The riots that erupted last week during an Egyptian soccer match in Port Said were the latest aftershocks in the Egyptian revolution. The deadly violence – 74 killed and more than 1,000 injured – reminded everyone of the peak tensions in last year’s Tahrir Square protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. But unlike previous protests, these did not start as overt political actions. Rather, they became political. A variety of factors turned sports zealotry into angry critiques of the Egyptian police force and the political leadership in general. The soccer riots are a shock because it means that in Egypt’s turbulent climate, anything and everything can be instantly politicized.
The riots were a byproduct of the intense friction that exists in Egypt between civil society, reformers, political elites, the Mubarak regime holdouts, and most importantly, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that simply refuses to hand over power. Until this happens, the political tension in Egypt will continue unabated and more soccer-riot-like events are inevitable. We just don’t know when or where they will happen.
The riots also speak to a profound lack of institutional capacity and an overall distrust in government. The riots started when police failed to quell the crowds in Port Said, and in response, more riots erupted outside of the Interior Ministry in Cairo. Egyptians are frustrated with the lack of security. The protestors shouted, “If you can’t secure a [soccer] match, tell me how will you secure Egypt?” Commentator Issandr El Amrani expounded on this sentiment writing, “Egypt needs an operational, authoritative (but not authoritarian) police force, as any state does. The question of police reform, and the rebuilding of its self-confidence, has yet to be tackled seriously, with the past year wasted on superficial changes.”
Indeed, if Egypt cannot quickly transition to a full democracy, the country will continue to be derailed by superficial matters rather than tackling the more pressing issues like the government reform, economic growth, tourism, and education.
The SCAF continues to be the biggest hurdle against government reforms. Egyptians desire a fully representational government that is responsible to the demands of the people. They want effective institutions that can keep the streets safe, provide social welfare services, and jumpstart Egypt’s struggling economy. But for now, Egyptians have no place to go to voice their dissent except the streets. Protest sends a powerful message, but it alone will not generate the institutional capacity that Egypt desperately needs. Only good governance can accomplish that.
Unfortunately, effective governance is a long way off. But the soccer riots have kept the momentum for reform alive. If anything, the riots have weakened the SCAF and exposed a critical weakness in the police force. The riots are just another sign that reformers still have the energy and support to continue the fight.
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