Al-Sayed also said that President Morsi or the ruling Freedom and Justice Party should take a stance.

“The executive authority should meet its responsibilities. It must conduct a dialogue with the Ultras on the one hand and the Port Said residents on the other in order to calm the situation,” Al-Sayed said.

However, the presidency has preferred to remain silent. President Morsi would not comment on the Port Said verdicts, presidential spokesperson Ihab Fahmi said, adding that the verdicts must be respected.

“What occurred after the announcement of the verdicts had nothing to do with peaceful protests,” Fahmi said during a press conference at the presidential palace in Cairo. Investigations into the vandalism that had taken place since the verdicts were handed down were underway, Fahmi added.

Ahmed Said, leader of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, criticised the handling of the situation by the president and the government.

“The president and the government are both responsible for turning the country’s political fire into a real fire,” read a party statement. “Their silence and failure to deal with the political crisis is leading Egypt into a dark tunnel,” the statement added.

Regarding the ongoing disrespect for judicial rulings in the country, Al-Borai said that there was now a risk that the state would break down if the public refused to accept judicial rulings that were not consistent with its desires and if politicians used the judiciary to settle political accounts.

Al-Sayed said that “we must spread awareness among citizens of the importance of respecting the provisions of the judiciary in order to build a state of law.”

“Laying siege to the Supreme Constitutional Court as a method of expressing a lack of respect for the judiciary” is unacceptable, he said, referring to the protests by hundreds of supporters of President Morsi outside the court last December, forcing judges to delay a hearing on a constitutional panel.

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