Egypt's Interior Ministry: Beyond redemption?
Sherif Tarek, Wednesday 7 Mar 2012
Egyptians remain caught between a desire for security and fears of Mubarak-style oppression at the hands of a reconstituted police force. Ahram Online asks if a happy medium can be struck

The appointment of interim Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri late last year gave rise to a measure of hope that reputedly tough veteran politician would work to improve the performance of Egypt's discredited interior ministry. Judging from the recent rise in crime, recurrent human rights violations against political protests and the ministry's controversial discourse on police tactics and posture, however, it seems safe to say that those initial hopes have been dashed.

After his reinstatement as prime minister on 25 November, amid a week of flagrant police brutality against activists protesting military rule on Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street, El-Ganzouri was compelled to make the overhaul of Egypt's security services a priority following the formation of his cabinet.

The appointment of the current interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, in December 2011 was portrayed as a step in the right direction. His first few weeks at the helm of the ministry saw relative calm after a series of clashes and large-scale security deployments, which came amid an ongoing security vacuumthat has bedevilled the country since a nationwide police withdrawal at the height of last year's Tahrir Square uprising.

Ibrahim's promising start was, however, soon followed by further security deteriorations, as the police have all but disappeared again – even though their use of excessive force against protesters has remained in evidence. As under previous ministers, Ibrahim's interior ministry has vehemently denied charges of abuse and dereliction of duty – even in cases where eyewitness testimony or video evidence patently proves otherwise.

A captain from interior ministry's Central Security Forces (CSF), who spoke to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity, admitted the dubious nature of the ministry's assertions in this regard. "This is a general problem in Egypt," he said. "All government media statements, not just the interior ministry's, lack credibility. Hopefully, this approach will change as officials become more forthcoming."

Some critics have lambasted El-Ganzouri and Ibrahim for the "dishonesty" and "corruption" of an interior ministry that, they say, has remained more or less the same since the Mubarak era. Others heap scorn on Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is ultimately responsible for all Egyptian security apparatuses during the ongoing, post-revolution transitional period, slated to end in late June.

"The military council has a hand in how the ministry operates. This is no secret," told Ahram Online Amir Salem, a prominent human rights lawyer who has represented several families of activists injured or killed by security forces, plaintiffs from the revolution victims' families in cases against policemen. "This intervention has actually created a sort of a double standard for the policemen and further made their policies inconsistent."

With radical changes to the interior ministry – and its affiliates – urgently needed, Ahram Online takes a look at the ministry's recent policies, practices and misconduct, along with possible remedies.

Steadily eroding security

Egypt's domestic security situation has steadily deteriorated since last year's uprising, which saw fierce clashes between police and protesters resulting in hundreds of deaths across the nation. El-Ganzouri's predecessor, Essam Sharaf, failed during his ten-month tenure to halt the spread of unlicensed firearms and a growing public fear of crime. Some areas have even seen ugly examples of mob justice and lynchings.

Under the current government, not only have these problems persisted, but even worse ones have reportedly appeared as well – although reliable statistics remain unavailable.

Recent headlines have been filled with accounts of bank robberiesand premeditated murders. Incidents of kidnapping are also on the rise, with both foreignersand Egyptians being targeted. The most famous recent kidnapping victims were the brotherof Ahly footballer Mohamed Shawky and the children of business tycoon Ismail Othman.

Some observers believe that police have been intentionally keeping a low profile in hopes of regaining their exalted position under Mubarak's long-serving interior minister, Habib El-Adly, by making the public suffer to the point that they regret the revolution of 25 January, which was deliberately launched on National Police Day as a rebellion against rampant police repression.

The recent Port Said disastersubstantiated this notion for many critics. On 1 February, CSF stood idly by while fans of rival football teams attacked one another following a local league game, leaving at least 74 dead and hundreds injured. There is, furthermore, strong suspicion that police agent provocateurs and hired thugs had played a role in inciting and fomenting the violence.

The CSF captain categorically denied the widespread belief that police had deliberately allowed crimes and carnages to happen, saying, "We [policemen] are not from another planet – we live in the same country and we have families and friends like everyone else." "So if we allowed security to be loose and violence to happen like that in Port Said, we and our loved ones would bear the brunt of it as well.

"Since the revolution, crime has increased uncontrollably as offenders have taken advantage of the security vacuum," he added. "The police have been unable to track criminals down because we can't be deployed everywhere all the time.

"Another aspect of the problem is that, since the revolution, police have been reluctant to take firm action against culprits out of fear that they might be vilified as a result, since much of the public now hates the police," the officer said.

As for the Port Said tragedy in particular, he maintains, "There was no conspiracy." "The crowd that stormed the pitch outnumbered CSF personnel, who wouldn't have been able to stop them without some violence, so they did nothing – mostly out of fear that they would be blamed for using excessive force."

According to renowned lawyer Amir Salem, who is also the director of Cairo-based Centre for Legal Studies and Information of Human Rights, all the blame for the current lack of security can't simply be laid at the feet of the police. "Since the revolution, the ministry has become weak and vulnerable," he said. "Ministry officials can't fix the security situation. We can't really say that policemen ease up all the time."

Lethal weapons

During last year's uprising, while police were coming down hard on protesters in an attempt to nip the nascent revolution in the bud, many crimes perpetrated by Mubarak's security apparatus were documented. Some videos – which went viral online – showed unarmed demonstrators being gunned down by police, others could be seen being run over by CSF vehicles.

After El-Adly's incarceration, his immediate successors – Mahmoud Wagdy, Mansour El-Essawy and the still-serving Ibrahim – each in turn vowed to adopt new approaches to maintaining security and keeping the peace. The ministry's police forces, however, never lived up to these promises.

Clashes on Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street last November saw police forces using shotguns loaded with birdshotto disperse protesters, along with other blatant violations of human rights. According to eyewitnesses and subsequent medical reports, they also used live ammunition and liberal doses of teargas.

After being all but absent from subsequent clashes outside Egypt's cabinet offices in December, police reappeared in February's confrontations near the interior ministry's headquarters, which erupted in the wake of the Port Said violence. According to first-hand accounts and video evidence, police again resorted to their usual heavy-handed tactics.

"Using live rounds against peaceful protesters is completely forbidden, even if they started by throwing rocks," Salem said. "The danger must be real – even life threatening – before policemen can resort to using firearms.

"If a protester enters a police station, cursing and threatening people, police can't open fire on him. But if he's carrying a weapon and tries to kill someone, the officer would have just cause to shoot," he explained. "But you can't shoot a thug or saboteur if they are unarmed.

"And this goes for those killed recently near the interior ministry, the premises of which are heavily secured,"Salem went on. "No one has ever, or ever will, break into it. So there's no just cause for why those people were killed in the recent clashes."

On the liberal use of teargas by police, he said: "The law allows the CSF to use teargas in certain situations. But that doesn't mean they're allowed to bombard downtown Cairo like they did."

The anonymous CSF officer, for his part, voiced different views about dealing with protests and clashes.

"It's never acceptable to attack or torch government buildings, as was seen during the revolution and afterwards," he said. "I would have immediately shot anyone who tried to break into a police station had I been stationed there. And, according to the law, I have the right to do so – after issuing verbal warnings, of course.

"Protesters recently tried to storm interior ministry headquarters," he added. "Some of these protesters can be violent, so security forces have to use force – sometimes gunfire – to stop them.

"Those who disapprove of the use of shotguns and teargas by police should come up with alternative means of containing such situations and defending government institutions against arson and sabotage," the officer said. "These are international standards that apply in all countries, even in Europe."

In February, Greek riot police used teargas to disperse violent demonstrators who were protesting the introduction of harsh new economic austerity measures. Much as protesters torched buildings and attacked police with fire bombs, no deaths were reported during these clashes, despite dozens of injuries on both sides.

Likewise, the UK riots in August of last year did not see any hooligans killed by security forces, although they were initially sparked by the murder of an unarmed young man by police. Yet despite subsequent violent riots in many cities – including Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool – riot police did not resort to the use of teargas, rubber bullets or water cannons against protesters and looters.

In Egypt, by contrast, police forces have traditionally shown less reluctance to employ lethal weapons against more peaceful demonstrators. Recent confrontations between security forces and demonstrators, therefore, have frequently resulted in several deaths among the latter.

Commenting on these examples, the CSF officer suggested that unlike their European counterparts, Egyptian protesters acted and behaved as barbarians during demostrations. He also admitted inadequacies of Egyptian riot police.

"In Egypt, protesters by nature act and move as barbarians during demos, that's one reason," he said. "What's more, riot police are usually outnumbered by demonstrators. That's why police troopers sometimes resort to violence in an effort to contain the situation.

"In European countries, the number of police deployed is usually equal to that of protesters or rioters," he added. "And, to be honest, Egyptian riot police lack the proper training to deal with demonstrators," the officer conceded.

Possible solutions

Despite disagreements on certain issues, Salem and the CSF officer agreed on the need for radical changes, with each positing a handful of possible solutions.

"We need a law that will protect both sides and guarantee punishment for anyone who assaults policemen or protesters," the officer said. "We can also fix cameras in the uniforms of policemen that would film his activities and reveal anything untoward. Surveillance systems on the streets and in buildings would also help.

"One of the reasons why police used to resort to torture was the lack of facilities – including surveillance systems – needed to convict culprits," the officer added.

In El-Adly's time, the interior ministry routinely covered up incidents of torture by police and security forces. Such practices are thought to have lessened since Egypt's revolution last year, but fears remain among certain quarters that police might eventually revert to their old ways.

"Torture has been significantly reduced in police stations nowadays. Why would they go back to it again?" the CSF officer asked. "Police should only deal with people in accordance with the law; there's no need to cross the line with anyone.

"The interior ministry also should be provided with more resources, since – under the current circumstances – we can't cover the entire country," he added. "Maybe policemen should be relieved of administrative work. For example, there's no need for the ministry to be responsible for issuing national ID cards."

Attorney Salem echoed these sentiments.

"The interior ministry remains overloaded with numerous responsibilities that ought to be assigned to other authorities," he said. "Why would the interior ministry be responsible for electricity or railways? The ministry's performance cannot be expected to improve until it dispenses with these peripheral responsibilities.

"The philosophy of the police must change, and in order to do this, laws must be amended to precisely define the roles of both the police and the interior ministry," the attorney added. "The hierarchies at security directorates and police stations must be reformed as well.

"We should appoint university-educated civilians at police stations, including lawyers to defend the rights of both citizens and policemen if needed," Salem stressed. "We need a civilian to assume charge of the interior ministry, not someone of a police or military background."

The CSF officer, for his part, said he most probably would have no objection if a civilian was appointed interior minister. "Most policemen wouldn't mind either, as long as he guaranteed their rights and made genuine changes. In that case, it wouldn't matter if he was a civilian or not."

Nor would the officer mind if – as has been recently recommended by several parties – the infamous CSF were dissolved "and replaced by police patrols in the streets." In any case, he stressed, "police must be trained to much higher standards than previously."

The officer does not, however, recommend the dismissal of all upper-level, Mubarak-era interior ministry officials.

"Reshuffling the interior ministry would be unfair to honest figures. If you dismissed leading officials, you would also have to sack their subordinates because they had all served under Mubarak," he said. "You can find corruption at all levels."

Salem suggested the formation of "permanent committees consisting of policemen and local residents – respected persons, such as academics, journalists and doctors." Such committees, he said, could be made responsible for security issues in particular neighbourhoods.

"Not only would this lighten the load on policemen, but it would also reduce tensions between police and the public, since they would be working side by side," he said.