This past weekend, rioting broke out at soccer match in Cairo, Egypt, in which violence between soccer fans and the Egyptian police led to twenty-five deaths. In a conversation with TCF fellow Thanassis Cambanis, I asked how the violence at Air Defense Stadium fits into the larger context of the Egyptian government’s efforts to suppress dissent, and how this reflects on U.S.-Egyptian relations. Cambanis is the author of Once Upon a Revolution, a history of the Tahrir Square uprising seen through the eyes of two Egyptian activists.
Why were the Egyptian police seemingly so eager to resort to violence in controlling a crowd of soccer fans?
This stems partly from the history of antagonism between the soccer fans, known as Ultras, and the police, which predates the revolution and has been an important feature in effective resistance against the police. I also suspect there was a degree of revenge by the police. We have seen this against other segments of society as well, since the restoration of the old order: the secret police striking back against activists in ways that can only be interpreted as gratuitous revenge for the period of the revolution. I think, with the mistreatment of the soccer fans, there’s clearly some degree of incompetence and habitual brutality at work as well. I would not be surprised if incompetence and indifference were essentially to blame. I think it’s some combination of those three factors: incompetence, resentment of segments of society that resisted the police, and just general indifference to the lives of citizens.
Do you think this is a pattern that is likely to repeat itself with future public events?
There’s a special history involving violence against Ultras specifically. People probably remember the tragic massacre in Port Said in January of 2012, and then the violence on the one-year anniversary of that. So I don’t think what happens in the soccer stadiums translates to what would happen at a book fair or at other large public event. But there aren’t actually many occasions in Egyptian public life today where massive numbers of people get together. During the brief period of openness after the revolution, there were marches, protests, and political rallies. Now those things have once again been banned or controlled. I’m not sure on what other occasion we would see a massive number of people in one place. The circumstances of a massive group of soccer fans are in some ways unique, and uniquely charged.
How has the Sisi regime and media been portraying the riots?
There’s a really horrifying and contemptuous narrative coming from the state and its cheerleaders. Even semi-moderate figures like Amr Moussa have taken part in this. The basic idea is that these kids are at fault for not waiting in line properly, and that the stampede and police directed-violence were somehow the unavoidable consequence of trying to control a mad and unruly crowd. Even worse, there’s been a fantastical and paranoid narrative in which secret Muslim Brotherhood infiltrators are blamed for the chaos and violence at the stadium. To be clear, these are narratives for which there is no evidence. It is a long-used method of this regime—and of the previous Mubarak regime as well—to come up with fantastical accusations of agents provocateurs. The method has always been to blame a demonized opponent, usually the Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood, and then hammer that narrative in public media.
And this is a narrative that is often widely believed by the public at large?
Surprisingly, there are a lot of people in the public who are always ready to believe this. We saw this on the 24th of January this year, the day before the anniversary of the Revolution, when a woman named Shaimma al-Sabagh was killed near Tahrir Square. This was a very clearly documented episode in which a peaceful protestor was standing and, unprovoked, when the police started shooting at the demonstrators, killing this woman. Within hours, there were people trying to claim that Muslim Brotherhood provoked the police. It was a ridiculous claim. Not only was there no evidence for it, but we had filmed evidence of what actually happened. But lots of people were willing to believe the regime narrative.
What does this say about the trajectory of the regime’s style of governance?
I see this as evidence of how over-the-top the autocratic impulses of Sisi’s regime have gone. It’s as if they were still in Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and there was one state-controlled TV channel and they could sell the public anything they want. Instead, they are chafing under the reality that there are alternative satellite TV channels, social media and online media available to the elite, and independent TV and radio that goes to the masses. And its impossible to completely control the narrative anymore.
President Obama’s National Security Strategy, released last week, says that the United States remains “committed to a vision of the Middle East that is peaceful and prosperous, where democracy takes root and human rights are upheld.” Do you think this aspirational vision matches the on-the-ground policies the administration is currently pursuing in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world?
I think the reality is that human rights and governance concerns writ large tend to take a back seat to more prosaic security concerns, especially in the Arab world. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has continued a practice of staking its relationships on very narrowly construed short-term security interests at the expense of long-term governance and rights interests, which, paradoxically would make their Arab allies much more reliable partners over the long run. In Egypt and Bahrain, it’s very visible that the United States has countenanced unbelievable abuses by partner regimes because those regimes deliver counterrorism and military cooperation that is very important to the United States.
Is there any way to break that Catch-22 that isn’t perceived as trying to undermine a security partner by shifting the focus to human rights and governance concerns, especially given the proliferation of extremist violence not only in Iraq and Syria but also in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt?
It would be a big strategic undertaking. No White House since the 1990s, when Islamic extremism began to be seen as a threat, has been willing to try and reinvent these relationships. It is politically costly and takes energy. We have to understand some important shifts in the ground rules. One is that governments such as Egypt’s already share common security interests with the United States. They do not have to be bribed to keep the border with Israel peaceful or to combat nihilist jihadists in the Sinai and elsewhere. We have to stop thinking of these things as prizes we have to manipulate our allies into pursuing. They are on the same page as the United States. The question becomes what kind of relationship do you want to have, and what kind of pressure can you apply, what kind of incentives can you give? The United States gets considerable security cooperation from Egypt in exchange for the funding, military aid, and political support it gives to the regime, which today is a dictatorship. Would the United States be willing to lose some of that security cooperation in the short term in exchange for promoting better governance, respect for rights, not just human rights but political and civic rights? Until now the choice has been no. There would be a real cost. Right now, what we get is a polite rhetorical nod toward the basket of quality of life, governance, and human rights issues, and in practice an embrace of a security and military-driven relationship. This choice isn’t accidental or improvised. I don’t agree with it, but it’s the product of actual thought.
What would the consequences of trying to do something different look like?
It would perhaps mean waiting in the queue with other nations at the Suez Canal instead of getting expedited passage. It might mean not getting immediate cooperation on certain counterterrorism or intelligence-sharing operations that are actually important. So there would be a real price to pay if the United States followed its own laws and called the coup in Egypt a coup and withheld all military assistance. There would be short-term risks and inconveniences if the United States supported a meaningful tradition to an Egyptian government that was pluralistic, representative, and accountable. But in the long run, it would create the possibility of drawing Egypt to behave more like a mature state that respects some of the rights of its citizens and makes their quality of life a priority. And that would make for a much more stable ally in Egypt than the one we have today.
“Is Egypt on the Verge of Another Uprising?” The Atlantic
“Down but Not Out: Youth and Revolution in Egypt and Beyond,” World Politics Review
“How can America really promote democracy abroad?” Boston Globe
“In Post-Mubarak Egypt, Police Still Kill With Impunity,” World Politics Review