Morsi’s Challenge: Restore Egypt’s Security Without Using Force Against Citizens

During Mubarak's dictatorship, the streets were safe, but citizens feared the government; since the revolution, violence has taken over the streets.

The most recent joke going around Egypt about President Mohammed Morsi’s government is that during his tenure the cell phone has gone from being a means of communication to an improvised flashlight. The bitter humor refers to the electricity-supply crisis Egypt is currently experiencing, which has affected the functioning of hospitals and factories and, of course, the uninterrupted viewing of Ramadan television series.

Since misery loves company, Morsi duly reported that his home had also suffered power outages, and promised that he had "already instructed those responsible to deal with the problem immediately.” What else could he promise at this stage, when the power disruptions, as serious as they are, are not the only troubles that have landed on the relatively new president's doorstep?

Internal security is the main issue worrying the new administration. Three violent incidents that have occurred over the past week testify to the unstable ground upon which the new government was formed.

The most serious of them occurred in the village of Dahshur in the Giza district south of Cairo, when a fatal clash broke out between Coptic Christians and Muslims. It began, as always, with a minor incident – this time it was a Coptic presser who burned the shirt of a Muslim customer – and ended in a brawl in which a Muslim was killed, several people were injured, stores were burned, young Muslims took control of the local church, the house of a Copt was “occupied” and turned into a religious institution and dozens of Coptic families were chased from the village.

Morsi was summoned. He hurriedly sent several of his aides to try to reconcile the two sides, and declared that what had happened in Dahshur was intolerable. The incident, he said, does not reflect the true position of the Egyptian people, who love one another and would not want to spill a neighbor’s blood. Nice words, but hardly reassuring to the Coptic minority which numbers some 10 million people.

Now they are waiting to see how the government will respond to this incident, the first of its kind since it took office. It is a supreme test for the government, whose leadership declared during the election campaign that it sees the country’s Copts as equal citizens and partners.

It’s also a challenge for the United States, which is examining the behavior of the new Egyptian government with a magnifying glass. In the past, claims of discrimination against the Copts led to a near-total rift between the Bush administration and that of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The clash between the Copts and the Muslims was not the only event that created a feeling of deteriorating personal security. Last Thursday, hooligans attacked the luxurious Nile City Towers complex, on the bank of the Nile in Cairo’s business and tourism center. A man was killed and several policemen and civilians were injured in the attack.

A preliminary investigation of 17 suspects showed that the thugs had been demanding protection money from the management of the towers, which are owned by billionaire Naguib Sawiris. When they received no response, the attackers opened fire and threw firebombs, causing a few million dollars’ worth of damage to the Fairmont Hotel and to a bank branch in the compound.

What is interesting is that these thugs, who live in the slum neighborhood of Ramla-Bolak, adjacent to the magnificent towers, had been employed by the towers’ management since the beginning of the revolution to provide security for the complex while the police and security forces were busy dispersing demonstrators. Now that the city is calm, the management decided to stop paying them for their services.

This kind of attack, in broad daylight, shakes up not only the residents of Cairo. Such events can strike a fatal blow to the tourism restoration plan that the new government has presented.

And to complicate matters, on the same day, a “routine” scuffle developed in the town of Abul Salim in a district south of Cairo. This time it was soldiers who opened fire on angry civilians who wanted to vent their anger on a soldier who, in their words, had offended the honor of a young girl. The result was three dead civilians, large protests and a demand that the government put the soldiers on trial, distance the military base from the town and to return to the town the land on which the base was built.

Morsi again hastened to appoint a conciliation committee that included religious leaders, members of parliament (which is disbanded for now) and consultants.

During the Mubarak era, the concept of “fear of the state” had a depressing significance. In the eyes of Egyptian citizens, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who is now on trial for the torture of prisoners and corruption, symbolized the cruel hand of the state, which detained, imprisoned and tortured its citizens without being held accountable by anyone. But this was also a period in which citizens, both male and female, could walk the streets almost without fear.

The heavy price paid by civilians for this degree of personal safety was one of the main factors behind the January 2011 revolution and the regime’s removal from power. Since last week, Egypt has had a new interior minister, Major General Ahmed Gamal Al Din, who vowed at a press conference to ensure the personal safety of all Egyptian citizens and to fight the against the trend of bullying and harm in the public sector. In Cairo no one is holding their breath, and they are waiting to see how he intends to revive “fear of the state” without repressing the Egyptian citizen. 

Read this article in Hebrew