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Are Egypt's police outmatched in the war on terrorism?

As militants step up attacks across Egypt, Ahram Online talks to experts on how well the country's security forces are prepared to deal with well-organised terrorism

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 6 Feb 2014
A police officer inspects the site of a bomb attack in front of the damaged Cairo Security Directorate, which includes police and state security, in downtown Cairo January 24, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

The walls of Fatma El-Tabey's house in Cairo's historic Bab El-Khalq district have shaken exactly twice since she's lived there.

The first time was in 1992, when a disastrous 5.9 magnitude earthquake rolled through the capital.

The second time came this year, on 24 January, when a car bomb detonated in front of the city's central police headquarters, about 400 metres away.

Which was worse?

"I was in the same house on both occasions, and I know that the tremor after the bombing was definitely stronger," said El-Tabey, 30, who works as a sports journalist at the state-run newspaper Rose Al-Youssef.

The bomb went off at 6:30am, killing four and waking up everyone in her neighbourhood. People rushed out into the street, fearing that their buildings were collapsing. The air was filled with smoke and dust and window panes shattered, a chaotic scene that she says sounded like the explosions you hear in the mountains, or in mines.

The attack has since stood out from the recent string of bombings that Egypt has witnessed since the 3 July 2013 ouster of president Mohamed Morsi — not only because of the prominent target, one of the police's largest buildings in Cairo, but also the sheer size of the blast: 750 kilos of explosives that gutted the headquarters and was even heard in the southern suburb of Maadi, 17 kilometres away.

Video footage from a surveillance camera across the street shows a white pickup truck roll to a stop in front of the building. The driver gets out and hops into another car following closely behind. The bomb went off seconds later, blanking out the camera in a cloud of dust.

When the dust settled, the extent of the damage was clear. The windows of the building had been blown out, with air-conditioning units dangling on wires. Parts of the facade were stripped away. Where the truck had been was left a crater filled with water from burst underground pipes. 

The neighbourhood is significant not just for the police headquarters, though. The Museum of Islamic Art across the street suffered extensive damage, as did the National Library and Archives behind it. Four important historic mosques nearby were also damaged.

It was the second explosion of its kind since Morsi's ouster.

The other came on 24 December, in an attack very much like the one in Cairo: a car bomb targeting a major police headquarters, this time in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. The building was nearly ruined. Sixteen were killed, with tens injured.

Both bombings were claimed in online statements by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, an Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant group based in the Sinai Peninsula that has taken responsibility for many other recent attacks in Egypt.

Taken together, the two attacks leave no doubt that Egypt is facing a highly organised form of terrorism. But as militant groups mount an offensive, is the country's police force capable of holding up, or even success?

Some security experts say that the police, already weary, are hampered by its use of obsolete techniques.

Ihab Youssef, a founding member of local NGO "The People and Police for Egypt," which aims to strengthen ties between the public and security forces, is one of many critics who have been citing law enforcement inefficiency for years and calling for radical police reform and reshuffles.

He says that in post-Morsi Egypt, with its continual waves of terrorist attacks, the issue of a comprehensive police revamp is more pressing than ever.

"We are not facing ordinary criminals now," Youssef told Ahram Online. "These are well-trained and well-funded terrorists who execute high-tech operations, so security forces must be up to the challenge."

He points out that in the three years following the 2011 uprising, the police haven't developed in any way, despite repeated calls for it to do so. Strategists at the interior ministry haven't offered any contemporary solutions, and security personnel haven't improved their performance.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed for the better," Youssef said.

Collapse of 'toothless' police

The 2011 revolution was partly the result of mounting public indignation against the police, thanks to abuses and violations routinely carried out by former president Hosni Mubarak's security apparatus.

Hundreds of thousands turned out to the streets and the police were outnumbered. After failing to forcibly disperse the crowds, the police disappeared for days after becoming runaway outcasts for opening fire on civilians.

The events have left a security vacuum that continues to this day.

Although police officers turned up in the 30 June 2013 protests to demand an end to Morsi's rule, a reversal of fortune in which they were photographed alongside civilian protesters, the force has been anything but potent since their fall from grace in 2011.

While being involved in frequent clashes related to politics and protests over the past three years, the police couldn't control soaring crime rates that, despite being overshadowed by terrorism, comprise another challenge.

Mahmoud Kotri, a former brigadier general who is renowned for his suggestions of police reforms, says that the police, in spite of being abusive, were already fragile in the years leading up the 2011 revolution.

"The police were already toothless ahead of the 2011 uprising, thanks to a policy from Mubarak-era Interior Minister Habib El-Adly that kept most officers inside police stations and not in the streets, the reason that the security apparatus collapsed in no time during the revolution," he told Ahram Online.

"We did have regular police presence in the street once," he said, referring to security personnel known as gendarmes which used to be regularly deployed in public until they were cancelled after the 1952 Revolution.

There were also patrol cars in the time of El-Adly, but they "were never effective," Kotri said, "just a failed attempt to imitate the police in Western countries."

"Most people would resort to thugs not to the police when they get robbed, as those sitting all comfortable in police stations are not real policemen. No wonder they collapsed in no time during the revolution."

Kotri is convinced the Muslim Brotherhood engineered during the uprising attacks against police stations and prisons that freed thousands of inmates, including Morsi and other prominent Brotherhood members. But that shouldn't be an excuse for the police to be completely incapable of containing the situation, he opined.

Reforms more pressing than ever

As the police saw no improvements after the uprising, today's challenges of well-orchestrated terrorist attacks represent an impossible mission for them, Kotri said. "No way will our police with their current status stop the attacks we are currently witnessing at the hands of surgical terrorists."

The attitude and methods of police personnel, which have barely changed since Mubarak rule, reflect what Kotri calls "an offensive approach," an aggressive hostility that, apart from generating anger from civilians, won't help maintain security in the street or deter potential terror attacks.

Kotri says the current law enforcement system is all about quotas. "Police checkpoints are not set up to protect people, but to catch those breaking the law. Traffic police aren't there to keep the cars moving along, but to register traffic violations," he explains.

Accordingly, the officer that supervises the impounding of 30 weapons will be seen as an under-performer next to the officer that gets 40. "This mindset must be changed in order for the police to be more effective." 

But where does radical change begin?               

Kotri has many ideas. Take aim at police academies, overhauling the current curriculum and training procedures.

Reinstate military trials for security personnel, which would force them to obey difficult orders, a must-have in the current fight against terrorism, he stressed.

Ihab Youssef, for his part, highlighted the importance of beefing up the technology used in police work. "For example, to use electronic detectors not bomb-sniffing dogs to detect explosives."

"We need a security system that relies a lot more on technology and contemporary approaches, with new policies to develop responsive measures and establish pre-emptive security, which we've never had and direly need nowadays."

Most important of all, Kotri adds, is a complete reshuffling of all police leadership to pave the way for changes. "That's of the utmost importance to begin with."

"The interior ministry must be cleansed of pervasive incompetence," Kotri said. "Because of corruption and nepotism in the ministry we have officers in leading positions although they don't have the required credentials."

From bad to worse

Bombings and terror attacks first increased in the restive Sinai after Morsi's overthrow, with militants targeting security personnel and checkpoints with heavy artillery.

The army has responded with an unprecedented counter-terrorism campaign in the peninsula, with increasing strikes that have left dozens of militants dead and arrested.

While terrorism in Greater Cairo and other governorates has not reached such a level, it has been evidently intensifying over the past months, a trend that is likely to continue.

As often as police leaders and personnel have been targeted, Youssef says, Egypt could soon start seeing political assassinations.

"Civilians could well be targeted as much as security forces," he stated. "And with the presidential elections looming I think terrorists will raise the bar, so I hope the police will be ready and well equipped for that."

Meanwhile, adding much to the growing political disputes, Egypt's interim authorities declared the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, a terrorist organisation, one day after the 24 December bombing of the police headquarters in Mansoura.

In early January, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that Gaza-based Hamas, an ideological offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, played a role in the attack. Further investigations and evidence proved, he said, that Brotherhood members had committed other terror acts in Mansoura.

The Brotherhood and its Islamic solidarity alliance, the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy (NCSL), have repeatedly denied using violence, claiming that they have been and always will be peaceful in their quest to reverse what they perceive as a military coup on 3 July 2013.

Video and testimonial evidence tells another story, however, with footage and accounts of Morsi supporters using firearms, especially in battles with the police. Photos of Osama Bin Laden were also spotted, as were the black flags of Al-Qaeda in many pro-Morsi rallies.

The two Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo at Rabaa Al-Adaweya Mosque in Nasr City and Al-Nahda Square in Giza, both of which were forcibly dispersed by security forces in August, leaving hundreds dead mostly from the Islamist camp, were marked by the group's members spouting inflammatory, sectarian rhetoric that called for attacks against Coptic Christians and churches.

Beyond politics?

To date, the Brotherhood and its allies have refused reconciliation with the interim government, staging regular protests across the nation and demanding Morsi's reinstatement.

But some analysts say that if upcoming presidential and then parliamentary elections go well, successfully marking the end of the government's transitional roadmap, the pro-Morsi camp might be more inclined to make a deal that brings relative calm to the streets.

Ahmed Ban, an Egyptian specialist on Islamist groups and formerly a mid-level Brotherhood leader, says that the Brotherhood is "inherently a political group that makes deals, and so the possibility of it reaching an agreement with interim authorities can't be ruled out."

If Egypt has a new president and parliament, Ban says, the Brotherhood will shift from denial to acceptance of its fall.

Ban says this shift can already be found in how Morsi's lawyer, Mohamed Selim El-Awa, reacted in court during a trial that sees the deposed president charged with inciting the murder of his political opponents in the December 2012 clashes outside Ittihadiya presidential palace.

During the proceedings, El-Awa declared that the trial was illegitimate based on articles of the newly-ratified 2014 Constitution, as well as other laws, which stipulate that a president must be tried before a special panel upon the request of one-third of parliamentary members.

Regardless of the legal rationale of El-Awa's argument, Ban believes "the fact that the lawyer acknowledged the 2014 Constitution clearly indicates that the Brotherhood has begun to accept a post-Morsi reality."

But deal or no deal, Ban says, terrorism in Egypt is likely to continue.

"Terrorist organisations might have common interests with the Brotherhood," he said. "But it's highly likely there is no direct communication or coordination with them."

Kotri feels that there is enough evidence to prove that the Brotherhood has been involved in recent attacks and is in fact benefiting from them. Nonetheless, he points to the fact that the group has never in its history executed the kind of large-scale bombings like the ones in Cairo and Mansoura.

These operations, he says, were carried out by the Brotherhood's more "extreme allies, whose presence has grown substantial over the past few years."

Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Jihadist Salafists and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya both abandoned violence and proclaimed peace in the last decade of Mubarak's 30-year rule, after being out-muscled by security forces.

For the first time, most Islamic groups were able to launch political parties following the 2011 revolution. But then Morsi's ouster reignited the battle between the police and Islamic extremists.

It's a battle that could go on for a lot longer.

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