Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Back to the future?

Under the new order the security sector feels free to flex its muscles, writes Amira Howeidy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Once the subject of bitter criticism from opposition and rights groups, Mohamed Morsi’s controversial Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim retained his position in the Hazem Al-Beblawi cabinet sworn in on 16 July.

Only four months ago activists from the 6 April movement staged a protest at his Cairo residence in which they waved underwear as a sign of their contempt. Demands to replace Ibrahim had been high on the list of the opposition in its battle with Morsi but as the Interior Ministry seemed to change tack in recent weeks, refusing to protect the Muslim Brotherhood’s offices, criticism of Ibrahim waned.

“Ibrahim’s continuation in the new cabinet is practically a promotion,” says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). 

Today the police force is enjoying a rare moment of popularity. On Friday a police band performed in Tahrir Square to celebrate the 10th day of Ramadan which coincided with the 6 October Victory over Israel in 1973. Chants of “the people and the police are one hand” have echoed recently. 

It’s a far cry from the mood a month ago. Documenting human rights violations under Morsi’s first year in power rights groups concluded no progress had been made since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Back then Mubarak’s security apparatus was recognised as the enemy. It was no coincidence that the date chosen for the revolution — 25 January — was National Police Day. The Interior Ministry may have felt defeated by ensuing events but no significant changes were made to its policies or practices. Neither the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled Egypt from February 2011 to August 2012, nor Morsi in his one year of power, attempted to introduce reforms despite repeated initiatives by rights groups and even by reformists within the Interior Ministry.

Cases referred to courts by prosecutors ended in the repeated acquittal of police officers accused of killing more than 800 protesters during the 18 days of demonstrations in January and February 2011. Families of the victims and the public were left feeling angry. Commentators complained the culture of impunity that holds sway in the security apparatus was reinforced. Yet today the acquittals are being cited in some quarters as evidence that the police were innocent all along.

On 8 July spokesmen from the Interior Ministry and Armed Forces held a joint press conference following the killing of at least 54 Morsi supporters during a sit-in in front of the Republican Guard Club. Interior Ministry spokesman Ali Abdel-Latif claimed that since January 2011 the police force had faced many unfair accusations, including the murder of protesters and the opening of prisons. “Now the Egyptian people know the truth,” he said. “We are the people’s police and we work for the people.”

What that work has involved since Morsi’s removal on 3 July by the military has been sounding alarm bells among those concerned with security, human rights and freedom of speech. An estimated 107 people have been killed, and the death toll grows daily. The victims include pro-Morsi protesters and the former president’s opponents. Copts have been murdered in Sinai, and police and army checkpoints are regularly attacked in the north of the peninsula. While clashes between the MB and police account for some casualties the most common scenario is that when violence does occur between rival protesters the police are nowhere to be seen.

Many rights groups have condemned the violence but activists speak of difficulties in documenting the clashes. According to Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights, there is too much happening daily to independently verify death tolls, casualties and detainees. That the MB is hardly welcoming of human rights activists at the morgue “is not helping us either”, he adds.

Islamic TV channels, including the Brotherhood’s Masr 25, remain blocked. Hate speech against the Brotherhood is common currency in many media outlets and now targets Syrian refugees in Egypt and Palestinians as well. On Sunday four protesters were arrested in downtown Cairo for spraying anti-military graffiti.  

Meanwhile, Morsi and an undisclosed number of his aides continue to be held by the military in an undisclosed location. No charges have been pressed against them.

“This is an extremely volatile period,” says Eid. He has reservations about the new government but pins “some hope” on the formation of a ministry for transitional justice. “If it doesn’t work then they’ll know they’ve been fooled.” 

More alarming for EIPR’s Bahgat is that Ibrahim’s remaining in the cabinet means Morsi won’t be held accountable for any of the crimes committed under his tenure. “That’s why we’re hearing so much about bogus accusations against Morsi like escaping from prison during the January Revolution. They are accusations that can’t materialise.” 

The situation might be even more sinister, warns Omar Ashour, a political scientist at Exeter University who has published extensively on the politicisation of Egypt’s security sector and the difficulties of reforming it. “We’re in a climate similar to December 2010,” he says, “or, worse, November 1954” when the military put an end to Egypt’s democratic era and replaced it with six decades of authoritarian rule. 

With the Armed Forces and Interior Ministry — which Ashour describes as “above” the state, the constitution and accountability — now in control “any hope of reforming the security sector is fading”. At the same time we are hearing “cheerleading” for oppressive moves directed against the Brotherhood and Morsi’s supporters. This is particularly dangerous, warns Ashour, since following Mubarak’s ouster many otherwise cautious people openly declared their political beliefs. “This makes the witch hunt easier,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Human rights defenders like Ahmed Ragheb concede that the climate is worrying. There is an attempt to return to the Mubarak days, he says “but it won’t work because Egyptians really had a problem with the old regime. And they considered Morsi no different from Mubarak.”

“Many people understand that any measures against the Islamists will eventually come back to bite them.”

 

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