Police reform in Egypt: A postponed necessity

Rabha Allam
Saturday 20 Jun 2015

It will take firm political will for long-awaited police reform to materialise in Egypt

In the early weeks and months of the 2011 January revolution, police reform topped the political agenda of hopes for a new Egypt that respects human rights and dignity.

Today, the reform debate has faded substantially. Calls to postpone police reform, under the pretext of giving priority to preserving national security, regaining the state’s prestige and countering terrorism, took the lead.

However, from the time of the early calls, the specific definition of “police reform” varied significantly between that of civil society and that of the interior ministry (MOI).

According to the MOI, police reform meant a growing budget to meet the needs of the ministry's large corps of employees and to purchase new weapons and equipment.

Therefore, the share of the MOI in the 2012/2013 budget was raised from LE18 to 23.5 billion. It was raised again by at least LE10 billion in the 2013/2014 budget.

Such an increase was required to cover the almost 300 percent raise in salaries of police personnel to meet their demands about receiving a decent income that offsets the dangers they face in fulfilling their job.

Police officers were keen to gather immediately after the 2011 revolution in several groups, forming a syndicate to negotiate with the MOI on their demands, and also to address the Egyptian people and deny their responsibility for the bloodshed during the revolution.

The MOI positively dealt with some of the officers' demands, such as raising their salaries and respecting official working hours. However, the MOI was firm in refusing any sort of police union, fearing it could challenge to its absolute authority vis-à-vis its officers. Most of the officers active in the police syndicates were administratively punished and prevented from contacting the media and civil society.

From civil society’s perspective, police reform was to be more comprehensive. Beside raising police resources and providing good work conditions, civil society requested wider oversight of police work.

Among several initiatives to reform the police, the National Initiative for Police Reform (NIPR), launched in 2011, was the most articulated in this regard. The NIPR requested decent work conditions for police officers, modern and professional management of the MOI, and several oversight mechanisms to check on police respect for human rights and professional performance.

The NIPR also requested the launch of a vetting campaign to decide who of the old officers should continue in service and who should not, according to their professional records.

The NIPR also recommended several transitional justice mechanisms to punish the perpetrators of human rights abuses and to compensate the victims. This elaborate initiative was thoroughly discussed in parliament's committees and in the presidential palace between 2011 and 2012. Yet, it was never adopted as a concrete plan for reform.

Despite including the insights of many human rights advocates, police officers and law professors, this initiative did not gain the support of the political leadership to be officially adopted. Political will was constantly absent when it comes to police reform.

This fact brings us once again to the definition of police reform. In any nascent democracy, police reform should rely on four main pillars: political neutrality, de-militarisation, professionalism and accountability.

A democratically reformed police should not interfere in politics for or against the interest of any party, even the ruling party. The police should rather provide a free and a safe space where all citizens can practice their civil and political rights.

The police should also be a civilian institution that does not rely on weapons except when all other tools fail to address the situation in question. Heavily armed police should not be deployed within communities. They should rather serve in special cases and be deployed to face armed groups or insurgents.

A reformed police should also be highly professional in applying advanced tools in investigations and analysis to solve cases, rather than resorting to torture to get forced confessions.

Consequently, a reformed police should be subject to several accountability mechanisms from inside and outside the police institution.

The multiple overseers of police performance should consist of a strong parliament, an independent judiciary, a qualified civil society and free media outlets. Thus, the four pillars of police reform are tightly linked to different components of a democratic regime.

Yet, based on these four pillars, the Egyptian experience in police reform did not prove successful.

The Egyptian police is not politically neutral. Despite constant change in the MOI, the ministry's policy politically supports the ruling elite, no matter the background of this elite.

Former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was for a while head of the MOI under the Muslim Brotherhood. He then had a prominent role in the ouster of then president Mohamed Morsi. The political preference of the police was shown when they protected the 30 June 2013 demonstrations, and later took part in forcibly dispersing Morsi supporters at the Rabaa sit-in.

The Egyptian police is also becoming more militarised than before, primarily to face the growing threat of terrorism, and second to follow the inspiring lead of the Egyptian military, whose actions were well received by the people, unlike those of the police.

However, a militarised police does not necessarily equal an effective police. Crackdown operations conducted in several places, especially in Sinai, to face terrorist groups could eventually harm a wider circle of people and generate more violence against the state and its agents.

Therefore, a securitised/militarised option cannot work alone in solving the growing threat of terrorism. Other political, social and economic initiatives should go hand in hand with a more rationalised security policy in this regard.

Concerning professionalism, the Egyptian police has certainly purchased new equipment and weapons and raised the salaries of its personnel. However, professionalism should also include advanced tools to replace old-fashioned and human rights abusive police work techniques. It should also include financial transparency, training on new soft skills, and data analysis applications and technologies.

As for the fourth and most important pillar, accountability, the police should be accountable in front of the judiciary, parliament and even a special judicial institution specialised in only overseeing its work, such as an ombudsman.

This institution was initiated in several nascent democracies to guide police work in respecting human rights and professional performance and could help if launched in Egypt amid efforts to enhance police accountability.

Despite transferring several police officers to courts recently for different acts of abuse and deviation, police accountability is subject to a case by case approach rather than general rules for punishment and reward.

In sum, police reform in Egypt cannot advance without firm political will from rulers, including the will to abstain from using the police in political disputes with opponents, and the will to modernise and scrutinise police work.

This should also go hand in hand with a wider trend in reforming related institutions, such as the public prosecutor, the judiciary, parliament, and a general democratic context to guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Such a context is crucial to establishing police accountability. Yet, reform does not only entail holding abusers accountable. It also entails reforming the whole institution, its personnel and its work techniques, to minimise the chances of wrongdoings and abuses.

The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

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