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In search of security
 
 

A recent statement by the Ministry of Interior on March 11 announced that private security companies would be used to secure football matches at stadiums across Egypt in response to pressure from the Ultras football fan group.

A long standing animosity between security forces and the Ultras has prompted thinking about alternative forms of securing matches. But the issue raises a debate concerning the state’s possible resort to private security services in the face of mounting pressure.

Yet, while talk of private security has been looming for the last three years, its scope and regulations governing its work remain largely elusive.

For some, police procuring additional support to secure football games is normal procedure. Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Nabil Omar from the police force thinks that private security firms handling football games is a natural progression. He explains that securing games takes up a lot of police time, as they not only have to be present during the hour and a half game, but for an hour before and after throughout the season. “It’s a chance for the police to be more available for other work, such as in the homicide division, instead of the forces being used up at football matches,” he says.

The idea is also favored by some of the Ultras, who think that encounters with the police are prone to violent confrontations. A member of the Ultras Ahlawy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that if police are not securing the matches, then no clashes will occur. The Ultras member, who witnessed the tragic Port Said massacre first-hand — in which 74 members of the fan group were killed — says that the issue between the police and the Ultras was always political, but now it’s personal. “It’s impossible to have both sides in front of each other, they both don’t like each other,” he says. “After the revolution, the Ministry of Interior has had this vendetta and after Port Said, and what we saw with our own eyes, it makes us have a problem with the police regardless of the political situation.”

Clashes between Ultras members and police forces were common at football stadiums before the January 25 revolution, as security forces would try to contain the football fan groups. Their relationship worsened after the revolution due to the Ultras’ presence at anti-police protests. After the Ultras lost a large number of their members in clashes with security forces, chants against the Ministry of Interior were heard at every football game.

Even with the knowledge that most private security companies are owned by former policemen, the Ultras member still believes that things would be different. “The guard will be a normal person in a uniform, he will not be taking orders from police officers and he will be supervised by the company,” he says. “He [the policeman] is in my face when I’m chanting, but the chanting will not stop. I want to chant and I will say whatever I want,” he adds. “Regardless of the situation, I don’t want to see him and he doesn’t want to see me.”

But for those engaged in private security work, securing games is too big of a responsibility. Retired Major General Badawy Abdel Wahab is one policeman who seized the opportunity amid a rising need for private security and established his company, United Group Security Services, in 2012. For 25 years, he worked at the ministry, mostly in State Security, an experience he relies on heavily for his current job. “Working in national security gives you 10 times the experience you would gain working in a regular security company,” he says, while avoiding getting into specific details about his years in State Security, whose practices are deemed notorious by various rights groups.

“We wanted to contribute by helping out the Ministry of Interior and the police force, attempting to make people feel secure again,” he says. However, despite his eagerness to assist the Ministry of Interior, he worries that securing stadiums would be dangerous. “We require the place to be safe, I don’t subject my employees to any danger,” he says. “You could potentially secure football stadiums using private security, but only as a complementary service to the police,” he adds hesitantly.

Ihab Youssef, who has over 20 years of experience at the Ministry of Interior under his belt — working for national security, special forces and at the minister’s office — also saw an opportunity in 2011 to expand his risk management company, which he started in 2009 after he retired from the ministry. Yet he remains skeptical about the assignments his security section can tackle, saying that private security companies securing football matches would be disastrous. “It’s a good idea if it is applied properly,” says Youssef. For that to happen, he says, there needs to be an overhaul of the way games are organized, such as selling tickets to football matches with an identification card, so that people can be properly reprimanded for their actions, and improving the infrastructure of the stadiums. Most importantly, however, Youssef says that security guards must be given proper authority, in case clashes break out between them and football spectators. He says they would require procedures to follow, dictated by rules and regulations, otherwise it would turn into a normal street fight between two civilians. “If you put 20-30 security guards in a football stadium filled with hundreds of people, they will get beaten. If they strike back, and you take them to the police station, both sides are equal under the law,” explains Youssef.

Hence the call for some form of regularization of the private security sector.

In March of last year, Egypt’s government — headed at the time by deposed President Mohamed Morsi — drafted a new law to regulate the private security sector, in order to legitimize what was then, and still remains, a growing industry. The draft was in response to increasing demand for private security in 2011, as crime rates soared amid a security void following the January 25 Uprising. Private security companies were able to fill this gap — securing banks, multinational companies, hotels and other private institutions.

However, this law was never implemented. According to Karim Ennarah, a researcher on criminal justice at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one year later and there is still active lobbying from within the Ministry of Interior and the private business sector to reintroduce the idea of giving more power to private security companies.

With more significant security needs, talk about engaging private security firms is resurfacing. Stadiums aside, a similar suggestion was extended to universities amid ongoing violent clashes between police and students believed to be associated with the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. But Cairo University President Gaber Nassar recently stated that private security companies refused to contract with the university because, they said, they could not handle the situation.

“Despite all of the problems with the Ministry of Interior, I’m still quite reserved about any attempt to expand the scope of private security companies,” says Ennarah. “We’re doing nothing but creating a new problem, instead of solving the one we already have.” For Ennarah, the main problem with granting these companies a wider scope to operate within, is that there is a lack of good governance to accompany such a move. “You need a strong system that can properly implement the law governing these companies, one that would ensure that they don’t abuse the power given to them,” he says.

Former Major General Adel Suleiman, director of the Centre for Futuristic and Strategic Studies, shares the same sentiment. “We need a proper legal framework that can monitor private security companies, set limits for them and decide what kind of weapons they can carry, and for these companies to operate with transparency,” he says. Youssef estimates that there are around 60 companies that currently work in private security today. However, he adds that only five percent of them are licensed and officially registered — his own included — while others operate as commercial entities. Suleiman adds that most of these companies operate on a small-scale — securing hotels, shopping malls or private property — while there are around five major ones, including Falcon, which former Defense Minister and presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hired for his personal security, Care Services and G4S.

“The people who operate these companies are from the police either way so it’s the same story, and there is a possibility that they coordinate with the Ministry of Interior and receive instructions from it,” says Suleiman.

Despite both Youssef and Abdel Wahab’s extensive background in Egypt’s security apparatus, they mostly hire run-of-the-mill employees with no specific training as their security guards. Youssef says that he trains his guards for a period of between five to seven days on basic security, and admits that while the company should provide better training to its security guards, there are a few obstacles that hinder it, mostly financial. He adds that training costs money which most people who apply for the job do not have. Moreover, once an individual is trained, hiring them would cost more money and most institutions in Egypt are not willing to pay extra for trained security services.

“We believe that it should be a decision made by the government,” says Youssef. “They can declare that they will give a license to companies that train their employees and close down other companies that don’t, or set certain criteria for training so that there are credentials to check for when hiring a security company.”

Aside from having little training, most security guards are also not allowed to carry guns. According to Abdel Wahab, the security guards at United Group carry batons, electric tasers and sound guns. He explains that the sound gun works to intimidate people and prompt them to surrender. But, should the sound of a gun not scare people off, then the security guards are left helpless.

For EIPR’s Ennarah, providing security guards with guns will only make things worse. “We already have a problem in Egypt of an increase in weapons. This is no time to give more gun licenses to people,” says Ennarah. “You’d basically have civilians with guns.”

General scrutiny by the Ministry of Interior is needed. Youssef says that if there is a violation by a security guard who works for a private company, then the Ministry of Interior can easily cancel their contract with that company and hire a new one. “The Ministry of Interior will be indirectly responsible in the case of a private company, because it is the one who signed the contract with the company. But in cancelling the contract, it also rids itself of any potential damage.”

Omar says that he, along with other policemen, would be willing to train the security guards themselves if this means that they would relieve some of the pressures of the job. Policemen have been protesting across various governorates to object to low pay, long hours and increasing danger. Private security, Omar believes, would help in solving some of these issues. “Whatever can help decrease the friction between the police and the people in certain places,” says Omar.

But Ennarah and Suleiman believe that this is a way for the Ministry of Interior to escape their responsibilities. “The [Ministry of Interior] is already an irresponsible system, and it’s not like they have a conscience,” says Ennarah. Suleiman believes that “the ministry is trying to assign someone else in its place in order to remove itself from the picture, so if there are clashes between the Ultras and a private security company, then it’s the company and not the ministry that is responsible.”

Should proper regulations be put in place, then private security could expand to secure more public places such as airports, traffic or even prisons in the same way that they are utilized in other countries, Youssef believes. Omar agrees. “There is a very large field for private security in Egypt, as long as there is the general application of a security policy.”

However, in other countries where security companies operate in larger fields, some have been known to carry out oppressive actions. G4S, which operates in Egypt, is responsible for securing prisons in Israel, where Palestinian prisoners are subjected to overcrowding, lack of access to medical facilities and torture. G4S also provides equipment for Israeli checkpoints on occupied land and for Israeli police.

Instead of possibly creating another oppressive system, Ennarah believes that there should be focus on rehabilitating the ministry. “The same people who can afford to pay for this private security service, they should be able to put enough pressure on the Ministry of Interior to reform itself,” he says.

Suleiman says that right now, without a parliament in place, one that can properly draft a law to govern private security companies, there is no room for discussion over the issue. “We have to approach this issue with extreme caution,” says Suleiman. “Otherwise we’ll end up being ruled by a legal armed gang under the name of private security.”

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