Egypt: the police and the people are one hand…
July 28, 2013
Early on Friday night, I was walking along a peaceful road in southern Cairo, and came across a police checkpoint. A car slowed down, filled with people chanting ‘the army and the people are one hand’. A police officer said something to them, which seemed to be something like, ‘hey, what about us?’ The car drove off – having very happily changed their chants to ‘the police, the people and the army are one hand.’ I was glad at that point that I had had dinner quite some time ago – because I began to feel quite queasy. A couple of hours later, after the killings of dozens (and the numbers keep rising) near the Raba’a sit-in where people are protesting for the return of Mohammed Mursi as president, at Nasr City, I was reminded why my stomach reacted so harshly.
As usual, people have their own mutually exclusive and contradictory narratives of what happened on Friday night and in the early hours of Saturday morning. The Ministry of the Interior insists that no live fire was used by the police forces, and used non-lethal weaponry to hold off an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to block a bridge that would have paralysed half of Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood spokespeople in Raba’a, where the protesters retreated to, declared that this was an extension of the sit-in of Raba’a, that hundreds of people were killed, thousands wounded, and nerve gas was used. And, as usual, informed observers relied on neither source to establish what happened – relying on independent eyewitnesses and civil rights organisations.
Let us be clear about a few facts about what happened last night – and then what’s been happening for the past decade – before we go on to consider what ought to be done now. Those in the sit-in last night decided that now was the time to extend their boundary. I went to Raba’a myself the following day to see where the sit-in ended, and how far away the clashes that resulted in the killing of scores of protesters were – it was about a kilometre away from the edge of sit-in. Is forming a new outpost of the sit-in a capital offence? No, it is not. Was it something that took place as a direct result of el-Sissi’s call for people to protest? That is doubtful, as it is entirely likely that had people in the sit-in decided on that course of action earlier this week, deaths would have happened. (Which begs the question: what was the point of the call in the first place?)
Herein lies one of the basic problems with analysing anything that happened – the difference in narratives. The pro-Mursi narrative indicates that nerve gas was used when the protesters engaged in ‘natural growth’ of the largely peaceful, unarmed sit-in. That’s only partly true – in that I saw no guns whatsoever in the sit-in. That’s not to say there aren’t arms somewhere, particularly when one considers that the MB does indeed have access to weaponry (much like many individual citizens in this country) – but the sit-in is not swarming with weaponry. The anti-Mursi narrative, on the other hand, claims that the protesters were armed, aimed to block off a key bridge, that the police force did not use anything more than tear gas, and that pro-Mursi forces even fired upon themselves to derive sympathy from the public. That again is partly true – in that the new beachhead of the sit-in would have blocked off a bridge.
As for the police not using anything more than tear-gas – that is possible, as it is entirely possible that police did not fire themselves. But it is a stretch, to put it delicately, to claim there was nerve gas (wholly unsubstantiated), or that the MB shot themselves – eye-witnesses speak of live fire coming from the other side. Was that fire from other than police officers? Perhaps – but then responsibility still lies with the police forces, as it would have been their duty to ensure that no one used live fire. If the police officers did use live fire themselves, then even more responsibility rests with them, as they have a number of non-lethal methods to co-ordinate crowd control.
The power of the police
This brings us to another of the basic issues in Egypt – an issue that has been a despicable sore in the nation for years. It is no coincidence that the revolution began on the 25th of January – because that day was ‘Police Day’. The police have been renowned for excessive violence for years – confirmed many times over by official accounts (privately and publicly) at different points in the past few years, human rights organisation, and political forces when it suited their agenda. We have seen many times, as we do now, political forces making excuses for police excesses when it suited them. The Muslim Brotherhood is no different in this regard, for they did the same in power.
To condemn the police is too easy, and removes ultimate responsibility from where it ought to lie: with the state at large and its leaders. A key demand of the revolution from day one has been the reformation of the Ministry of the Interior, from the top all the way to the bottom. Accountability, transparency, and reform must take place – but it has hitherto been left to the whims of the ministry itself, which many civil rights organisations insist will not reform itself. The interim government must thoroughly restructure that ministry, now, and ensure that it truly serves the purposes of a police force for all Egyptians. That is not a pro-Mursi demand – it is a necessity for all Egyptians, otherwise more killings, with more impunity, and public investigations that are discounted as non-credible, will continue. The Muslim Brotherhood-led government proved to be at best unable, and at worst unwilling, to fulfil that demand – any Egyptian government must take that demand and make it a cornerstone of any real reform. Unfortunately, signals from the Minister of the Interior do not indicate that the ministry will not respond favourably to such demands. On the contrary: it seems that the ministry is growing bolder, and if the Raba’a sit-in does come under attack from non-police forces, or is forcibly dispersed by the state, the police may not act to restrain itself, unless calls for accountability are taken seriously, and appropriate measures are put into effect.
With that in mind, the only strategic option left to the MB and its supporters, in a country where their support base is small and vastly outnumbered by their opponents, with widespread backing for the police force, is clear. Staying in Raba’a is a decision they have taken under the presumption they are safer that way – and it is entirely wrong. Will they be protected from a security-led crackdown if they leave? With each passing day, that becomes more and more dubious – but it is certain that remaining in Raba’a can only result in further casualties. The MB must withdraw – however, it is unlikely they are going to heed that call.
As for those in Egypt that have not succumbed to the binary logic of either following the ‘traders of religion’ or the ‘traders of patriotism’, their only option is clear: to call for the leaving of Raba’a, and to denounce any move to forcibly close it, as a number of civil society leaders have already insisted upon. That call too is unlikely to be heeded – but make it they must. Security reform is one demand of the January 25th revolution that is non-negotiable if the country is to progress. Egypt will continue in this cycle of violence for some time to come, unless real leadership is shown, and hard choices are made. In the meantime, innocent people will continue to pay the price. And people will still say, ‘the police and the people are one hand’… until it is they who choose to protest against the wishes of the Ministry of the Interior.
Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.
This article was published by Al Arabiya on July 28, 2013. Read it here.