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Egypt: More than a cabinet reshuffle

Since the military coup, Egyptian police have been in full force on a mission to bring the country under regime control

Egypt's minister of interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, was more than a cabinet minister in the country's ruling regime led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He was a leading member, if not a main founder of the ruling regime. Therefore, his removal from his post in a cabinet reshuffle on Thursday should be considered carefully. 

Ibrahim has been minister of interior since January 2013, when Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, appointed him to bring Egypt’s police under democratic rule. Yet, Ibrahim along with Sisi, Morsi's defence minister, worked closely in orchestrating the 3 July, 2013 military coup that ousted Morsi and ended democratic transition. Since then, the country has been mainly ruled by a coalition of security apparatuses, bureaucratic institutions and business elites. 

Within the ruling coalition, the military and police are the backbone. The constitution that was amended in December 2013 gave the military, police and judiciary more autonomy. The constitution also called for a powerful cabinet, free media and independent civil society institutions. Yet the latter goals never materialised. 

Until today, Egypt does not have an elected parliament. A court order this month deemed the parliament elections law unconstitutional, pushing back, for weeks or may be months, parliament elections that were expected on 23 March. The Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, acts more like a secretariat - implementing Sisi's orders - than a partner. 

In the absence of parliament, Sisi holds both legislative and executive powers, giving him unchecked authorities and the ability to pass many controversial and authoritarian laws, such as the anti-terrorism law, which was adopted at the end of February and gave the public prosecutor the right to declare local groups and individuals "terrorist" without final court rulings. At the end of 2014, Sisi adopted another law that gave the government veto power regarding the establishment of NGOs. 

In the meantime, Sisi did not use his excessive authority to amend some of the controversial and draconian laws that passed under his predecessor, the interim president Adly Mansour, who was appointed by Sisi himself.

One of these laws is the anti-protest law that sent some of Egypt's most prominent youth activists to jail for protesting without permits. Another law gave the government the right to extend temporary detention indefinitely.

The four draconian laws mentioned above had a chilling effect on Egypt's political life by effectively granting the government the ability to suffocate all political opposition groups or even activity.

Under such conditions, most if not all of Egypt's pro-25 January revolution parties are boycotting the upcoming parliament elections. Major political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest popular movement, do not recognise the legitimacy of the regime itself. Youth revolutionary groups, such as the secular 6 April, feel that the revolution has been stolen and that Egypt is under a heavy-handed military. The slogan "down with military rule" is gaining popularity again on social media at least. 

In reaction, Sisi did not move to build any clear political regime. Until today, Egypt's does not have a ruling political party. The parliament is absent. And, Sisi did not set any clear political goals for his regime. When Sisi speaks, he mainly focuses on the security and economic threats facing the country without offering any political solution. 

And because security has been the main concern of Sisi, the role of the military in fighting militant groups in Sinai and the police in cracking down on opposition became central to the whole regime.

Since the military coup, the police has been in full force on a mission to bring the country under regime control. Hundreds were killed in broad daylight as security forces moved to disperse large pro-Morsi sit-in camps in Cairo and Giza on 14 August, 2013. Thousands of protestors have been arrested, including leading Muslim Brotherhood leaders and secular youth activists. Weekly protests were systematically crushed, often leaving people dead or injured. Organised leagues of sports fans, the Ultras, were prevented from attending games and were only allowed to attend under heavy security presence. A stampede after police fired gas gangsters to disperse fans trying to attend a game at the air-defence stadium in Cairo early February, left more than 20 fans dead. 

The police have been more than a cabinet ministry since the military coup. They have been a ruling partner, a major shareholder in and guarantor of the ruling regime. The police, along the military, helped organise and lead the 30 June 2013 protests against Morsi rule and have been ruling the country in partnership since then. Mohamed Ibrahim has been the leader of the police, the regime’s second-most important ruling partner. In his media appearances and leaked recordings, Ibrahim often brags about his role in rebuilding the police forces, reorienting them against Morsi rule, and galvanising the notorious National Security Agency or the political police.

Therefore, the removal of Ibrahim from his post on Thursday should be seen not as a merely a cabinet reshuffle, but more of a reorganisation of Egypt's ruling coalition. It is the third-most important such move since Sisi took power in June 2014. The first was the removal of Major General Mohamed Fareed al-Tuhami from his post as the head of General Intelligence in December 2014. Tuhami was appointed by Sisi himself during the 3 July military coup and was seen as a close friend and mentor of Sisi. The real reasons behind removal of Tuhami, other than some talk about his health conditions, was never made public. 

During the same period, Sisi appointed police Major General Ahmed Gamal al-Din as his advisor for national security. Din was Morsi's first minister of interior and was removed from his post for lack of cooperation with the elected president. Very little information is available about the role of Din and his influence within the Sisi cabinet. But many consider him to be influential. 

Ibrahim will be replaced by police Major General Magdy Abdel-Ghafar, former leader of the notorious NSA, or State Security Agency, the political police responsible for chasing regime opponents, especially the religious opposition.

Ibrahim was under huge domestic and international criticism for the mounting human rights abuses by police under his watch. Many speculate that removing him at this moment could be an attempt by Sisi to spread an image of stability and openness ahead of much anticipated economic conference that is focused on attracting foreign investors. 

However, Ibrahim will be replaced by another police general from the notorious NSA. The removal of Ibrahim may show a more powerful Sisi, who was able to remove a ruling partner without much opposition from the police. But it also shows a regime that is still focused on its own security and on reorganising the ruling coalition led by the military and police instead of rebuilding a wider political coalition that offers the rest of society an opportunity to participate in decision-making.

- Alaa Bayoumi is an Arab journalist and researcher interested in US and Middle East politics

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Sisi holds both legislative and executive powers, giving him unchecked authorities and the ability to pass many controversial and authoritarian laws. (AFP)