For well over a year now, the center of Cairo has been a flashpoint for violence between protesters and security forces. But the battleground is not always the city’s now world-renowned Tahrir Square.
Earlier this month, when at least 74 Egyptians died in post-soccer game clashes in Port Said, demonstrators gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior to show their anger. That’s because, they claim, it was the police controlled by the ministry that stood by while people were being massacred.
For Egyptians, the ministry is a symbol of much more than just internal state affairs.
Under the now-ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the streets of Egypt were essentially ruled not by the army that now clashes with activists downtown, but by police forces run by the Ministry of the Interior. These often conscripted, usually black uniformed forces, were the ones that controlled the country’s streets, standing on near every corner.
It was these forces that entered Tahrir Square with brutal force in the early days of Egypt’s uprising one year ago. In all, some 850 people died, according to Egyptian government figures.
Civil society groups and activists say reforming this ministry and its security forces will be key to moving Egypt away from the sort of rights violations and abuses that had become endemic under the previous regime.
As Sherif Azer, an activist for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, puts it, for decades the government and the ministry opted for “a security solution over a political solution,” what, many say, is aptly symbolized by the gigantic walls surrounding the ministry building.
Ex-Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly today faces charges over his role in the killing of Tahrir Square protesters as police orders came from his ministry. Attempts to hold him accountable seem like a move forward but not all in Egypt are so sure. While Al-Adly may be gone and on trial, there are still thousands of ministry employees, many of whom have worked there for decades, who will remain at their posts and, as of yet, no major overhaul of the institution is planned.
At the same time, it’s unclear who will control the ministry in the new government. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates won the largest number of seats in Egypt’s new parliament is keen to have it under its control. In many ways it’s not surprising as, under the previous regime, members of the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood suffered unspeakable abuses at the hands of the ministry’s forces.
Others fear that the institution, if unreformed, will remain what to many it has been all along - an instrument of oppression and tool against dissent.