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The Revenge of the Police State

[23 November 2012, Egyptian security forces. Image originally posted to Flickr by Lilian Wagdy] [23 November 2012, Egyptian security forces. Image originally posted to Flickr by Lilian Wagdy]

While the ongoing violence in Egypt has contributed to a state of confusion and polarization, one thing is certain: The biggest threat facing Egypt remains the return of the police state. More specifically, the threat concerns, not only the reconstitution of a police state, which never really left since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but also the return of the implicit, if not overt, acceptance of the repressive practices of the coercive apparatus. In this respect, the current face-off between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood holds very damaging potential. Widespread anti- Muslim Brotherhood sentiment is currently providing the state with legitimacy to use of force against the Brotherhood, and, in the future, a potential cover for using similar tactics against other dissidents as well.

There is a problem with the way security forces have violently dispersed the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins, even with claims that both Nahda and Rabea sit-ins were armed. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the Muslim Brotherhood or with the objectives of the sit-ins, the murdering of over five hundred people goes against any sense of human decency and morality. The armed protesters’ reported use of unarmed individuals as human shields is equally despicable and reprehensible. Beyond the serious moral considerations at hand, other problems persist.

The forced dispersal of Rabaa and Nahda marks a triumph of security solutions over political ones—a trend that characterized much of the Mubarak era. Security solutions rarely solve a problem without the support of a political course of action, which seems to be missing in our current context. There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood leaders have a long history of poor negotiating behavior, showing extreme stubbornness, and failing to uphold their end of the bargain on many occasions, in power and in opposition. But this is exactly why dealing with them demands a politically savvy approach, instead of reliance on security solutions, which will only reinforce the Brotherhood’s rigidity, not to mention the heavy human costs associated with such measures.

Instead, the military and its sponsored government chose a confrontational, security path. This path will only further empower the coercive apparatus without guaranteeing any results, in terms of political stability and social peace. As extremist groups are pushed into hiding, the security leaders will find excuses to employ intrusive surveillance measures, interrogate, torture, and abuse, all with zero transparency and accountability. Supporters of the crackdown among those who oppose the Brotherhood will gladly accept. Reinforcing this trend is the fact that the crackdown has apparently empowered radicalized elements among the supporters of the deposed president.

Some may say that the increasing influence of the security sector will only be limited to “counter-terrorism” and extremist Islamist groups that espouse violence. There are clear signs that this would not be the case. For example, immediately prior to the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins, retired generals took control of governerships in an overwhelming majority of provinces. For many, this was a clear signal that the state has opted to “securitize” governance, and political files.

Additionally, those who believe that security sector will not overstep its boundaries clearly overlook the long history of the Egyptian state’s meddling in political and private affairs in the name of counter-terrorism and national security. Given that rich history, we could safely conclude that today domestic intelligence agencies are quickly gaining a blank check to meddle in our affairs for the sake of national security. Soon Egyptians will be asked to support their government in whatever decisions it takes on the grounds that the government is at the frontlines of the fight against “violent Islamists.” Political dissidents of all orientations will be vulnerable to the accusation of being soft on “terrorism” or supportive of “radical Islamists.” Will anyone care in the confusing state of insecurity?

Egypt, in other words, is on a dangerous path. There are many reasons to believe that police forces will employ their brutal practices at Mubarak era rates. The policing establishment itself has not changed in any way, never reformed, and never held to account for its past crimes. Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim has even signaled that such a return is imminent, pledging, “Security will be restored to this nation as if it was before January 25, and more."

Tacit supporters of the security state will respond that there was no other way, that there was no room for negotiating with the Brotherhood, and that the forcible dispersal of the sit-ins was necessary.

Such a response, however, overlooks the major limitations of the security solution to the underlying problem, namely that calling on the police—unreformed and lacking the proper training—to resolve the standoff between the Brotherhood and the government is like asking a butcher to do a heart surgeon’s job. Additionally, one could counter and ask: Was it necessary for the police to target unarmed civilians carrying cameras? Was it necessary for security forces to shoot at unarmed crowds? Was it necessary for the police to leave unprotected all the churches that suffered attacks in the aftermath of the sit-ins’ dispersal?

But setting aside analyses of what the police could have done differently, it remains that the recent violence has only deepened people’s reliance on the security state and will exempt politicians from devising solutions to political differences. With the increase in social conflict, particularly along sectarian lines, security services will once again regain their traditional role as an arbiter of these conflicts, as well as their license to employ abusive, repressive tactics. This sustained sense of insecurity will only steer Egypt away from real justice. With the empowerment of the security sector, there will be no reason or motivation to push for revolutionary demands for real reforms inside the policing establishment. It is also likely that the escalation in violence and the pro-security rhetoric that the state has been touting will make it difficult for political dissidents, who are equally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, to employ street action.

In some ways, the MB’s confrontational approach, wittingly or not, is handing back the coercive apparatus its license to kill and repress with impunity, but so are all those who are cheering on the security forces’ crackdown against the Brotherhood. Many such voices have criticized Mohamed ElBaradie for resigning his post as vice president in the wake of the recent violence. But in reality there is no role for a politician in a state that is poised to pick a security solution in dealing with every pressing challenge.

As we confront the question of whether or not Egypt will witness the “return” of the police of the Mubarak era, a number of critical questions arise, such as: Is there any revolutionary fervor left to resist this route? Or have revolutionary commitments been drained through all the blood and the failed attempts at establishing a democratic political order?

Whether or not a new wave of revolutionary mobilization will emerge to push back against the growing power of the security state is an open question. But it is clear that the persistence of the confrontation between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood will only deepen the securitization of politics by reinforcing demands for security solutions. What it will take to reverse the return of the police state, which revolutionary activists have worked hard to resist, is uncertain. One could argue that the brutal injustices that the police are bent on committing will always make resistance structurally inevitable. But that suggests that reviving resistance will come at a high price, one that Khalid Said, Jika, Mohamed al-Guindy, and many others have paid.

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