Egypt's latest spasm of unrest has stretched from Cairo to the Suez Canal, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands injured. The police response has been chaotic and often brutal, a stark reminder that Egypt's security services remain unreformed and largely unaccountable two years after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Although President Mohamed Morsi's early months in power offered cause to believe that systemic change within the interior ministry was a distinct possibility, intransigence from the security services, the presidency, and Egypt's political opposition are now pushing the prospect for reform out of reach.
Popular anger against the brutality of Cairo's police force was catalyzed last week when satellite television broadcast a video of Hamada Saber, a 48-year old laborer, who had been stripped naked, dragged, and beaten by the Central Security Forces near Morsi's Presidential Palace.
Official reactions to Saber's public humiliation were swift. Seemingly intent on preventing the footage from joining the annals of police brutality that defined the tenure of Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), its publicity machine went into overdrive as it offered its own version of the night's events. State media reported that Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim had made a personal phone-call to Saber, apologizing for his treatment, and the president's office emphasized that Morsi himself had been "pained at the shocking footage." This was followed by a Kafkaesque episode in which Saber testified from his police-hospital bed, claiming that it was the protesters, not the police, who had stripped and beaten him. According to this account, it was the Central Security Forces who had come to his rescue. However, after members of Saber's family angrily contested this version of events, he retracted his testimony, implying that it came under coercion.
That the official response to Saber's treatment came through an attempt to control the public narrative comes as little surprise in the context of Egypt's post-revolutionary security reform effort. To date, this has largely been characterized by words, not deeds.
The Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Freedom and Justice Party's named security sector reform as one of the seven pillars of its Renaissance Project, the official program adopted by the organization in the run-up to last year's parliamentary elections. Unveiled in April 2012, the project pledged to restructure the interior ministry and issue a new law for governing the police. The early signs of Morsi's presidency seemed encouraging. After winning control from the ruling junta through popular elections, he culled senior police and intelligence chiefs, removing major obstacles to civilian control of the security apparatus.
Yet Morsi did not pursue early opportunities for reform and the rising death toll from Egypt's latest wave of unrest comes as a painful reminder of how little has changed. The only substantive change at the legislative level occurred under the short-lived parliament, as it passed amendments to Law No. 109 (1971) on the Organization of the Police. This removed the president's right to act as the head of the Supreme Council of the Police and amended articles relating to pensions and salary controls. But these efforts were only aimed at minimizing rising discontent within the police ranks, and did nothing to address the issues that continue to facilitate brutality and abuses of police power.
The government has even resisted reform efforts from within the police. Since the January 25, 2011 revolution, at least three groups of mid-ranking police officers have responded to the institution's systematic culture of abuse by proposing initiatives that would cleanse it of corrupt generals and introduce better training and more effective accountability mechanisms. But despite meeting with presidential and parliamentary officials, their demands have fallen on deaf ears.
Morsi's government has instead resorted to repeated use of the Emergency Law. First implemented under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, this legal maneuver has been used as a legislative Band-Aid to mask the absence of structural change. It allows the police to detain suspects for extended periods before sending them to military trials, as well as to subvert constitutional rights and curb press freedoms. According to Heba Morayef, Egypt Director at Human Rights Watch, these emergency provisions can encourage police abuses. In particular, she says, the process of removing detainees from the civilian justice system "takes away any oversight that [civilian] prosecutors might provide."
The lack of reform continues to be felt most acutely outside the capital. Since 2011, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) recorded repeated instances of "unnecessary recourse to firearms" by police in the governorates outside Cairo. In Minya and Beni Suef, the organization even documented cases in which groups of policemen engaged in revenge attacks on civilian neighborhoods.
But after the latest round of unrest, it is the Suez Canal city of Port Said that appears to have experienced the bloodiest policing episode of the post-Mubarak era. Although an exact timeline of events has yet to be established, clashes between police and civilians on January 26 resulted in 28 deaths; seven more people were killed after a funeral march the following day. In response, Morsi implemented a state of emergency in the city, imposing a curfew and extending the powers of the military and police force. During a demonstration that broke the nighttime curfew, eyewitnesses report that an armored personnel vehicle shot "indiscriminately" at the protesters. According to Morayef, the deaths in Port Said highlight "not just that the concept of proportionality [doesn't] resonate, but also that there are no limits on the right to use force" against protesters operating near state installations.
As the implications of the lack of reform play out on Egypt's streets, the degree to which the government desires change remains an open question. According to Dr. Omar Ashour, a professor at Exeter University who has conducted extensive interviews with Muslim Brotherhood and security officials, "they have the will but they don't have the capacity. This is because there is strong internal opposition within the ranks of the interior ministry and there is also a deep mistrust between them and some of the figures within the interior ministry. In addition, the Presidential Palace is being attacked every few weeks and in the middle of this, they need the security services so they don't want to shake them up."
Growing polarization between the country's political elites has further stymied the chance for reform, according to Ashour. As certain sections of the opposition have attempted to convince defense and interior ministry officials of their own strongman credentials, he says, the political context grows yet more reform averse.
However, even if Egypt's government lacks the capacity to reform, it retains the ability to minimize levels of confrontation through its own rhetoric. Since mid-2011, there has been a shift in the tone of official declarations regarding the role and responsibilities of the police force. Initial acceptance of a need for change has given way to a focus on the importance of strength in the face of unrest. Declarations now emphasize the right of the Central Security Forces to defend state property with whatever force it sees fit. As Egypt's bloodshed continues to reveal, such pronouncements can be tragically inflammatory.
Louisa Loveluck is a Cairo-based freelance journalist. She writes at leloveluck.com.