Egypt faces stark choice between less security or brutal police on anniversary of Khaled Said's death

Salma Shukrallah , Monday 6 Jun 2011

On the anniversary of Khaled Said’s murder, allegedly by Egypt’s police, the question is: Do Egyptians want to raise the sense of security by adding police to the streets, even if they continue to violate their rights?

In this file photo, Egyptian anti-riot police confront Egyptian activist outside a journalists syndicate in downtown Cairo (Photo: AP)

Egypt’s January 25 revolution, which was mainly triggered as a reaction to police brutality, is now facing a security dilemma. As citizens complain of lack of safety, can the country’s police be trusted again to take up its role as security keeper?

Police brutality and corruption was a main driving force behind the anger that instigated Egypt’s revolution. The most famous case that shook many is that of 28-year-old Khaled Said, who died at the hands of plain-clothed police.

Youth organised themselves on Facebook and called for several street demonstrations after Khaled Said’s deformed face from torture surfaced on the net. They condemned police violence and vowed to put an end to it.

While there were no official steps taken to restructure the police institution to combat its violent nature before the revolution, the violent attack of peaceful protesters on 28 January eventually forced some changes.

During the international, heavy coverage starting from 25 January, to the sudden cut off of telecommunications and premeditated attack on peaceful demonstrations on 28 January, Egypt turned into a nationwide street battle between citizens and police forces. Almost as suddenly as the attack began, the police disappeared after a day of wreaking havoc.

While there are conspiracy theories about whether the police disappearance was purposeful and other theories claiming it was simply fear from the masses, regardless, the complete absence of the police force did create a security vacuum.

Egyptians do not feel secure

Complaints of lack of safety have been on the rise. A study conducted by the Cabinet shows that the majority of people perceive post-revolution Egypt as unsafe and have prioritised the government’s “provision of safety” as a number one demand.

The study shows that the majority of people regard the behaviour of policemen as “good” when asked after the revolution. However, the majority attributed the police’s “good” behaviour only to a “proper way of speaking” (85 per cent) as opposed to the police “offering efficient and quick service” (13 per cent). Since the police were well known for their aggressiveness, this “proper way of speaking” seems to have been good enough reason for people to view the police in a good light. More importantly, how long will the “good” behaviour last if the police institution is left unreformed?

Police are part of the problem, again

But still: How can a police force that is openly and heavily accused of torture, killing and corruption and despised by many, resume its work, and under what conditions?

Three police torture cases have already been widely reported since the revolution, according to eyewitnesses and rights activists. On Friday, citizens protesting what they say is the death of 40-year-old driver Mohamed Saeed El-Nasser at the hands of police, attacked a police station in central Cairo and set a police vehicle on fire. The minister of interior has ordered investigations in to the reported cases.

Rights activists Aida Seif El-Dawla from Al-Nadeem (Human Rights Center, which fights torture in Egypt) says “whether the ongoing investigations of the last reported torture cases are serious is still not clear. We will know when the results of the investigations are released. Still, we can see that the same torture violations are being practiced by Egyptian police.”

Moreover, activists complain that the same lies and excuses are given to cover up for the violations.

For example, although investigation results of the last reported case have not yet come out, the Ministry of Interior already released a statement claiming that El-Nasser was attacked by passersby when they saw him attacking the police officer (putting the blame on the passersby for his wounds). The report states that El-Nasser became ill on his way to the police station and was accordingly transported to the hospital, where he died.

Additionally, police officers accused of killing demonstrators during Egypt’s uprising have not yet been prosecuted, and some even remain on duty, according to activists.

Ihab Ali, member of the local committee in Cairo’s Imbaba district, says “we demand the prosecution of the police officers involved in killing demonstrators. The government claims that those citizens killed near the police stations are not martyrs, but rather thugs that attacked the station. But one of those who died near the police station in Imbaba was a 15-year-old killed as he was leaving the mosque near the police station. To boot, some officers involved in the killings went to the families of the martyrs after the revolution offering them money to drop charges.”   

Some also say that police are back to forcefully collecting bribes.

For example, a Cairo-based food shop owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, describes their situation. “Before the revolution the police working at the station and undercover agents used to take bribes in the form of free breakfasts. When I refused they used to detain my employees on their way home, claiming it was for investigation purposes, as allowed under the emergency law. The detention can go on for up to several days. Right after the revolution they stopped asking for such bribes - but now such demands are back.”  

Under the emergency law the police are allowed to detain anyone for investigation without any official charges. One of the main demands of the revolution was to lift the state of emergency, but such a demand, four months after the start of the revolution, has yet to be granted by the current interim government.

What to do?

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) says they have submitted a proposal to the ministry regarding changes that need to be implemented in security policies. The proposal stresses that "human rights organisations should be involved in the rehabilitation and training of law-enforcement personnel, both administrative and security cadres...daily institutional relations of cooperation, both centralised and decentralised, must be established between human rights organisations and the primary bodies within the Interior Ministry, including police stations and security directorates...[and]...the state of emergency must be lifted immediately."  

Bahi El-Din Hassan, founder of CIHRS, says "the centre has submitted the proposal regarding security policies in Egypt during its transition period to the prime minister and the minister of interior. However, they do not seem to be taking serious steps to change the policy orientation. For example; no one is working on cases of torture and police violations before 25 January, the violations which took place during the 18-day uprising are the only ones discussed, while the previous 30 years are ignored. Violations are also still ongoing." 

Activists claim that security concerns are used as an excuse to defend on-going police brutality and violations. Still, lack of security is an actual concern expressed by many citizens.

State officials claim that by restructuring State Security, now renamed the National Security Agency, some changes have been achieved. The Ministry of Interior declared that those transferred from State Security to the new agency were not only chosen just for their efficiency, but also because they were cleared of any minor or major human rights violations during their work under the previous regime. Younger officers were selected and those involved in torture were offered early retirement packages, according to a National Security officer.  

In another step to improve police behaviour, the Italian government offered to sign a debt-for-development agreement with Egypt, specifically offering police training in exchange for reduction of debt. However, Italy’s police is reputed to be among the most brutal in Europe. One famous example is the bloody and controversial killing of an anti-globalisation protester during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 at the hands of Italian state police.

As presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account, however, “Security & stability do not mandate the outright or veiled violation of people's rights, freedoms or dignity.”

Concerned by on-going police brutality, activists are planning to stage a demonstration in memory of Egypt’s most famous martyr, Khaled Said, on Monday in front of the Boulaq Al-Dakrour Police Station, where the first post-revolution torture case was witnessed and outside the Ministry of Interior in Cairo.

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