The Interior Ministry’s uncertainty principle

It may be difficult for people to understand the uncertainty principle, part of quantum mechanics theory in the science of physics. This principle assumes that an electron can be seen, at one and the same time, in two different places around the atom.

It is a complex principle to grasp, but one that can be illustrated by taking a look at the state of the Interior Ministry before and after June 30.

Let’s take the minister, for example. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was appointed by the now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi during his brief, one-year tenure. Ibrahim was called on to quell protests by opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. This he did, much to the satisfaction of the group’s supporters.

Ibrahim then stayed on in the interim Cabinet appointed by the army when Morsi was removed from office following mass protests against him on June 30. This meant that a minister originally installed to protect the Muslim Brotherhood was now protecting those opposed to Morsi and his movement.

It is indeed a complex and uncertain principle that allows the same minister to use the same security apparatus to quell protests by a group pushed out of power, under whose brief rule today’s leaders were oppressed as the former opposition.

Interior Ministry officers attribute these shifting dynamics to their continued pressure on Ibrahim to change the ministry’s policies.

However, some analysts see it more as an embodiment of the condition of the Egyptian state, the institutions of which have transformed into sects and tribes that coalesce at times and collide at others, depending on their interests.

Major Mohamed Badawi, an officer in the Central Security Forces, says that he was deeply opposed to Ibrahim’s methods during Morsi’s presidency — a sentiment, he adds, that was shared by most officers.

Morsi’s time in power was characterized by a broad mobilization by fierce opponents. Many political forces and authorities allied against him, especially after Morsi passed a controversial constitutional declaration in November 2012, granting himself sweeping powers and protecting his decisions from judicial review.

At the time, opposition protests faced both the wrath of the state’s security apparatuses and a violent offensive by the president’s Muslim Brotherhood group.

The Interior Ministry was widely criticized for taking the side of the Brotherhood, and the minister was attacked for the way that protests were quelled. According to Badawi, the minister also faced mounting anger from within.

But that has now changed, Badawi says, and Ibrahim today enjoys a measure of approval and has gained positive reputation among officers.

“More than 3,000 of us officers met at the general Police Officers’ Club before June 30, and we sent a memo to the minister saying that if the street moves against the Brotherhood, we will not repeat the mistake of January 2011. We will side with the street,” recalls Badawi.

The uprising that broke out on January 25, 2011 took everyone by surprise, not least of all the security forces that had to confront a sudden mass of protesters on the ground. Protesters had specifically chosen national Police Day to demonstrate against police brutality, along with their calls for “bread, freedom and social justice.” Police stations around the country were targeted, causing a wide and prolonged retreat by security forces from the streets.

As the date neared for the planned June 30 protests against Morsi, it became increasingly clear that the numbers on the streets would be sizeable, and the officers wanted to be prepared this time.

Badawi says that the minister “understood the officers and realized that the stance of the ministry would not be to protect the offices of the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] Freedom and Justice Party.” Instead, he says, the ministry “will be with the people.”

The view from outside the Interior Ministry is different. Karim Ennarah is a security researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He explains what happened as the collapse of a previous alliance between security apparatuses and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It would not be the first time security forces were accused of forging alliances with the Brotherhood. Morsi’s presidential win was considered by many to be the result of tactical negotiations, compromises and back-door deals with the army. When Ibrahim’s ministry moved against Morsi opponents in the months before June 30, these suspicions grew.

Ennarah says that when June 30 came around, security apparatuses decided to abandon this fragile alliance, knowing that the shift in the street meant that the alliance with the Brotherhood was no longer in their interests.

The “June 30 coalition” — whose main pillars were the security apparatuses and the army — removed Morsi with the wide support of a diverse range of political forces. But now that coalition is once again under threat due to the Interior Ministry’s new policies.

In its November 27 issue, the privately owned Al-Shorouq newspaper reported that Ibrahim refused to give in to pressure from members of the government, as well as the constitution-drafting committee, to release people who had been arrested at a protest the previous day.

Security forces rounded up, beat and detained dozens of activists protesting in front of the Shura Council against the committee’s failure to ban the use of military tribunals for civilians in the draft constitution.

The protest came shortly after the adoption of the controversial new Protest Law, criticized by local and international rights groups for being overly restrictive. State-owned media, along with some privately owned outlets, considered the arrests in front of the Shura Council to be the first use of the law.

The arrest of prominent activists garnered wide media attention and there were calls for the detainees, especially the women, to be released.

Ibrahim’s intransigence and resistance to mounting pressure to release the detainees raised the ire of a number of political figures considered part of the so-called June 30 coalition. The minister’s defiance of basically everyone began to raise questions.

In Badawi’s view, what happened was simply that the law was fairly applied to all who chose to protest — whether Brotherhood-affiliated or otherwise.

Ashraf al-Sherif is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. He sees the same events differently, describing what happened as the embodiment of what he calls “a state of sects and tribes.”

In this context, he says, state institutions act as they please, according to their relation to other institutions, as well as what serves their interests.

“The struggle between different sects of the state is clear: most important of which is between the army, the police and the judiciary over stakes, resources and influence,” says Sherif.

He further deconstructs the Interior Ministry’s performance in light of its current policies. “This government expects a very specific role from the Interior Ministry, which is tightening security,” Sherif says. “Since the Interior Ministry cannot accomplish this except by following the patterns it is accustomed to, any attempts to change its performance will be rejected because that would require changing the institution itself.”

The ministry’s approach will forever be, he says, “‘This is my method, and whoever doesn’t like it can take my place.’”

On the other hand, Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, says the Interior Ministry is playing an important role in securing the streets, combating terrorism and confronting attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize the country.

He only faults the ministry for “many officers’ tendency to seek revenge from those responsible for what happened to them in January 2011.”

Ennarah agrees with Sherif, and adds that the Interior Ministry is obsessed with the possibility of its collapse. This fear manifests itself in its leaders’ deep concern about any kind of strikes or protests organized by junior policemen or officers.

“A failed state has a security body composed of tens of generals, thousands of officers and hundreds of thousand of conscripts, in addition to networks of informants and thugs — all of whom are not governed by a single philosophy, such as protecting citizens, for example, unlike the army, whose philosophy is clear to its men,” Ennarah says.

Ennarah considers the interior minister’s policies to be, in part, aimed at preventing the ministry from disintegrating.

Ibrahim’s goal is to preserve the ministry’s interests, represented in the personal interests of its men at the micro level, as well as their social standing. On a larger scale, it is represented in the ministry’s share of the “state cake,” Ennarah says.

In a similar vein, Sherif argues that Ibrahim can only lead the ministry if he allows officers to work in a way that suits them.

“This is the only way he can secure officers’ support and ensure that the ministry stays cohesive and united as one faction of the state,” he says, adding that there was no cohesion during Morsi’s tenure.

In response, Badawi says the ministry was not cohesive because during Morsi’s tenure the government demanded that it show restraint, even if attacked by protesters using weapons.

Now we have official orders from the ministry to respond to attacks. This has restored our prestige and made us feel that the minister understands the conditions [we work in],” he says.

The difference between the Interior Ministry today and when Morsi was president, says Ennarah, is that despite officers facing the danger of terrorist attacks and clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood, the social cost paid by the officers is different. Police are seen differently by the wider public according to the target of their actions: confronting popular anger against the Brotherhood is one thing, and waging what is seen by many as a war to protect the state against terrorism is quite another.

Other state institutions, from the army to the government and so on, need the Interior Ministry for political control, Sherif says. While they will submit to what he calls the ministry’s blackmail and conditions, the demands must be within reason.

“The apparatuses’ significance lies in their ability to do their jobs. If the ministry does not quell opposition, it would be rendered useless, thus undermining its bargaining power in the battle of the [state] sects,” he says.

“If the current battle was between the Interior Ministry and another institution, and its mistake became apparent, the ministry would have to fall back,” he says.

“However, if the ministry commits a fault against the rights of protesters, political movements or civil society groups opposing the [current] government, [these interests] have no weight in comparison with the state’s bigger factions, such as the army, police or judiciary.

“For this reason, no one insists that the ministry retreats from its mistakes.”

It is within this context of territorial intransigence that police officers reacted with anger at calls to release activists detained outside the Shura Council.

Badawi goes as far as saying that Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi’s “weakness as prime minister weakens the Interior Ministry.” He asks how the prime minister could demand the release of “detainees who broke the law.”

“Every country has a protest law, and we will impose the law on everyone — that’s respect for the law,” Badawi says.

But in other power struggles, the Interior Ministry has indeed fallen back. On November 29, Tanta’s office of the public prosecutor ordered the detention of two policemen, Captain Mohamed Hammad and 1st Lieutenant Mohab al-Sayes, for four days pending investigation. They were charged with assaulting Ali Haitham, the assistant prosecutor general in Quweisna.

According to reports, the officers stopped a taxi in which Ali was traveling because they were suspicious of the driver, who turned out to have previous convictions. Haitham, however, objected to this and later claimed that the officers attacked him. Media reports said that different parties were communicating to “contain the situation.”

Similarly, on November 7, officials from the Interior Ministry and the Saqalta office of the public prosecutor in Sohag were brought in to resolve a dispute between prosecution office members on one side, and police officers and policemen on the other.

In both incidents, public prosecution officials refused to carry out orders from Interior Ministry officers, and in both cases, the means of solving the impasse was through informal mediation rather than the law.

“The clash of clans becomes clear in the battle over privileges,” Ennarah says. “The judiciary certainly has many more privileges than a traffic policeman.”

Sherif believes that the Interior Ministry’s methods will not change, and that it will remain, to a certain extent, independent of other state sects. Still, its confrontations with others will be governed by the relative weight of the particular entity it is batting.

“The ruling alliance, while it may seem cohesive, may resort to sacrificing the Interior Ministry if it feels that its performance is too costly,” says Ennarah. “The only institution that can do this is the army.”

But that again may lead us to yet another uncertainty principle.

*This article was translated from Arabic by Amira Salah-Ahmed and Sarah Carr


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