Egypt’s police after the revolution: Brutality combines with lack of security

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 27 Oct 2011

Ahram Online followed calls for radical police reforms throughout 2011 in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution; complaints and accusations against law enforcers persisted despite all promises

Confidence in Egypt's police has been erased by years of impunity and disregard for the rights of the people they are meant to protect (Photo: Reuters)

“The Egyptian police are part of the Egyptian population that works on protecting lives and properties, enforcing the law, preventing crimes, spreading security and safety in the nation and offering a distinguished security service to all citizens on the soil of the country within the realm of the constitution, law and human rights standards.”

These reassuring words were part of the police’s new code of honour announced at a press conference held by the Ministry of Interior Saturday, to ensure that law enforcers turn a new page and apply strict measures to bring an end to the chronic nationwide security vacuum Egypt has been suffering since the January 25 Revolution.

But considering the stumbling blocks, it will unquestionably take a lot more than a well-written statement for the police to become effective and change the common negative perception of the Ministry of Interior and its personnel.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed thus far in the way the police operated throughout the tenure of ex-Interior Minister Habib El-Adly,” Mahmoud Kotri, a former brigadier general who wrote a book about possible radical police reforms after retiring from the force, told Ahram Online a few days after the announcement of the new code of honour. “It has even become worse under the current circumstances.”

There had already been no love lost between citizens and the police ahead of the popular uprising, thanks to the torture that was routinely practiced at police stations and covered up by El-Adly’s ministry for nearly 14 years. And the relationship between the sides took a severe turn for the worse after 28 January, the “Friday of Rage”.

With hundreds of thousands — some say millions — demonstrating peacefully in Tahrir Square on that day, the police had all but disappeared from the streets, having tried and failed to forcibly disperse protesters with tear gas and live rounds. That evening, countless police stations were set ablaze, a multitude of firearms stolen and hundreds of protesters killed and injured.

For a while, the security situation across the country completely collapsed, forcing citizens to prepare to battle thugs on the street. In those days, neighbours stayed out overnight, setting up checkpoints and brandishing any weapon they could find to protect their homes and families.

After former president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown on 11 February, the Ministry of Interior started to gradually redeploy forces on the streets and made promises to drastically improve its policies and demeanour. Up to the present time, however, the police did little to wipe the slate clean.

Apart from increasing allegations of malpractices, the crime rate is believed to be soaring. Particularly over the past few months, car thefts have become recurrent throughout the country.

Among car theft victims were several public figures, the most famous of which was political analyst Amr Hamzawy and his actress girlfriend Basma who were together when they got robbed and had their car stolen. A low-ranking policeman eventually turned out to be involved in the theft, according to a prolonged investigation.

Complaints and accusations

In other cases, many of those who lost or came close to losing their vehicles to thugs voiced disgruntlement with the police’s performance, highlighting suspicions that policemen were involved in one way or another in some of these crimes.

Alaa Abdel El-Monem, deputy managing editor at Rosal Yousef’s daily newspaper, recounted his hair-raising experience on Mehwar highway while speaking to Ahram Online. He said: “My car broke down at 2:30am, so I had to stop until the engine cooled off. Three men appeared out of the blue asking me whether I needed help. I said ‘No thanks’, started the engine and drove 100 metres before the car once again grinded to halt. Then I saw these three men running towards me holding blades. I pulled out my licensed gun and shot at them. I couldn’t injure any of them but they ran away.

“I later drove my car another short distance to find a police checkpoint. I told them what happened and blamed them for leaving such a dangerous spot on the road unsecured. They just told me that citizens should do whatever it takes to protect themselves, stressing that I must gun down any thug who tries to attack me.

“The way I see it, the police are involved in this. I knew that other people were killed by thugs in the area where I was attacked, and the way the hooligans acted clearly suggested they had done this before. So why haven’t the police secured this road? Even if they don’t have some understanding with these thugs, the way they let up is disgraceful; they are completely useless … I was lucky to have a gun to defend myself, others don’t and might be killed.”

One of the unarmed victims is Nabil Ibrahim, a marketing manager who lives in the large out-of-the-way compound, Hadaek El-Ahram. The 41-year-old’s car was parked under the building he dwells in when thieves stole it before his eyes in the early morning. He reported the theft to the police right away, but instead of getting support and sympathy, he said, the officer at the police station gloated at his misery.

“I was really agitated while telling him what happened but he seemed so apathetic to the incident,” he told Ahram Online. “During the proceeding, he asked me whether I was planning to take part in the million-man march at the weekend, it was the one against the emergency law … I lost my nerves for a second and told him ‘Are you happy at my situation?’ and he provocatively replied, ‘It’s just a chat’.”

As the police failed to fulfill their duty, Ibrahim took a risk to retrieve his car. His adventure only added to his woes though. “I called that officer a couple of times hoping to hear any good news, albeit to no avail. Eventually, the thieves contacted me to make an offer; paying LE 20,000 to get back my car. Since the police were of no use, I had no other choice but give it a try. They took the money and kept the car,” he said.

“A lot of things raised my suspicions that the police had a role in this. First off, the thieves told me that they would know immediately if I told the police about them. They also contacted me on the same number I gave to the police. It’s not unequivocal proof, as some of my business cards were in the car, but this particular number is third on the cards and the thugs didn’t try the first two numbers … the officer later told me that the thugs would contact me and ask me for money because this is what happened with other people. His advice was to play ball. Of course, I didn’t tell him they already did and conned me out of my money.

“I have my suspicions, but I really can’t tell whether the police instigated this, just let thugs rob people out of revenge of what happened in the revolt or they are actually afraid to do anything. My brother is a police officer, he told me that no policeman would risk his life to get my car back,” Ibrahim concluded.

Toothless police

While some accuse the police of being revengeful, apathetic or fearful, the unambiguous fact is that they have lost a great portion of their influence on the streets since the revolution.

The police used to be fearsome with their relentless oppressive methods and unfettered power, a status that was completely lost after the former regime was deposed and amid the ensuing hostility with citizens.

Consequently, the Ministry of Interior’s men now are largely incapable of taking actions against criminals in the same manner they used to beforehand.

Nagwa Mahmoud, a Telecom Egypt employee, was mugged in Mohandeseen district when a thief on a motorcycle snatched her purse and rode off. For a while, she thought she was lucky that she knew the assailant’s address, but to her utter disappointment, the police let her down. “A man working at some spit and sawdust café recognized the teenage culprit because it’s where he was sitting. He told me that he lives in Ezbet El-Saaida (a dangerous rundown district),” she told Ahram Online.

“When I went to Imbaba Police Station to report the incident, policemen were very polite and kind, but told me that they can’t go and arrest him because it would be too dangerous, and people already hate them so much. They refused to go after him although I told them exactly where they would find him.”

For his side, security expert Kotri is convinced that the overwhelming majority of policemen have been playing a mere negligible role in fighting burglary and thuggery, even before the revolution.

He said ministry-affiliated hoodlums used to control security during the repressive rule of Mubarak. Now, after the Mubarak regime was overthrown, he believes policemen still do not want to get their hands dirty.

“It was the thugs who were controlling the streets,” he said. “Most of policemen only handle minor proceedings and paperwork, making many years of their training and preparation of no value. This is the failed security school of El-Adly that hasn’t changed until now. Most of them would never jeopardise their lives for the sake of their duties.

“Wherever you are, just take one look out the window and see if there is a single cop standing. You won’t find any! The police department needs to be reformed at its very core. We need a creative minister of interior, new leading figures under him, much higher wages for policemen and many other things.”

Indeed, more than 10,000 lower-ranking policemen across Egypt demonstrated Monday outside the Ministry of Interior in central Cairo, calling for minister Mansour El-Essawy to resign. Some of them even started an open-ended sit-in until their demands – including higher wages, fair promotions, proper healthcare and reasonable working hours – are met. They even threaten not to secure next month’s parliamentary elections.

Police reforms: A new ray of hope

The newly-launched National Initiative to Rebuild the Police came up with comprehensive proposed reforms that aim not only at enhancing the police’s performance, but also at improving their standard of living and working conditions.

The initiative – prepared and promoted by several policemen from the Officers but Honest Coalition, law professors, human rights activists, businessmen and others – was officially unveiled at the Leadership and Management Development Centre on Monday.

A three-hour seminar examined the numerous suggested changes that include a multitude of law amendments, a ministry reshuffle and restructuring, and even deep-seated changes to the Police Academy.

“We have to appoint a civilian interior minister because this is a political job. The minister of interior doesn’t have to be from the force, nor those of health and housing must be a doctor and engineer, for instance,” said ex-lieutenant Mohamed Mahfouz, echoing the same sentiments of Kotri.

For her part, Magda Botros, member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said: “What we are trying to do is pretty much to create a common ground for all political forces to stand on. It’s a vision of how our police should be like.”

Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights member Ghada Shahbander commented: “Now we are looking for support for the National Initiative to Rebuild the Police from across the political spectrum.”

Presidential hopeful Mohamed Selim El-Awa was among the first political figures to endorse the National Initiative to Rebuild the Police. A representative of his gave a speech on his behalf after the seminar. “I fully support this initiative; it’s going to make a change and not just fix problems,” said the representative to applause from attendees.

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