By Amr Khalifa
Over thirty Egyptians did not return home last night and Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of Interior, shoulders responsibility. You can be certain the honorable minister is not the only party culpable in the second disaster of its kind to strike Egyptian football in the last three years, 74 lives having been extinguished in Port Said previously.
The problems of Egypt certainly cannot be placed on the shoulders of one person and if Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is to lead by example, he must both shoulder the blame and accept Ibrahim’s resignation or face a rising tide of anger. The harm done to the families of the dead is immeasurable, but the political damage done to the Al-Sisi regime in the wake of this tragedy, if not handled correctly, maybe irreversible.
I die therefore I am Egyptian. An unthinkable notion to pen but it is harsh reality for many thousands of Egyptians. The avenues for such death in a corrupt, imploding nation only increasing by the day: terrorist attacks, police brutality, torture, medical malpractice, systematic violence perpetrated by the deep state. Prior to the 25 January Revolution, the famous police motto was ‘the police at the service of the people’. It was laughable then and even more so now and the systematic abuse Egyptians suffered at the hands of the police, symbolised by the Khaled Said murder, was one of the main cogs of the revolutionary engine. But as 25 January began to fail and rip at the seams, through faults of its own revolutionary forces, and under attack by counter revolution, the police force returned, full force, with its teeth bared and claws at the ready.
Yesterday’s tragedy will cement the view of many that the Port Said massacre was an intentional message from a regime shouting: stand against us not for there will be a severe price to pay. It is no accident that the dead of 2012 and those of 2015 mostly hailed from the Ultras. It is those very Ultras, belonging to Egypt’s largest football clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek and ordinarily stand as rivals not allies in the football universe, who brazenly stood against Egyptian police during the revolution. It was that very police who stood by and watched as murderous thugs executed 74 supporters of Ahly ultras in 2012 and who fired the tear gas against Ultras White Knights yesterday.
The actions by the police, indeed the regime, show an intent to quell dissent once and for all, in general and to keep a failing revolution under fire, specifically, both literally and figuratively. In another universe, one where MOI displayed political maturity guided by the nation’s political leadership, police could have strongly toned down its act and appeased both revolutionary youth and Ultras thereby gaining an ally or at the very least not creating an angry energetic enemy.
Fast forward to the Al-Sisi regime and numerous reports from Human Rights Watch, and many other rights groups, indicate use of torture, rape, and killing of prisoners as tools of subjugation a matter of public knowledge, Mohamed Ibrahim’s stature has only risen. The cynical calculus of politics in a coup regime is not measured in Egyptian drops of blood lost but rather in the ability of that minister to be enforcer of Al-Sisi’s blood curdling policy of stability.
“Your minister of interior is killing all people Mr. President,” said a distraught, loud and angry sports analyst, ironically named Ali El Sisi, to one of Egypt’s biggest Al-Sisi supporters, talk show host, Lamees El Hadidi, on air. This kind of anger is deadly to any notions of political longevity the Al-Sisi regime may have. So what happened yesterday? How did, mostly, young men head to watch a football game and never return home?
“There was a pathway, no more than four meters across, with at least 8,000, at last, waiting to be let in by security. All of a sudden, I swear to God, suddenly they fired tear gas at us. There was a tremendous rush because of the smell of the gas because it burned the face. People fell, they were stepped on, I swear upon God, there was someone below me who took his last breaths”, told eyewitness Abdel Rahman ben Kamel.
The stories differ slightly but agree on the sequence: large crowd in small space, an undisciplined police force, and the dead falling; a state murder complete. The one major difference from one story to the next is whether this was intentional murder by the state or man slaughter by a trigger happy police force not equipped for crowd control or confrontation – though one wonders how after four years of nothing but confrontation. To the eyes of Nader El Sayed, who recorded a video from the massacre, “the Ministry of Interior planned for this, I swear to God”.
As injustice becomes endemic, stability becomes but a mirage. Writing from the morgue, where many families gathered, more than eight hours after the disaster, Mohamed Ashraf, an Egyptian journalist, “the first body to receive a burial certificate saying poisoning by tear gas” has just emerged from the morgue. Even in death, in Egypt, there is negotiation as pro-government workers, in the morgue, push and manipulate families to accept death certificates that say cause of death as stampede and so Ashraf’s news represented the smallest of victories. With video and photo evidence of a crime by the state abundant Egyptian TV, yet again, towed the government line in blaming all Egyptian ills on the Islamist camp. Logic being spewed, by some, said Ultras White Knights, of the Zamalek football club whose fans suffered this massacre, were of Hazemoon affiliation, a strongly Islamist group owing its name to jailed Islamist leader Hazem Abu Ismail.
The fog of state sanctioned murder did not impede a warped value system which implies an acceptance of the killing some over others, due to political affiliation – even when the accusation is false. Stand with the aggrieved, as did Omar Gaber, the only Zamalek player refusing to play in honor of those killed, and you are suspended by a club president who is an ardent supporter of the Ancien regime. In this universe of the powerful who rule over Egypt empathy and sympathy with the dead is a rare currency.
In an Egyptian society rampant with classicism that problematic paradigm peered its ugly head when Zamalek president Mortada Mansour kept thousands of tickets on a by ‘invitation’ only basis for his club members. That decision, powered by an elitism that those belonging to the ruling class’s ilk excel in projecting and executing, proved to be deadly as police refused entry to those with tickets and lacking invites. It cannot be forgotten that for the revolution, Mansour was part of the problem and not the solution. Yet, shortly after the massacre Mansour had no problem saying ‘this was planned’ to hurt Egypt’s road map, all while admitting it was he who urged minister of interior ‘to move against these kids and enforce the law’. With men like that at the helm, Egypt needs no enemies.
Ascertaining where blame lies is of import as are the human cost and details of this sadistic fiasco by cops who either cannot shoot straight or shoot straight to the heart. But how does Egypt, in the short term, stop the bleeding and why is it bleeding? A core issue remains the two Egypts. Find an Egyptian with a PHD and find another, meters apart, who is a doorman and they will, likely, tell you a similar story: in Egypt there are two sets of rules, one for those who carry guns, the army, police and their societal niche, and another for everyone else. The police, in particular, after an ignominious defeat at the hands of the people on 28 January 2011, are on a vengeful path, one that does not see the populous as those they are meant to protect and serve.
Rather, all facts, point to a police force feeling entitled as they serve the army strongman’s interests, and with a judiciary who Mohamed Ibrahim described as exemplifying the golden age of cooperation between the various arms of the police state. This sense of protection that a highly politicised Egyptian judiciary provides is fundamental to understanding why Egyptian police feel they can do no wrong. In the plush police pantheon, this is the golden age of reprehensible lack of accountability and Ibrahim knows it “the golden era of…joining forces and cooperation between state’s authorities; army, police and judiciary” is here, said the minister. Without accountability, checks and balances, this pervasive sadism of the police, that saw its apparatus kill 28 on the fourth anniversary of the revolution, will only continue to increase; powered by both unfettered political power and a military class disdain of those outside that class. In a dark irony, the political naiveté of the police lies within the folds of a short historical attention span: it was their own brutality that brought about defeat on 28 January and they very same dynamic may yet again recreate those events.
Governance is very much a bottom line business and Al-Sisi made his calling card stability and security. The last three weeks have delivered a painfully bloody truth: Al-Sisi is a man unable to deliver neither security nor stability. Though the demand that Ibrahim is fired, from his crucial post, falls far short from necessary structural changes that must happen in the Ministry of the Interior it would be a signal to dissidents, the west and populous at large that Al-Sisi recognises the monumental dangers at hand.
For Al-Sisi to stay, Ibrahim must go. For Al-Sisi this is the yellow card and his next step will determine if a red card is in the offing.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr