Last Update 23:29
Thursday, 22 August 2019

Egypt: What doesn't Morsi understand about police reform?

Failing to reform the police, which was a basic demand of the revolution, will be detrimental to the rule of President Morsi

Khaled Fahmy , Friday 1 Mar 2013
Views: 2724
Views: 2724

In mid-1861, Saeed Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, issued a Sovereign Decree to all police chiefs replacing the penalty of beating with imprisonment. Accordingly, regulations were issued stating that since “penalties in the form of beatings of some criminals are intended to once and for all discipline those who commit crimes and sins, and serve as a deterrence to others, while keeping in mind effect without harm, we have decided to replace the penalty of beating with the penalty of imprisonment.”

Before these regulations were issued, torture was prevalent and central to Egypt’s judicial system. Most penalty codes issued during the 19th Century clearly stipulated beatings and flogging as legitimate penalties that were administered publicly. For example, the “Law of Muhtasibah" – keeping everything in order within the laws of Allah – issued in 1835, said anyone who tampers with measuring scales in trade “will be penalised with ten lashes in the first round, 25 lashes in the second round, and 50 in the third round.”

As well as being a legal penalty, torture was also a means of forcing suspects to confess. Police records from the time are filled with phrases such as “we intensified his agony” and “he was beaten until the flesh tore off his buttocks.” 

So what inspired the Egypt to repeal torture in 1861? I tried to figure it out for a long time. The preamble to the new regulations did not give clear reasons. Neither was Saeed Pasha known for his passion for the welfare of his subjects or his efforts to ease their suffering. Of course, there were no human rights groups or international organisations monitoring prisons to ensure they abided by international rules and agreements, since none of these norms and traditions yet existed.

By studying many documents from that era, I found torture had bothered those in charge of the affairs of state. Torture as a penalty (flogging and wooden plank) often resulted in death, and in 1852 a regulation was passed requiring the presence of a wise man during floggings and beatings.

Torture, by nature, does not equate among victims since the elderly and weak, for example, do not endure it like a healthy young person would. Thus, torture as a legal penalty violates the basic principles of the penal code of equity in punishment for the same crime.

Torture as a tool to extract a confession was also problematic. Police officers were the first to admit that the outcome of torture is not reliable since suspects will often confess to anything to end their torment, which means never finding the real culprit.

Finally, the state found an alternative to torture in both its functions – as a legal penalty and as means to establish evidence. Throughout the 19th Century, the Egyptian state took good care of prisons and inmates. Prisons transformed from institutions for exile and exclusion into institutions of rehabilitation and discipline.  At the same time, incredible advances in forensic science enabled it to replace torture as a means to establish evidence in criminal offences.

After I spent many years exploring the National Archives, I concluded that torture was repealed from the Egyptian criminal code in the 19th Century because of a decision from within the state apparatus itself, specifically the police which reached an advanced degree of professionalism. It was also a reflection of a high degree of centralisation, strength and self-confidence of the state’s administrative apparatus, at the heart of which is the police.

It is disappointing to watch the serious regression of the Egyptian state over the past 30 years; a regression back to torture practices at police stations and locations of detention in Egypt.

Even more upsetting is that those in power today do not recognise the dangers of continuing to ignore this explosive issue, especially after a revolution which – in my opinion – primarily occurred to end torture and other systematic abuses by police against citizens.

The president has not said a single word about torture; the prime minister went to the headquarters of Central Security Forces after recent clashes in Port Said to promise them he would give them more weapons; the government has brushed aside all initiatives to reform the police; the minister of justice denied torture existed under President Morsi, and has often said the police cannot be reformed except from within and based on initiatives by its leadership. And so it seems, President Morsi’s government has made up its mind on this matter and does not wish to address police violations, and at the same time cannot force police leaders to change their ways in dealing with the people.

I believe choosing to ignore overhauling the police will be detrimental to the rule of President Morsi. Egypt’s police today, unlike in the 19th Century, cannot reform itself from within because the state’s administrative apparatus – the judiciary and forensic science – which aided the police in this difficult task in the past, has collapsed. Meanwhile, torture has become systematic and routine which makes it impossible to expect police officers and commanders to accept this mission voluntarily.

During the first round of Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, I spoke to several young people there and realised their deep hatred towards the Ministry of Interior. I listened to these young people in their 20s and younger about the horrors and tragedies they suffered at the hands of the ministry since they were born. While I watched their determination in resisting the ministry’s oppressive practices, the Muslim Brotherhood youth were nowhere to be found.

Unlike the heroic stand of Brotherhood youth on the day of the Battle of the Camel, Brotherhood youth and elders were absent at all confrontations between revolutionaries and the ministry and its thugs after that. It is clear that “insisting on legitimacy” and promoting the importance of holding presidential, parliamentary elections and a referendum on the constitution became a Brotherhood obsession. The danger of this thinking is that it ignores there is revolution on the street and in squares.

The revolution may have overthrown some pillars of the former regime and succeeded in freeing the public domain so we can hold free and fair elections, but the victor in these elections is mistaken to think the goal of the revolution is limited to holding fair elections. It is a revolution of rights launched on Police Day to highlight the importance of reforming this vital arm of the state.

I will not mention how the president’s “people” pounced on protestors outside the presidential palace. I will only remind the president that reforming the police is not a minor demand that can be ignored, and his insistence on forging ahead with elections without addressing this vital issue will void election results of their meaning. It will also undermine the foundation of the state he is leading.


Short link:


Ahram Online welcomes readers' comments on all issues covered by the site, along with any criticisms and/or corrections. Readers are asked to limit their feedback to a maximum of 1000 characters (roughly 200 words). All comments/criticisms will, however, be subject to the following code
  • We will not publish comments which contain rude or abusive language, libelous statements, slander and personal attacks against any person/s.
  • We will not publish comments which contain racist remarks or any kind of racial or religious incitement against any group of people, in Egypt or outside it.
  • We welcome criticism of our reports and articles but we will not publish personal attacks, slander or fabrications directed against our reporters and contributing writers.
  • We reserve the right to correct, when at all possible, obvious errors in spelling and grammar. However, due to time and staffing constraints such corrections will not be made across the board or on a regular basis.

06-03-2013 12:58pm
Change is coming
I am very optimistic about the future of egypt. Fixing egypt problems in few months is unrealistic expecation. The culture within the police can't changed based on Morsi's election alone. edcuational programs and law practices have to be implemented first. Do not let your hate for Morsi affect your quest for a torture free society. Morsi and MB, in general, have suffered the most from police. Change your lenses.
Comment's Title

05-03-2013 04:45am
Everything and nothing!
Khaled you pose a question....'what doesn't Morsi understand about police reform'? Everything and nothing! Your article was most interesting, and it seems you did a lot of research, back as far as the early 19th century. Even though you went into many details, it could be said that they were intelligent enough to realize that beating and torture did not yield results or reform the convicted, so it was totally immoral. Development in Forensic science and reform from within a 'professional' police force yielded positive results for all, then it all collapsed due to the decline in the judiciary and forensic science, surely also due to further decline in morality and respect for human life and dignity. Hence, Jan 25 demanded amongst other things, justice for all. Morsi was elected promising to achieve the goals of the revolution which he certainly has not, in fact, we have regressed even further on most levels, initially, of course the revolution was hijacked, now the society along with th
Comment's Title

01-03-2013 04:04pm
red herring
the author is against the Islamists as a matter of principle. Police reforms and other issues are just distractons. Even if Prophet Muhammed were to be the leader inEgypt, some secularists who worship themselves would still be against the ruler. We are talking about people whose hearts are fille with hatred.
Comment's Title
02-03-2013 09:11am
Spot on
what you said Nadeen is spot on. there is nothing President Mursi will do that will satisfy these people. nothing.
01-03-2013 08:36pm
Red Herring Back at you
So you're saying that the police does not need to be reformed?

© 2010 Ahram Online.