Cairo Bomb Blast Can’t Dent Rise of Egypt’s Dictatorship-Era Security State

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Khalil Hamra / AP

Egyptian security personnel gather at the scene of a bomb attack targeting the convoy of Egypt's Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, in Nasr City, Cairo, Sept. 5, 2013.

Essam Tarek woke on Thursday morning when a bomb blast, targeting the Egyptian Interior Minister’s convoy, shook his neighborhood, in Cairo’s suburban Nasr City area. “I went to the balcony and I saw cars full of fire and people running scared. People crowded around here. Then there were multiple gunshots,” says Tarek, 25, a medical doctor.

Thursday afternoon, Tarek looked on while a forensics team picked through the remains of burnt-out cars, including a large white Nissan with a burnt engine block, behind a cordon guarded by riot police and plainclothes officers with machine guns. A mangled motorcycle lay on the sidewalk. Chunks of rubber and metal and shards of glass crunched underfoot as much as 50 meters away from the blast site. On the second story of a building damaged in the blast, the windows of a clothing store had been shattered, but racks of bright colored women’s blouses still hung inside.

Though there was no clear indication yet of who was behind the attack, nearly every onlooker blamed Islamists. “We’re with the army and the Interior Ministry because they’re against terrorism,” says Samir Al-Iraqi, 38, another resident, standing on the same street corner.

The explosion injured at least 21 people, according to the Ambulance Authority, but the Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived and later appeared unhurt on state television, denouncing the blast as a “cowardly” assassination attempt. Muslim Brotherhood leader Amr Darrag issued a statement condemning the attack.

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Since Egypt’s military deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in June following massive protests, Egypt’s security apparatus has enjoyed an unprecedented level of public support. Unlike the three decades of authoritarian rule under President Hosni Mubarak, when the police were almost universally reviled, a significant chunk of the population now backs the security forces, even as their clampdown on Islamists has resulted in a staggering loss of life. Last month, after government forces dispersed two encampments of protesters loyal to Morsi, leaving hundreds dead, one poll found that 67% of respondents supported the bloody crackdown.

“It’s an objective triumph for the return of the security state,” says Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist at Barnard College and longtime observer of Egyptian politics. “Now it’s returning with a swagger, too, the swagger of public support.” The state and private media almost entirely supported the government. Banners appeared during television broadcasts declaring, “Egypt fighting terrorism.” The government shut down nearly all the Islamist news networks, as well as Al Jazeera’s Egypt affiliate.

The obliteration of the protest camps in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square and Nahda Square on August 14 was the culmination of a showdown between the military-backed government and supporters of Morsi. Human Rights Watch reports that the security forces’ use of live ammunition that day resulted in the most serious acts of mass killing in Egypt’s modern history. According to the group’s investigation, at least 377 people were killed in Rabaa alone. Based on rights groups’ counts and official figures, least 800 people were confirmed killed in four days of violence.

The Mubarak regime made the police a central pillar of his authoritarian regime. He built the police, security forces, and related agencies into an empire with more than two million employees, larger even than the army, which stood at 400,000 troops in 2010. Now the country’s military-backed rulers are deploying the police with a level of lethality that even Mubarak himself never dared. The Rabaa killings may come to be seen as a turning point in Egypt’s political drama, marking the full resurgence of the security state.

The protesters who opposed Morsi’s removal were the first victims of the police’s crackdown. Since eliminating the sit-ins, security forces have arrested more than 1,000 people, according to Reuters, including top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military-installed government has declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew in 14 provinces. On Tuesday, a military court sentenced 49 civilians to prison terms ranging from five years to life for participating in violent protests against the army. In the days after the crackdown, armored military vehicles ringed Tahrir Square, the iconic center of the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

Under Mubarak, the police routinely collected bribes, beat protesters, and tortured detainees. But street protests were usually small, isolated, and overwhelmed by large numbers of black-helmeted riot police; shooting deaths of protesters were relatively rare. An emergency law enforced throughout Mubarak’s presidency permitted indefinite detention and military trials of civilians and banned gatherings of more than five people.

“Under Mubarak’s system, politics was kind of this farcical thing. There was a disconnected political class,” says El-Ghobashy, “Real political struggles were fragmented. If you have a system like that, you don’t need to use live fire on protesters. You just need to beat them up sometimes.”

El-Ghobashy argues that the uprising that ousted Mubarak altered the balance of power between the state and society. Throngs of demonstrators succeeded in temporarily paralyzing the security forces after four days and nights of street fighting that left hundreds dead. Repeal of the emergency law, release of those detained without charge, and police reform generally were central demands of the uprising. Less than a month after the 2011 uprising, protesters stormed the headquarters of the State Security Investigations Service, an institution hated for its long and well-documented record of torture. For the first time, the public shed its fear of the police.

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For most of the two and a half years between the 2011 uprising and the 2013 rebellion, the police faced an emboldened opposition. Security forces did clear Tahrir Square several times but other times the police were unable or unwilling to exert the force it would take to regain control of public space. The vast institutions of the security state, headquartered in the Interior Ministry’s black-gated compound near Tahrir, were never reformed. During the period of military rule that followed Mubarak, and during Morsi’s year in power, police torture, harassment of dissidents, and killings of protesters continued. According to some accounts, Morsi, presiding over institutions that Mubarak built, never had the power to rein in the police.

Then, in the weeks since the military removed Morsi this year, the new political dynamic produced a large and mounting number of fatalities. On July 8, security forces killed 51 Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators at a sit-in outside the Republican Guard headquarters. Three weeks later, at least 74 more people were shot dead outside the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque. Then came the killings in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. “On the sheer willingness and capacity of the security forces using live fire, Egypt here is setting a standard in the most macabre way possible,” El-Ghobashy says.

Government officials disagree. In a phone interview, Brigadier Hatem Fathy, director of the International Relations Department of the Ministry of Interior, says that the majority of the casualties at Rabaa were the result of bullets fired by gunmen among the protesters, not the police who were sent to disperse them. “This is what we think, because our police officers are well-trained,” Fathy says. “They are professionals. They can aim at their targets. They cannot miss.”

The Interior Ministry’s claims go against much of the evidence still surfacing from Rabaa. In its investigation, of the sit-in dispersal, based on video footage and 41 interviews with demonstrators, doctors, and other residents of the area, Human Rights Watch found, “The vast majority of the protesters were unarmed, but some carried clubs and a few fired guns at the security forces.” Though the rights group could not establish who shot first, it concluded, “The police unlawfully killed protesters who were clearly not engaged in any form of violence.”

Others blame Morsi for willingly preserving the security apparatus that recently killed hundreds of the deposed president’s supporters. The current interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, was appointed by Morsi in January and retained his position under the new government. Hazem Kandil, a sociologist at Cambridge University and author of a book dealing with the history of Egypt’s security state, argues that the Brotherhood planned to enlist the police in the service of its own religious agenda. “The heart of Egypt’s authoritarianism is the fact that it is a police state,” he says. “The moment to challenge this police state has come and gone in 2011, two years ago, and it has largely come and gone because of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Kandil says Morsi’s failure to reform the police contributed to the public’s alienation that ultimately caused his demise. “Many Egyptians said, ‘Well since we’re going to be living under a police state anyway, then we better be living under a police state that we are used to, a kind of a secular police state rather than a police state that supports religious fascism,’” Kandil says.

Regardless of who deserves ultimate blame for the failure of security reform, the Brotherhood have now been definitively removed from power. And in their shared zeal to clamp down on the Islamists, the military and security forces, two separate institutions that have not always got along, appear to be aligned more closely than ever.

But in terms of political prestige, the security forces are still regarded by the public as secondary to the military, as El-Ghobashy put it, “junior partners” at best in the current ruling coalition. Government supporters are quick to point out that it was the police, not the military itself, who carried out the Rabaa crackdown. Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs who studies Egypt at George Washington University, says the view among the officer corps of the military was, “We’re educated people who are dedicated to the security of the state, and we’re there for Egypt no matter what. They’re kind of uniformed goons who crack heads because that’s all they know how to do.”

In the aftermath of Thursday’s bombing, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim appeared undaunted. Asked whether the blast signaled the start of a possible wave of attacks, he said, “What happened today is not the end but the beginning.”

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