The date 28 January 2011, also known as the “Friday of Rage,” holds a special place in the hearts of many Egyptians and is widely seen as the turning point at which the “January 25 protests” turned into the “January 25 uprising.” Some associate that day with the image of flames emanating from government buildings and the National Democratic Party headquarters near Tahrir Square, along with the looting and the condition of lawlessness that swept the country shortly thereafter. However, many Egyptians remember the Friday of Rage as the day they were able to defeat Hosni Mubarak’s almighty coercive apparatus, as symbolized by the withdrawal of uniformed police forces from the streets. The positive significance attributed to that moment, notwithstanding the security vacuum that it brought about, speaks to a deep-seated animosity between the majority of Egyptians and the policing establishment—one that has survived and continues to animate all aspects of life even after Mubarak’s downfall.
This sentiment is mirrored in popular chants that protesters have often recited at demonstrations and clashes with Egyptian security forces throughout the past two years under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and currently under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. It is vividly captured in a variety of popular songs that mock the competence of police forces, and in some cases rejoice at their “defeat” during the 2011 eighteen-day uprisings. Ultras White Knights (Zamalek) soccer fans’ “We Have Not Forgotten about Tahrir” (mosh nasyeen eltahrir) is a case in point:
We have not forgotten about Tahrir, you sons of b*tches.
The revolution for you was a setback.
To whom do we go and tell, “our officers are pimps”
You have taken a beating you have not experienced in years.
Another not-so-subtle expression of popular contempt for Egyptian police is also seen in Ultras Ahlawy’s infamous song “Oh Nesting Crow” (ya ghorab ya ma‘ashesh), in which they ridicule police forces and question their intelligence and educational credentials:
Oh crow nesting at our home,
And who has always been a failure in life,
In high school, he barely scored fifty percent.
And through bribes, his “excellency” got an education,
And received a degree worthy of a hundred colleges.
Oh crow nesting at our home,
Why are you destroying the joy of our lives?
We will not do as you wish,
So please save us your grace.
Go ahead and contrive a case [against me],
Since this is what the Interior [Ministry] usually does.
I was arrested and charged with international terrorism,
When all I did was wave a torch and chant “Ahly.”
The survival of such public expressions of disdain for the policing establishment in popular culture is anything but surprising, given that the abusive practices of security forces have not ceased. As these lines were written, Egyptian security forces were still engaged in employing deadly violence against protesters in nationwide confrontations in the wake of demonstrations organized to mark two years since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution. For his part, President Morsi declared a state of emergency in three major governorates and vowed further action if calm does not ensue. But even before the outbreak of these confrontations, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) recently reported that police personnel continue to resort unwarrantedly to the use of force against citizens, and have been using torture and violence to target individuals seeking to prove police abuses. The recent violence, moreover, coincides with a reality in which both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled presidency have refused to heed revolutionary calls for far-reaching reform of security institutions.
It is too easy to pause at every such incidents of violence, including those most recent, and ask the conventional question: “who started it?” It is too easy to place blame on the provocations of protesters and their failure to comply with police orders. What this analysis misses is that the “vendetta” between the police and Egyptians did not commence at any of these incidents. It speaks rather to deeper conflicts that transcend these battles. The routinization of clashes between protesters and security forces are a testament to the fact that Egyptians are at war, not with the police, but with their state as a whole.
Egyptians revolted on 25 January 2011 against an exclusionary social order that failed to afford them basic social and economic rights. This explains the slogan that spread rapidly in public squares and street marches during the uprising: “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Yet even with Mubarak’s departure, the end of formal military rule, and the convening of successive elections, people are oppressed in a country in which bread shortages are not an uncommon occurrence, prices are on the rise, and social services are perpetually deteriorating. Morsi, following the footsteps of Gamal Mubarak and Yousef Boutros Ghali, is negotiating the terms of Egypt’s economic development with international financial Institutions behind closed doors. Like his predecessors, he is conducting these negotiations without any meaningful public deliberation or serious engagement with domestic stakeholders. Put simply, instead of negotiating with his own people over the future of the country and the priorities and goals of economic reform, Morsi is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
By continuing to overlook economic grievances and mounting demands for social and economic rights and by perpetuating the same economic policies of the Mubarak era, Morsi and his Brothers are promoting an environment ripe for social unrest and anti-system mobilization. Such an environment is ready to explode at the slightest skirmishes between the people and security forces. This dynamic has only deepened Morsi’s dependency on security agencies to protect his authority from the large social segments aggrieved by the underlying economic status quo. We must not forget that the Ministry of Interior accumulated influence during Mubarak’s last decade in office in large part as a result of widespread socio-economic discontent that the regime’s unsound economic policies birthed and reinforced. Mubarak gave security agencies a carte blanche in order to keep the Egyptian people at bay. Morsi is following a similar path by shielding security organizations from meaningful reform and condoning their abusive practices.
Morsi is aware that he presides over a state which has not made its peace with the Egyptian people, and which continues to promote an unjust and inequitable economic order. Thus, the president finds himself with no choice but to resort to “security solutions” at every pressing challenge he faces, be it unrest in Sinai or opposition to his constitution. Wael Eskandar sums it up best: “Similar to their predecessors among the Mubarakists, they [the Muslim Brothers] seem to have left their political problems for the police to handle on the streets.” The current impasse is no exception. The best evidence is Morsi’s recent speech: he defiantly scolded protesters, he declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, and he threatened more stringency if the clashes continue.
The president’s security-heavy speech was silent on any serious commitment to address the political and economic problems that fuel the popular anger and the alienation prevailing in many segments of Egyptian society. He simply called on the opposition for dialogue. Yet he offered no credible signal that this dialogue would not collapse into yet another cosmetic measure that falls short of serious concessions from a Brotherhood, which has refused to cede its monopoly on political power. That politics have taken a back seat to security solutions is not surprising. After all, the Brothers find themselves alone in a corner having alienated their political rivals—perhaps irreversibly—through the unilateralism and heavy-handedness they exercised in passing a constitution that failed to garner any buy-in outside of their own narrow coalition. As noted in a Jadaliyya article last month: “The more the Brotherhood realizes that it stands over a hollow political process that lacks any credibility and that the façade of democracy is no longer holding up, the greater the temptations it will face in steering Egypt closer toward a de facto or de jure state of emergency.”
Many observers note that Egypt is deeply divided between those who want an Islamic state and those who are committed to a secular vision for country’s future. Egypt is indeed a deeply divided country, but not only between Islamists and secularists. The deeper divisions lie elsewhere. There is one Egypt where people fight every day for standing room in packed public buses, wait in line for hours to buy subsidized bread, and sell their furniture to afford the cost of medical treatment. There is another Egypt where people spend on a single dinner over half of what others earn in a year. The less Morsi and the Brotherhood bridge this deep divide, the wider the battle between Egyptian society and security organizations will become, and the more “days of rage” we will witness.