from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Ministry of Chaos

March 11, 2013

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The lawlessness and seemingly senseless violence that has descended upon Egypt in recent weeks has led some Egyptians to wonder whether March 2013 is the modern analogue to January 1952.  Black Sunday, as it came to be known, was a spasm of violence that engulfed Cairo after British forces killed a group of Egyptian policeman in the city of Ismailia.  That day of rage—January 25—culminated in a fire in downtown Cairo that destroyed movie theaters, restaurants, and clubs.  Debate continues over who started the fires with some contending it was the Muslim Brotherhood and other arguing that it was provocateurs associated with the Free Officers.  Regardless, Black Sunday set in motion a chain of events that led to the Free Officers coup of July 1952.

It could happen again.  Egypt is hanging by a thread.  The military, which is already in the streets in Port Said—a city that has been in open revolt for more than a month—may find it has no other choice as if the situation deteriorates further.  My friend, Issandr el Amrani, offers a compelling explanation of the violence in a recent column in The National.  He focuses the build of his attention on the so-called “Ultras,” who were the shock troops of the revolution and heroes to many, but who are little more than anarchists engaged in violence for the sake of violence. Issandr also touches on the problems associated with the Ministry of Interior, which is notorious for its brutality.  And while everyone agrees that the Ministry is badly in need of reform, neither the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during its eighteen-month tenure holding executive power nor President Mohammed Morsi has been willing to move against this redoubt of the old regime.  Why?  Given the profound way Egyptians loathe the Ministry of Interior, it seems that the potential political payoff of sacking the police generals who run the place would be too hard to resist.

As much as bulldozing the Ministry of Interior would likely reverse President Morsi’s declining fortunes, he—like Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi before him—will never do it because he both needs and fears the police.  Who would control the streets if the president thoroughly purged the ministry and started over again? The answer is no one and the inevitable result would be chaos, which is a point the police are currently driving home rather effectively as they walk off the job in as many as ten of twenty-nine governorates.  The police say they will no longer do Morsi’s bidding, but they are really signaling to the president that he cannot trifle with the cops.  In a counterintuitive way, lawlessness is the Ministry of Interior’s insurance policy against the two “p’s”: purge and prosecution.  It is hard to be sympathetic to Morsi, but he is in a tough spot.  If he does little more than whatever cosmetic changes he has made to the ministry, he pays politically with Egyptians who regard the police as a symbol of brutality and oppression.  If he takes on the ministry, he pays politically because he is blamed for the parlous state of security in what were once Egypt’s safe streets.  As with so much else in Egypt these days, Morsi has chosen the middle path, meaning he has chosen to fiddle as Cairo burns…again.