Are the death sentence verdicts a death sentence for Egypt?
On 25th January 2011 – coinciding with "National Police Day" – thousands of Egyptians flocked to the Ministry of Interior in central Cairo in protest of widespread police brutality. Eighteen days later, 846 people had died, over 6,000 more were injured and Egypt’s longest serving president, the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak, had abdicated his post.
Two years later and Egypt has its first democratically elected, non-military leader since King Farouk was overthrown in 1952. The president now has a maximum tenure of two four-year terms. The infamous emergency law has been terminated. Egypt has a newly elected upper house of parliament, a new constitution and parliamentary elections for a lower house due in the upcoming months.
Yet for all that, the goals of the revolution have yet to be achieved: economic stagnation persists, unemployment has increased, military trials of civilians continue and the new constitution meant to enshrine civil liberties remains hugely contentious.
These remain serious affronts to millions of Egyptians. For the anniversary of the revolution, 16 parties and movements held marches in each governorate while maintaining a rejection of the anniversary as a day of celebration. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters would not even venture into Tahrir Square – "the symbol of the revolution" – for the day, highlighting the current political polarisation.
Tens of thousands packed Tahrir as the old chants of “Down with the regime” and “Bread, freedom, social justice” rang out alongside newer ones of “Leave Morsi!” and “Gika” (the first martyr of Morsi’s tenure). Meanwhile, several marches from around Cairo advanced towards Tahrir shortly after Friday prayers, amassing huge numbers along the way.
In the heart of Tahrir, the atmosphere remained relaxed and non-celebratory as tens of thousands slowly packed the square. The numbers were smaller than last year, but the sense of purpose for those in the square remained resolute. “The revolution didn’t end with Mubarak leaving,” says Mohamed Nawaz, a young protester in Tahrir, “it only ends when we get what is due to us: bread, freedom and social justice.”
On the outskirts, clashes between protesters and the Central Security Forces (CSF) continued in a volley of stones and tear gas.
The injured from the area were brought to a nearby makeshift field hospital in Qasr El Dobara Church. Inside, a small group of doctors and volunteers helped to treat the wounded – over 100 people in less than six hours. One man was escorted in with around 30 small, bloodied holes in his torso and face, “It’s just birdshot,” he sighed nonchalantly.
He had been a part of a march that had attempted to get into a Muslim Brotherhood building on the nearby Talat Harb Street before clashing with security. Members of the march stated that the clashes were instigated by a small group of men dressed all in black – apparently the new Black Bloc group.
As darkness fell in Tahrir, reports emerged of accounts of brutal sexual assault – something that's been occurring with alarming frequency over the past two years. The group "Operation Anti Sexual Harassment" reported that there were 19 cases of mob sexual assaults with at least six needing medical attention.
Meanwhile in the city of Suez, eight protesters and a CSF conscript were killed in clashes with security forces from the Governorate headquarters, which had been set ablaze during the fighting. Head of the Doctor’s syndicate, Mohamed Salama, said the deaths were the result of birdshot and live ammo. At the funeral processions the next day, thousands marched through the streets shouting “Revenge!”
As the anniversary came to a close, the Ministry of Health reported that nationwide protests had seen more than ten deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The next day marked the trial verdict of the 73 defendants of the Port Said Stadium massacre. With momentum from the anniversary still strong, it seems inconceivable that the judiciary could have chosen such a politically charged time to release such an important announcement.
On February 1st, 2012 following an Egyptian Premier League football match between Port Said’s Masry football club and Cairo’s Al Ahly football club, supporter’s of Masry invaded the pitch and attacked the away fans: over 1000 people were injured and 74 died, including 72 Al Ahly fans. Descriptions of people being thrown from the stands or beaten to death resonated around Egypt.
In the aftermath of the country's worst football disaster, reports trickled out indicating the massacre was more than just another example of football hooliganism at work. It's widely believed that the security officials at the time – military and police – played a major part in the massacre, with reports of security leaving their posts, locking supporters inside the stadium and the apparent use of "Baltageya" (hired thugs) suggesting that the massacre had a dark political undertone to it.
The interim ruling power at the time, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), may have created the chaos in the hope of gaining public opinion for "greater security", thus giving them greater influence in the long run. If that was their plan, it failed miserably.
Ultras Ahlawy, the hardcore supporters of the Al Ahly football club, had been a constituent element of the revolution. However, it was only really after the disaster that the Ultras became truly involved in the fight against the establishment, amassing thousands in a short space of time and channelling all their effort into the political sphere.
In the run up to the verdict announcement, graffiti saying “1-26: Justice or Chaos” sprung up on the walls of Cairo – the date of the verdict with a barefaced threat to the judiciary and government.
Shortly after 10AM on the Saturday morning, the Port Said Criminal Court made their announcement: 21 Masry fans were handed the death sentence, while the remaining 52 defendants had their verdicts postponed until March 9th.
The response was immediate. In Cairo, the Ultras celebrated, while in Port Said, people became distraught, then angry. While the Ultras were setting off flares and fireworks, gun battles were raging in Port Said.
The Ultras Ahlawy Facebook page released a statement that read, “Today was the start of justice, but not in its entirety.” Ahmed, a young Ultra in Cairo, described how, “Today is justice, I am so happy,” before being joined by a friend and singing a song that included the words “Fuck you, Port Saidis.”
It's hard for the residents of Port Said to see the verdicts as anything other than highly politicised; nine security officials among the defendants had their verdicts postponed, while 21 of their own were sentenced to death. Hundreds of angry and armed residents stormed the jail where some of the accused were held in an attempt to free them. The fierce fighting that followed necessitated the arrival of the army. At the time of writing, there have been reports of at least 30 deaths and 300 injuries.
On Sunday 27th, tens of thousands marched through the city’s streets for the funeral procession of those killed the day before, only to then have unidentified gunmen fire upon them. Al Jazeera showed harrowing footage of the procession shortly after the attack – people running away or frantically scouring the buildings in hopes of spotting the gunmen.
Exactly who was behind this attack remains unknown, but it provoked yet more clashes with the security forces. At the day’s end, Ahram Online reported that five people had been killed and 436 injured: live ammunition, birdshot and tear gas responsible for most of the injuries and deaths.
President Morsi appeared on state TV late last night to invite the leaders of the opposition for a dialogue, announced a state of emergency and a curfew of 9PM to 6AM for the cities of Ismailia, Suez and Port Said, set to last 30 days. HRW Egypt Director Heba Morayef tweeted, “Curfew is one thing but giving the police emergency law powers is really just an invitation to more abuse.”
With so much death in such a short time frame and this sudden antagonising emergency ruling, the prospect of this period of violence dying down soon seems unlikely. But unless these revolutionary protesters present a meaningful and feasible proposal to the Muslim Brotherhood, mental and physical fatigue will inevitably set in and the status quo will surely remain for the near future.
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