Egyptian police divided in run-up to 30 June anti-Morsi rallies

Sarah El-Rashidi, Thursday 27 Jun 2013

Egypt's frustrated police apparatus appears divided regarding next week's demonstrations to demand President Morsi's ouster and early presidential elections

Egyptian central security force (Photo: Ahram Online archive)

With nationwide mass protests planned on 30 June to oppose President Mohamed Morsi and call for early presidential elections, the role of the police during the protests remains uncertain.

Since the January 2011 uprising, the police have been on the receiving end of public attacks, owing to torture practices during the Mubarak era and the killing of hundreds of protestors during the revolution.

Recurrent police excesses have been identified as one of the primary triggers of the 2011 uprising, leading to the torching of approximately 90 police stations since the revolution.

Considering widespread fears regarding planned anti-Morsi rallies on 30 June and the possibility of military intervention or civil war, the Egyptian security apparatus is in a quandary in terms of its response to the planned demonstrations.

Accordingly, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim was pressed to take a stand, albeit a shaky one.

On 10 June he declared: "Police officers will not be present in protest areas, enabling peaceful protesters to convey their opinions freely."

The contentious statement was widely criticised. Dalia Youssef, security expert and vice president of the Risk Free Egypt consultancy, like many, highlighted "its absurdity and obvious paradox."

The announcement was followed by a contradictory statement just days later on 12 June.

"Police forces are legally committed to securing the June 30 protests to ensure the safety of all citizens irrespective of political allegiances," said Ibrahim.

Experts say the shift was influenced by pressure from high-ranking security officials and opposition forces, such as Egypt's anti-Morsi 'Rebel' campaign.

'Rebel' is a signature drive instigated in May aiming to "withdraw confidence" from the president. It has received support from members of the police apparatus, who have been seen signing the petition, as reported by various media sources.

Moreover, police discontent concerning the lack of justice and accountability in relation to policemen killed in the line of duty since the revolution appears to be another factor influencing the minister's revised standpoint on the 30 June protests.

In this regard, Hesham Saleh, Egyptian Police Officers Club spokesman, recently spoke on satellite channel ONtv, expressing police dissatisfaction with the Islamist regime's disregard for what he estimated at 205 police casualties.

Salah also cited the kidnappings of seven soldiers last month and the lack of accountability for the perpetrators, despite government pledges to the contrary.

Angered Egyptian police went so far as to close the Rafah crossing to Gaza to protest the kidnapping of their colleagues and demand guarantees that attacks on them would not be repeated. Even though the kidnapped men were released, the kidnappers have not been arrested.

The increased anti-Morsi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment on the part of the police was further illustrated by numerous soldiers' funerals, which were transformed into anti-government demonstrations.

During the funeral of Captain Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Abu Shakra on 10 June, a 30-year-old officer killed by unidentified militants in North Sinai, mourners, including police, called for Morsi's ouster.

Angry officers at the Al-Shorta Mosque in Cairo's Al-Darassa district where the funeral was held forced Ibrahim and senior ministry officials to leave the funeral following prayers.

Videos of high-ranking police officials verbally insulting the president and the Muslim Brotherhood at Abdel-Aziz's funeral, and at other police funerals, are posted all over the internet.

Moreover, the unexpected shift in the minister's statement further illustrates what observers describe as "the fickle nature of state security," which is also reflected by the diverging opinions of security officials.

The Police Officers Club, the acting body for officers which recently held elections for the first time in history, held a meeting on 15 June to determine the security apparatuses' strategy for 30 June.

The conference clarified the role of officers on duty who will be in uniform, along with those who plan to participate as civilians.

"On 30 June, the police will remain neutral, defending demonstrators, the interior ministry and state property," said police spokesperson Salah.

Despite pledges during the conference to protect protesters and state property, police officials declared that they would not guard Muslim Brotherhood offices and the group's headquarters in Cairo's Moqattam district.

And even though the minister himself made it clear that the police would not protect the headquarters of any political party, conference attendees said that protecting the Brotherhood's offices would not amount to maintaining neutrality between different factions.

The Brotherhood's famed campaign slogan "Islam is the solution" was central to police's critique, alluded to as "a farce" owing to the country's ongoing socio-economic decline.

Away from official declarations and events, in the streets, the deep divisions between and within higher-ranking officers, as well as in the middle and lower ranks, is patent.

Different attitudes among low-ranking officers are indicative of this. Some low-ranking officers like Shafiq, who cautiously refrained from giving his full name, said he was against participating, emphasising the police's responsibility to remain apolitical and detached from political events.

Others refused to talk to the media and some announced that they would simply adhere to ministerial instructions and work on 30 June, yet also suggested that participation ultimately was the choice of each individual officer.

Conversely, numerous young soldiers, advocates of the 'Rebel' campaign, voiced their intention to demonstrate with the people irrespective of orders from the controversial minister of interior.

"We will be with the people on 30 June, wearing t-shirts expressing our support," explained Ahmed, a young soldier sporting a black Central Security Forces uniform.

Many of these young underpaid and overworked Central Security Forces soldiers support and sympathise with the sentiments and demands of the protesters, many of whom include members of their own families.

Though, admittedly, reasons to participate vary, one of the main motives relates to the police's historic dislike and distrust of the Islamists.

According to security expert Ihab Youssef, ex-police officer, secretary-general of the People and Police for Egypt NGO and president of the Risk Free Egypt consultancy, the newfound power of the Brotherhood has been traumatic for the police.

Participation in the imminent demonstrations may also be an attempt to regain police pride and public trust, suggest some experts.

Amir Salem, security expert, renowned lawyer and author of 'The State of Police in Egypt,' also cites sentiments of guilt on the part of some officers, concerning their involvement in torture and corrupt practices, as another possible reason for participation.

This guilt, combined with public anger related to police torture, has instigated plans for internal ministerial reform, emphasised Salem.

Ultimately, bearing in mind internal divisions and varied motives, whether and how the Egyptian security apparatus decides to participate on 30 June, public security and protection of government property should remain its priority, assert experts.

"The police must remain neutral and protect all Egyptians, regardless of political or religious inclinations," stressed Shafiq, while emphasising the importance of protecting state property, which was vandalised during previous demonstrations.

Provided that security forces manage to maintain order, 30 June should pass with little violence, assert security officials. Yet they maintain that, if clashes between the police and the Brotherhood or opposition forces occur, or if police or state buildings are attacked, the police will retaliate with oppressive measures and military intervention may be the result.

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