Open letter to Egyptian police

Hassan Abou Taleb , Tuesday 4 Mar 2014

Abuses and violations can sometimes be committed by police, but restraint and perspective are needed in how we interpret and especially criticise these wrongdoings

Egypt's prosecutor-general did well when he decided to release Dahab Hamdy, better known in the media as the “woman in cuffs,” a reference to photos of Hamdy handcuffed to a bed after giving birth to a child by caesarean section while in police custody. Still, it is not known whether the 19-year-old was released in mid-February because the charges had been dropped or because of her special circumstances – being eight-months pregnant when she was arrested in mid-January. It is also unclear whether she will later face trial.

Either way, the prosecutor-general’s decision to release Hamdy undercuts any potential action critics might take towards Egypt’s police, namely transforming the image of a handcuffed Hamdy into another talking point about so-called abuse and torture by the police against political activists, and making Hamdy into another Khaled Said to galvanise anger and new tension against the police.

Police violations and abuse are not exclusive to Egyptian police but common practices even in the greatest democracies. The difference is that in other countries, there is quick public retribution and law enforcement that places the wrongdoing in perspective and thus prevents it from becoming a point of constant and volatile tension between a country's people and a vital agency that no modern state can exist without.

It was not too long ago that the 25 January 2011 uprising occurred in reaction to extensive police abuse against Egyptians. Political activists tackled this issue in a variety of ways, whether digitally or on the street. As confrontations and tension accumulated, it was natural for citizens to take action to end this abuse. The situation was out of hand and the Egyptian police collapsed along with the regime of president Hosni Mubarak. The army intervened to save the day as best as it could, which launched the first transitional phase, then the second, until we've reached the current phase of waiting for the completion of the caretaker government's transitional road map.

The police's relationship with the Egyptian people and state institutions can be defined according to the current level of political stability, meaning that it's an indication of the country's condition regarding human rights and citizenship. The better the police are as an institution – public, well-balanced, governed by law, transparent and reaching international standards – the more that mistakes and abuses are kept in check and in perspective without exaggeration. By the same token, creating and maintaining a normal relationship is not the sole responsibility of the police. All of society must be involved, especially the media, activists and key public figures.

No matter what the police do to improve their performance and the conduct of their troops, amidst constant criticism and the exaggeration of mistakes that are intentional or perhaps caused by a momentary lapse of judgement, the logical outcome is that the people will still confront the police. This destroys all recent advances, especially those since 30 June.

According to media reports about Hamdy's case, investigations from the prosecutor general revealed that the policeman in charge of guarding her hospital room had acted in bad taste when he decided to handcuff her to the bed. Hamdy was receiving many female visitors after the birth of her baby, the reports said, and the policeman thought it would be best for him to step out of the room and yet still find a way to make sure that she remained in custody, i.e. the handcuffs.

We must keep in mind the cultural beliefs of policemen like this one and not blow the issue out of proportion. Nonetheless, there is an important lesson here. In cases like Hamdy's, it would have been better if the guard had been female. In order not to embolden critics at home and abroad – and they are many – it is also important that police personnel undergo training on how to best handle unusual situations. The police should also be updated on human rights and the current conditions in Egypt, most notably how the police is being targeted in order to plunge the country into mayhem and transform it into another Syria.

Egyptians were optimistic when they saw the police standing side-by-side with the military on June 30 to protect the legitimate aspirations of the people to depose a president and group who almost sold the state and its citizens to the devil. On that day, when the Egyptian masses took to the streets to protect the police and army, people realised that a new Egypt – its people and institutions – was waking up from the oblivion it had been enduring for an entire year.

No one can deny that the police have genuinely changed or ignore the sacrifices of policemen, let alone forget those killed in the line of duty at the hands of Muslim Brotherhood terrorists and their allies who are zealots or anarchists. No one can deny the current importance of the police in restoring security across the country. All these facts should be recognised, guarded, upheld and strengthened.

As we often say, we will never turn back the clock. Egypt has forever passed beyond the two eras of Mubarak and his posse, and the terrorist group and its ousted president. The clock will also never go back to the decades-old police practices that caused the collapse of the entire apparatus and its temporary shame. Here, I want to warn police troops in the heat of the moment not to threaten simple folk, such as taxi drivers – such threats will only waste all police efforts to build a healthy relationship with the people.

Everyone must be alert to conspiracy plots at home and abroad, and strive to close the holes that can be employed in the media and other platforms to serve these terrorist and anarchist plots. While the police are doing their upmost to uncover and pre-empt these plots, I believe that despite intense pressure, the police must still train their troops according to the current situation Egypt is facing. Overall, it's a pre-emptive preparedness that keeps the police in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. There is no alternative, not if we want to win the battle against the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood and the prowling of activists, the ignorant and short-sighted.

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