By James M. Dorsey
The fall-out of the death of 72 football fans last year in a politically-loaded stadium riot has brought the need for reform of Egypt’s Mubarak-era law enforcement and judiciary to a head.
Fans in Egyptian cities are protesting the verdict in the trial of those accused of being responsible for the incident, while security officials are striking out over being made a scapegoat in the country’s political crisis.
Protests sparked by this weekend's confirmation of the death sentences of 21 Port Said football supporters, conviction of two out of nine police officers accused of responsibility for the worst incident in Egyptian sport history, and acquittal of 28 of the in total 73 defendants reflect intensified public anger rooted in widespread distrust of the security forces, as well as the judiciary's failure to hold accountable officers and officials responsible for the death of more than 900 protesters since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled two years ago.
The problems with law enforcement and the judiciary are compounded by the fact that Port Said-related demonstrations that are now in their second month have persuaded security forces to stage their own protests. Rank and file officers are speaking out publicly for the first time, with walk-outs across the country and refusals to engage in crowd control.
Egypt's 1.7 million-strong police and security forces, widely viewed as the repressive arm of Mubarak’s regime and largely unrepentant and unreformed since his departure, feel caught between the rock of [resident Mohamed Morsi's insistence on cracking down on protests and the hard place of the public denouncing their brutality.
Reminiscent of scenes during the uprising two years ago, in which the military refrained from cracking down on protesters demanding Mubarak's oustin, striking police in Egypt's second city Alexandria put up banners saying 'We don't want politics' and 'Police and the people are one hand'.
The reminiscence of the military's role in the 2011 uprising is, however, a double-edged sword. Protesters in Port Said welcomed the withdrawal of the security forces but criticized the military for not going beyond abstinence to protect them from the police in weeks of clashes that have cost scores of lives.
"Who cares about the police withdrawal? Our demands haven't been met. The army isn't protecting us. Have they done anything to meet our demands?" said Ibrahim El-Masri, a former Al-Masri player and spokesperson for the families of those sentenced.
The complexity of law enforcement's dilemma and the difficulty of reforming its institutions is that they have operated for much of the past three decades without oversight, employing a rank and file that had little education or training.
In addition, there is little love lost between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the security forces who often targeted the group in the days that it was clandestine or existed in a legal netherland.
Striking policemen say they are also opposed to what they see as attempts by Morsi to infuse political Islam into their ranks.
The strikes and walk-outs in 10 of Egypt's 29 provinces - some of which demanded the resignation of the interior minister - nevertheless open the door to security sector reform.
They indicate significant support for change in institutions that were widely seen as implacably beholden to the former regime.
Sources close toMorsi argue that the president is seeking to reform law enforcement gradually but has been hampered by the need to restore law and order and protect government offices amid mounting protests.
Rival militant, highly politicised and street battle-hardened soccer fans in Port Said and Cairo agree on little, but that last year's riot was not spontaneous. Supporters of Al Masri - as well as crowned Cairo club Al Ahli, which counted 70 dead among their ranks in last year's incident - believe it was an effort that got out of hand to teach a lesson to fans who had played a key role in the toppling of Mubarak, and were in the forefront of opposition to the military that led Egypt to elections that brought Morsi to power as well,
They are also accused of being involved in the current demonstrations against the Morsi government.
As a result, this weekend's failure to convict all nine officers, coupled with the absence as of this writing of a justification of the court’s verdict, has reaffirmed perceptions that law enforcement and the judiciary are political and constitute laws unto themselves.
At the same time, the verdict has sparked separate internal discussions among Al Masri and Al Ahli supporters on how best to respond.
Al Ahli fans feel, on the one hand, that justice has been served with the confirmation of the death sentences.
But one significant part of the group wants to maintain their attacks on the interior ministry, which controls the security forces, until officers are held fully accountable.
That sentiment is fuelled by the supporters' years of confrontation with security forces in the stadiums and their perception of law enforcement as their arch enemy and the symbol of the former regime's repression.
Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, denied reports on Saturday that they were responsible for fires in the offices of the Egyptian Football Association [EFA] and Al Watan newspaper, after it reported they had met with the Muslim Brotherhood in advance of this weekend's verdict.
The ultras, who by and large do not shirk taking responsibility for their actions, have attacked in past months media organisations they view as hostile. The ultras did admit, however, storming and setting on fire a police officers club near the Al Ahli grounds on Saturday.
For their part, some Al Masri fans and as segments of the 650,000-strong population of Port Said - a Suez Canal city that feels it has been made a scapegoat in the trial - are placated by Morsi’s decision this week to pull the police out of the city and replace it with military troops.
Soldiers sided with demonstrators in Port Said in recent weeks.
Some Al Masri supporters agitated, however, for forcing a closure of the Suez Canal; a key source of the cash-strapped Morsi government's revenues.
The military has warned that attacking the canal would cross a red line.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.