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Egyptian police abuses spark surprise backlash from normally tame media

Local newspapers have levelled unprecedented criticism against the interior ministry, in what analysts see as 'indirect pressure' from high up to curb police abuse

Hatem Maher , Tuesday 5 May 2015
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(Photo: Reuters)
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When the mass protests that erupted in mid-2013 forced the Muslim Brotherhood from power, Egypt’s notorious police were lionised in state and private media and hailed as the rescuers of a people "rising up" against Islamists.

Though previously a symbol of the heavy-handed tactics that led to Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011, the interior ministry was further emboldened after the public began to see it as the victim of attacks from extremist groups seeking to unsettle what they called “infidel coup authorities”.

As portraits of policemen killed in these attacks hung from balconies, trees and walls, footage of military funerals drew the public's sympathy, washing away memories of a recent history of police brutality, torture and extrajudicial punishments.

In this context, the country's pervasively pro-state media treated any criticism of the police as an attempt to undermine the state in its “war against terrorism”, leaving human rights advocates struggling to convince ordinary people that the police does not always behave perfectly.

Following former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's ascension to the presidency, human rights groups documented increasingly more police violations, and a government report stated that 90 detainees had died in police custody in 2014.

Yet the media kept to what seems to have been an unspoken agreement to refrain from stirring up a hornet’s nest, preferring instead to focus on pressing issues unrelated to the powerful security apparatuses.

Stunning reverse

The honeymoon appears to be over.

Over the last month, a wave of criticism has been directed against the interior ministry, initiated by a series of articles in Al-Dostour newspaper, an anti-Mubarak publication that later became pro-army following the Brotherhood’s rise to power.

Al-Dostour appeared to have set off a domino effect, with many others following suit, including Al-Masry Al-Youm, Al-Watan and state-run newspaper Al-Ahram.

Al-Masry Al-Youm published a series of articles detailing cases of police torture and mistreatment of detainees under the title “Holes in the official uniform”, prompting the interior ministry to swiftly accuse the responsible editor of trying to settle a score, as the ministry had previously accused him of “spreading false news”.

“Everything we said is documented,” Yousri El-Badri, the editor in charge of the series at Al-Masry Al-Youm, told Ahram Online. "We have evidence of every single incident we reported."

“The ministry did not like it, and they tried to portray it as a personal feud. It’s their problem, not ours.”

The prosecution summoned El-Badri and several other colleagues for questioning over the newspaper’s reports, but the hearing was postponed upon the request of Egypt’s Journalists Syndicate.

A Dostour reporter who wrote articles criticising police practices was also arrested, with the interior ministry saying that he had been sentenced to jail a few years ago over criminal charges including "possession of firearms and bladed weapons".

‘Indirect pressure’

The new twist has baffled many observers, with Egypt's usually timid newspapers enjoying an apparent free rein to speak about police abuses in one of the fiercest confrontations in decades between the country's security apparatus and opponents of the authorities.

Analysts suggest that high-ranking officials might have set off alarm bells over worries that police abuses might have reached critical levels.

"Whatever people's views of the 2011 revolution, many are now very angry over the police's practices,” said Mostafa Kamel El-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University.

“It seems to me that some state officials are trying to exert indirect pressure on the interior ministry to curb its abuses," he explained. "These newspapers, who are known for their pro-state stances, never act like this on their own."

“Even before the newspapers started criticising the interior ministry, official bodies had started to look into the police’s practices," he said. "This was another indication that authorities had started to feel that something wrong was going on.”

In a rare move last month, Egypt’s prosecution decided to inspect a handful of prisons and police stations, after widespread reports emerged of the ill treatment and torture of prisoners in Cairo’s notorious Abu Zaabal prison.

The prosecution did not explicitly mention cases of torture in the police stations they inspected, but detailed the harsh conditions inside detention centres, including overcrowded cells and poor ventilation.

Footage of police abuses however continues to emerge on social media, and two police officers were referred to a criminal court last month on charges of torturing detained lawyer Karim Hamdy to death at a police station in the Cairo district of Matariya, the site of recurring clashes between security forces and Islamists.   

These new reports of police abuse follow the alleged police killing of political activist Shaimaa El-Sabagh, who sustained birdshot wounds during a peaceful march in downtown Cairo last January, on the eve of the 2011 revolution anniversary.

El-Sabagh's death sparked a wave of condemnation and was cited by critics as one of the main reasons behind the March sacking of interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim and his replacement with Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, previously head of the National Security Agency.

The newspapers’ scathing attack on the interior ministry shows no signs of abating, as the war of words between both sides drags on.

“When [public] anger starts to boil over, there can be an inside warning, and there should be a way to absorb the anger,” said writer and political analyst Ayman El-Sayyad.

“You know there is something unusual when someone who used to insist that smoking is bad for your health suddenly decides that smoking is actually good for your health."

“But this doesn’t really matter," he concluded. "We should not care about the history of those newspapers. At least someone is questioning the state in the absence of any parliament.”

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