A court ruling Saturday about responsibility for a deadly riot last year at a soccer match is once again roiling Egypt and showcasing the power of the court system.
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“Do you remember the day when you fled from the court?" posted the Facebook fan page of the Cairo Al-Ahly club, which was the visiting team in the soccer match that turned violent in Port Said. "If they don’t hand down justice under the law on Saturday, March 9, you will want to flee but you won’t be able to."
The threat by the Ultras, a group of fanatical Al-Ahly supporters, was taken seriously. More than 2,000 police officers were sent to secure the criminal court, which convened on Saturday on the premises of the Police Academy in Cairo, to decide the fate of the second group of men convicted for their role in the riot.
Since that violent day in February 2012 when 74 people were killed, Egyptians have been waiting for the sentencing of those arrested and especially for "justice" to be handed down to police officers who, Al-Ahly fans say encouraged the Port Said crowd to slaughter the visitors.
But the ruling Saturday only inflamed passions. Al-Ahly fans and residents of Cairo are furious at the acquittal of 28 of the defendants and the prison sentences handed down to senior police officers, which they say are too light.
Port Said, too, has been seething since the ruling, which reaffirmed the death sentences given to 21 fans of the local Al-Masry club in January. Many residents feel the court targeted their city for political reasons.
Ever since the first trial, Port Said has been in a state of violent revolt, declaring symbolic independence and disengagement from the state. The city flag has been flown like a national banner, car license plates have been replaced with plates that say "The State of Port Said" and scuffles with police and security forces have become routine – with an escalation in recent weeks that has left the city in chaos.
The Port Said trial is the last thing Morsi – who has been forced to recognize, with gritted teeth, that the future of his regime depends on court decisions – needs right now. On the eve of the trial, Morsi and his advisors were aware than any ruling would incite unrest in the country, requiring the use of force and possibly even the intervention of the army to restore calm.
The army has previously warned Morsi that it does not want to get involved in politics. But with the police, employed by the Interior Ministry, on strike and demanding additional weapons to defend themselves from protestors, Morsi is likely to have to ask the army for help – thereby revealing his lack of control over the country.
Saturday's ruling is not the first political blow the court system has dealt Morsi. A few days earlier, the Administrative Court froze preparations for parliamentary elections until the Supreme Constitutional Court confirms the constitutionality of the new election law.
This is ostensibly a technical issue. By law, the election law must pass through the constitutional court before being presented for parliamentary approval. The Shura Council, which is acting as the parliament for the moment, skipped this step to hasten the holding of the elections. Morsi’s opposition – headed by the National Salvation Front, which announced it will boycott the elections – is clinging to this legal provision to throw a wrench, even if only temporarily, into Morsi's ambition to end the political crisis and complete the formal process of establishing Egyptian democracy.
Morsi is well aware of the court system's power and his own inability to influence – let alone steer, like his predecessor Hosni Mubarak – its rulings. It was the constitutional court that last year dispersed the parliament, in which the Muslim Brotherhood had won a majority. It was the constitutional court that ruled his presidential decisions unconstitutional. And it was the constitutional court that disqualified Khairat el-Shater, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, from competing in the June 2012 presidential race – paving the way for Morsi's candidacy. In short, the constitutional court, which is popular with the public, has proved to be a wall that can block the political processes Morsi hopes to advance.
But the active and independent court system, which has become a pillar of the revolution, may impede Egypt's economic recovery. As long as the constitutional court is delaying the elections and the rulings of the criminal court are leading to outbreaks of rioting in the streets, Egypt will have a hard time signing an essential loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, investors will continue to shy away from the country and tourists will find places other than the pyramids to vacation.
The opposition forces are hoping the weights they and the courts are putting on Morsi’s ankles will help them in the parliamentary elections. The problem is they may also sink the country.