Book Review: Roots of Police Violence

Najet Belhatem, Tuesday 7 Jun 2011

Basma Abdel-Aziz's enjoys its second print run weeks after publishing and shares many insights about development of the relationship between the police and Egyptian citizens

Egyptians have become used to policemen asking for tips in return for forgiving a parking ticket, but they could not get used to the arbitrary detention, torture and sometimes death of friends and family at the hands of police.

The choice of the annual celebration of Police Day, 25 January, as the date for the revolution was never a coincidence, and the earthquake that hit the police force on 28 January isn’t groundless.

Basma Abdel-Aziz’s book traces the history of violence in the relationship between Egyptian policemen and citizens; taking us from the roots of this issue, through the revolution and to the counter-revolution.

In ancient Egyptian times the police was an institution independent from the army and the judiciary, in contrast to Egypt today. Thotmus III advises his minister to “remember that the role of minister is bitter as patience; you should not take citizens as slaves, and you must care for those you know as much as those you don’t, and know that the honour of the prince is to be just.” These are the same rules that would guide humanitarian efforts thousands of years later, and these are the demands of the revolutionaries since 25 January.

What is happening today in Egypt must be analysed within the framework of a long history of ebbs and tides of a relationship that was never rosy.

The absence – or minimal presence – of policemen since they were withdrawn from the streets, three days after the mass protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo on 28 January forced a mere barter: either democracy, or the return of security forces with their own rules as before.

It could be daring to say that what’s happening today is the worst turn in this relationship over its last 30 years, to the extent that policemen would use their own weapons to sort their own personal disputes, which the author termed “random violence.” In any fit of rage, the officer could become one with authority and “moves from working by the law to become the law itself.” And significant reprisals against the officer? None.

This is, indeed, what happened recently when an officer shot a microbus driver. The writer explains that the cause for this violence is the education and development of the policeman itself: “[he] learns during his years at the police academy that violence will become an integral part of his future work.”

Furthermore, the students are taught that the use of violence is legitimate, therefore erasing any self-doubt or guilt. “They work under the certainty that they are there for the benefit of the nation and to impose order, security and stability. They feel a legal obligation to use violence and torture against anyone who wishes to destabilise any of these.” Any opposition to the regime is defined as belonging to the category of “destabilisation,” thereby rendering the police task “in summary: as the protection of the regime from the society.”

The relationship between the police and the citizen entered the “master-slave” definition following the authority and excessive power given to the police apparatus, adding new dimensions of this power over the years. This is especially true under the Mubarak regime, where violence became programmatic.

Police violence wasn’t called that during former president Abdel Nasser’s rule, but was rather described as “the policeman and the citizen are in the same boat.” The police force at the time focused on the opposition to the regime, through a special security force created particularly for this reason in 1968, known as State Security.

During times of former president Sadat, violence against opposition receded and turned into violence against the regular person in some incidences, however, “these remained exceptions that don’t amount to systematic behaviour.” However, the author notes that the assault against regime’s opposition never stopped during the two eras; detention orders reached up to 14,000 during Nasser’s time, rising even further under Sadat and reaching through multiple layers.

“This increase might reflect the beginning of defection and what the regime called its enemies, enlarging the circle of the opposition.” This circle reached its maximum during the Mubarak regime to encompass the entire society, and, thereby, start an era of systematic violence that exploded during the revolution.

Throughout the 30 years of the Mubarak regime, violence took various forms: from mass punishment of an entire area, besieging an entire village for days; random shootings in a neighbourhood following any protests; not to mention torture in police stations that developed into violence outside the station, for, as the author put it, “it’s more suitable to torture someone in front of others to destroy his will ... so everyone knows that there’s no use in resisting.” Thus, police forced itself above the law.

It could be concluded from this book and from similarly solid analysis about the relationship between the police and the people, that a full, second review is required in order to reconcile the two sides.

A complete overhaul of all police laws and regulations, as well as the philosophy in education and training for policemen and officers is required, besides a real democratic system that ensures liberties and rights and, thus, becomes the only protection against the temptation of absolute power.

Only months after its publication, the book is already on its second edition. A book-signing is hosted by Diwan Bookstore in Zamalek with guest speakers Dr Mohamed Aboul-Ghar and Zyad Bahaa El-Din.

Book signing:
Wednesday 8 June, 7pm

Eghraa' Al Solta Al Mutlaka (Temptations of Absolute Power)
Author: Basma Abdel-Aziz
Cairo: Sefsafa Publishing, 2010
PP 127

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