The rehabilitation of Egypt’s police apparatus continues. The interior ministry and its numerous security and intelligence agencies were the backbone of Mubarak’s corrupt police state. But they suffered a severe blow during the uprising against Mubarak two years ago, and the story of their fall from grace and subsequent refusal to properly police the country – the real job of policing, that is, like dealing with crime, traffic and neighbourhood security, as opposed to torturing people – is in many ways the story of Egypt’s descent into chaos since the revolution.
The June 30 Tamarrod protests against the Brotherhood president Mohammed Mursi and his government was a turning point in the interior’s fortunes. On that day police officers took part in the Tahrir protests and were carried on top of protesters’ shoulders – this despite the fact that Mursi’s unwillingness to rein in their ham-fisted approach to ongoing protests, even praising them at one infamous event, was one of the black marks that turned many revolutionary activists against him.
Police returned to the streets in a striking fashion, the day after defence ministry Abdulfattah al-Sisi announced on July 3 that he had shunted Mursi from office. The ministry then declared that Mubarak-era units specializing in “political crimes” and religious extremism would be reinstated. And today, after the deadly ministry operation to break up the Brotherhood protest encampments at Rabaa al-Adawiya in Nasr City and Nahda Square in Giza, the interior went one step further on the road to redemption.
The minister Mohamed Ibrahim not only justified the violent attack on the camps – self-restraint in the face of armed gangs, he said, leaving at least 235 dead – he announced that finally, over two years after the revolt, policing would return to Mubarak-era levels (“security will be restored to this nation as if it was before 25 January and even more”).
But in listing revenge acts by Islamists later in the day, including attacks on two prisons, he also cited the specific date of January 28, 2011, the day of an epic battle between protesters and security forces in Cairo and elsewhere that the ministry lost, one of the key events that sealed Mubarak’s fate. On that day, the army went down onto the streets, as the police withdrew in essence never to return except for set-piece clashes with protesters around vital state installations and buildings in the past two years.
On that day too, prisoners broke out of jails around the country in what was widely seen at the time as an effort by the regime to sow chaos by releasing criminals, but since the July 3 coup, the narrative has morphed officially into a Brotherhood plot aided by Hamas to break open the prisons and let their leaders escape. “I think they (the Brotherhood) wanted to take us back to the scenes of Jan 28,” Ibrahim said at his press conference, while repeatedly citing “the June 30 revolution” as for him an era-defining moment.
The juxtaposition of these dates – Jan 25, Jan 28, June 30 – is telling: the Jan 25 uprising was an unmitigated disaster for an institution that was built up over 30 years as the rock on which the modern Egyptian state, as corrupt and degenerate as it is, was built. The key date in that fall was Jan 28; the day the shame was wiped away was June 30.
The ministry was handed this opportunity to redeem itself by the army, which played a role in today’s proceedings blocking streets with tanks and armoured vehicles, but ceded the operation to the ministry’s management. There was no interest in a compromise: EU envoy Bernardino Leon said on Wednesday evening that Sisi did not listen to their last-minute efforts to stop the carnage. “We had a political plan that was on the table, that had been accepted by the other side (the Brotherhood),” he said. “They could have taken this option. So all that has happened today was unnecessary.”
Ibrahim’s pride in how his boys implemented the task of breaking the protests today was palpable. Not only was the Brotherhood taught a lesson, the police got back their pride.