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Egypt's police: Back on the beat but little changed

Morsi's 100-day pledge to restore security means the streets are brimming with police, but critics warn the once-reviled interior ministry is anything but reformed

Sherif Tarek , Monday 8 Oct 2012
Hundreds of Egyptian anti-riot soldiers line up to secure the presidential palace in Cairo (Photo: AP)
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Egypt's police forces have made a full-scale return to the streets for the first time since the uprising just as President Mohamed Morsi's opening 100 days come to an end.

But the reappearance of security personnel has not been accompanied by any substantial reforms in the Interior Ministry, critics say, raising the prospect of a repeat performance of their past, oft-brutal behaviour.

For over a year and a half, Egypt suffered from a chronic security vacuum in the wake of the January 2011 revolution in which Central Security Forces (CSF) battled for days to violently disperse anti-Mubarak demonstrators.

With the police unable – some say unwilling – to operate effectively in the months after Mubarak's resignation, Egyptians saw an upsurge in reported crime.

When President Morsi took office in July he pledged that returning a sense of security to the streets would be a priority during his first 100 days in office.

In the second half of the three-month timeframe Morsi set himself, which ends on Monday, he seems to have fulfilled his promise – at least superficially.

During his Saturday's speech at Cairo Stadium, Morsi said that 70 per cent of his programme's targets aiming at restoring security had been achieved.

Under the newly appointed Minister of Interior Ahmed Gamal Edden, police forces have been deployed at a level previously unseen in post-Mubarak Egypt.

But with no real change in their training or tactics, security experts doubt how effective Egyptian streets brimming with police forces will be.

"The police are back, but they are not actually back," Mahmoud Kotri, an ex-brigadier general and former ministry insider, tells Ahram Online.

"They haven't implemented the correct, basic policies that can bring security – they haven't even considered them. This means the new police presence is all but worthless."

Kotri, the author of a book suggesting radical reforms of Egypt's police, says the interior ministry still sees its task as protecting the system, rather than the Egyptian people.

"You always find troops deployed at government buildings, but not at the nearby supermarket or in the surrounding streets," he says. "That's because the ministry hasn't been reformed, authorities have just reinvented the wheel."

A shake-up in personnel wasn't long in coming. Just after Morsi's inauguration, Egypt's ranks of police chiefs and officers saw a raft of promotions, transfers and even dismissals in what seemed a serious attempt by then interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim to reshuffle the ministry.

But these moves weren't nearly enough to establish a humane security apparatus, believes Kotri.

"It doesn't matter if you reshuffle the whole force and the ministry if you keep the same frame of mind as El-Adly [Mubarak's interior minister]," he says.

"With this approach, the same old problems might be tackled but never fully resolved."

The Adly legacy

Under the reign of Habib El-Adly, who served as minister between 1997 and 2011, torture by the police forces and the now-disbanded State Security service was routine. Although covered up by the interior ministry, it was an open secret and fuelled the outrage behind last year's uprising.

Torture seems to have declined in recent months, following verbal assurances from current minister Gamal Eddin that police have changed their ways.

Violent practices, however, have not disappeared from Egypt's police stations.

In August, a man in the Delta city of Qalioub was reportedly tortured to death during interrogation at a local police station.

The following month two were killed at Mit Ghamr police station in the Eastern Delta, according to local watchdog the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Another man was reportedly killed by police in Banga village, Upper Egypt.

Also in September, some of the demonstrators besieging the US Embassy in Cairo to protest an anti-Islam film were taken into custody and claimed they were abused in the nearby Kasr El-Nile police station. The lawyer of Alber Saber, currently on trial for blasphemy and accused of posting a link to the anti-Islam film on Facebook, says his client was also tortured by police.

These could just be the tip of the iceberg, believes Kotri.

"Keep in mind that these are the incidents that were mentioned by the media, which means there are a lot more," he says, accusing the ministry of applying the same abusive tactics of Mubarak rule.

In the final years of the ex-president's reign, numerous citizens were reported killed while in police custody.

"The police consider everyone a suspect until they prove otherwise. They have a quota of people to arrest and cases to report – this is their target, not maintaining security," Kotri says. "This is one of the reasons why torture and abuses are still occurring."

'Huge disappointment'

The nature of Ahmed Gamal Eddin's roles during El-Adly's tenure give scarce room for optimism, say his critics, who believe he is committed to reviving the same authoritarian structure and practices.

The current interior minister served as head of security in both South Sinai and the Upper Egyptian governorate of Assiut, areas blighted by militancy where police crackdowns have been particularly brutal.

Also sending the wrong message, say some, are the acquittals of police officers accused of killing protesters during the 18-day uprising.

"The relatives of those who were murdered are angry at the president for not seriously seeking to reconstitute the police department," says Gamal Eid, a lawyer who represented the families of those killed last year.

He calls the current performance of the police and the appointment of Gamal Eddin a "huge disappointment" to the public.

Neither the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which held power between Mubarak's February 2011 ouster and this summer, nor Morsi have tried to change the police's mentality, he complains.

"It would be unfair to say the police are as bad as under the old regime," says Eid. "But after the revolution we can't accept half-baked solutions."

His view chimes with that of Kotri who dubs the efforts of Gamal Eddin and his predecessor Ibrahim "huge, relentless and yet mindless."

President Morsi has done nothing to revolutionalise the security system either, according to Kotri.

"He seems to have different priorities," the retired brigadier says. "He didn't put the police on the right track and he doesn't look like having a plan to do so."

Kotri predicts upheaval if police practices remain unchanged and forces are charged with confronting restive Egyptians in future.

"The police will fail to maintain law and order at some point and that could prompt the fall of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood," he warns.

The targets of the president's security plan include pay-rises and perks for police personnel, a crackdown on criminals still at large, stepping up police presence on the streets and providing better equipment for law enforcement agencies.

Apart from reshuffles, salary increases and forces deployments, observers say these objectives have not been fulfilled.

High-tech, no use

Modernising the interior ministry's operations could have been one way to shake things up, say some commentators.

Among the mooted changes were adding more CCTV cameras on Egypt's streets, using helicopters to overfly the highways, and connecting police patrol vehicles with the criminal record database, allowing field officers to instantly recognise suspects.

Introducing high-tech measures would have quickly improved police efficiency says Fouad Allam, an ex-State Security general and legal expert.

"Computerised systems would greatly help the police's daily work," he told Ahram Online, giving the example of increased surveillance systems which would speed the identification of suspects.

"It seems the authorities are not seriously thinking about ways to develop the security apparatus," he laments. "They have no vision, no plan. Nothing at all, as far as I can see."

Eid has similar complaints. He says four lists of suggestions for reforms were submitted to the interior ministry by experts and human rights groups and got no response.

"They were all shelved – no one even bothered to look at them. This does not suggest there's a genuine intention to change the way the police operate."

A long-term problem

No-one doubts that full reform of the police force will take much longer than 100 days and all agree a long-term plan is needed to pull it off.

Kotri believes advisory bodies should be formed to draft new codes and principles for Egypt's police.

"Law enforcers need to understand that their actual duty is to protect the citizens," he tells Ahram Online.

"When time and money are invested to train them for this particular purpose, it's unacceptable for them to be preoccupied with paperwork."

To be truly counted as effective, Kotri maintains, Egypt's police force should be able to respond to reports of a crime "within four minutes."

"The ministry must make the most of the resources at its disposal," he says. "We need thinkers and innovators to make this happen even years from now, but we don’t have that."

Allam believes that, even if the interior ministry was totally reformed, security would remain a problem thanks to Egypt's economic woes.

"The media don't look at the big picture; they don't consider the other circumstances that affect Egypt's security," he complains. "In any country, a crippled economy and rocketing unemployment rate means a surge in crime."

Egypt's economy has struggled since early 2011 with foreign investment and visitor numbers only now making sluggish recoveries. The latest official data puts unemployment at 12 per cent, but most experts believe the real figure much higher.

"As long as there is no political and economic stability, Egyptian security will keep seeing problems," says Allam.

"It doesn't matter what steps we take to improve the police."

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