- Life Style
A poignant video circulated online among Egyptian activists in the days leading up to 25 January, or Egypt’s Police Day. The clip features black-and-white footage illustrating the heroism of Egyptian police in Ismailiya on 25 January, 1952. At the time, police officers defied British orders to withdraw from the city, throwing themselves into an unequal battle with one of the World’s most sophisticated armies. Later, 25 January was to become known as Police Day.
Suddenly, this visual sequence portraying national glory fades out to introduce a drastically different scene from the present. Real footage of policemen slapping, sodomizing and beating protesters follows. While these images roll across the screen, President Hosni Mubarak’s voice echoes in the background. Excerpts from one of his old speeches, in which he praises the police apparatus, run over the pictures.
In less than five minutes, this succinct vignette manages to depict the drastic shift in people’s perception of the role played by the police apparatus in Egyptian society. In recent decades, the police have been widely perceived as a tool of the ruling regime used to tighten its grip on power. This perception was reasserted this week after police used force against tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets nationwide to voice political and economic demands. At least seven people, including two policemen, have been killed in the clashes.
“Since I was a kid, the police have been a tool used to terrify the people,” says Khaled Abdel Hamed, a 36-year-old political activist participating in the protests. “The police aren’t concerned with protecting citizens. They’re only concerned with protecting the regime.”
One veteran police general, however, contested Abdel Hamed’s claims.
“The police are a national apparatus that works for the sake of the citizenry. There might be some violations, but perpetrators are firmly punished. They are sacked or imprisoned,” said Nabil Louqa Bebawy, a member of Egypt’s Shura Council who served as a policeman for over 20 years.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, the police apparatus has expanded, mainly to fight armed Islamists who swept the country in the 1990s. The police fought a fierce battle against two notorious militant organizations: Al-Jama’a al-Islameyya and Al-Jihad. Both were held responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks that targeted state officials, tourists and civilians.
“In the Mubarak era, a huge part of the budget has been allocated to the security apparatus at the expense of the military, development and other services,” says political commentator Ammar Ali Hassan.
Besides terror threats, the 82-year-old president sought to strengthen the police because he remained haunted by the possibility of being assassinated like his predecessor Anwar Sadat. “Moreover, Egypt was already in a state of peace with Israel, so more resources were directed to the police than the military in order to maintain stability,” said Hassan.
In his book, “The Strong Regime and the Weak State: Managing the Financial Crisis and Political Change under Mubarak,” Egyptian Political Economist Samer Soliman wrote that Egypt’s ratio of security expenditures to GDP had risen through the 1990s. The number of police personnel rose from 150,000 in 1974 to more than a million in 2002. Its percentage of state employment, meanwhile, rose from 9 to 21 percent during the same period, notes Soliman.
According to IMF figures, the Egyptian government spent nearly LE11 billion on safety and public order in 2007. But experts contend that secret “extra-budgetary expenditures” go well beyond this sum. “Official numbers are wrong. Some experts believe that tens of billions are being spent on the security apparatus,” adds Hassan.
In their book, “Globalization and Development in the Middle East,” political analysts Robert Springborg and Henry Clement wrote that the Egyptian Interior Ministry commanded 1.7 million employees, including 850, 000 policemen and interior ministry staff; 450,000 Central Security Force troops; and 400,000 secret police in 2009.
With this expansion, the police have taken on political--as well as law-enforcement--functions.
“The police apparatus has become the driving force behind public policy in Egypt,” says Hassan. “All crucial portfolios--such as political parties, Coptic issues and Salafi groups--are in the hands of police officers.”
In the last six years, the police have been put in charge of putting down protests and detaining activists.
According to Mohamed Mahfouz, a former policeman, the 1990s war against terror served to make the police more intransigent. “It was like a real war, where each side wanted to produce the largest number of victims among its adversary,” says Mahfouz.
“Then, the police acquired a military nature, which requires the soldier to either kill or imprison the enemy. Unfortunately, this approach persisted after the war was over, especially due to the fact that senior police officers who introduced this approach were promoted to leading positions,” says Mahfouz, who was himself sacked from the police apparatus after having written a novel negatively portraying Egypt’s political realities.
“Unfortunately, the relationship between the police and the people is not based on trust,” adds Mahfouz.
This lack of trust grew gradually over the last three decades, according to human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.
“There is a massive [police] image change that took place in my lifetime,” says Bahgat, director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “I remember growing up in the 1980s, when my generation would get police uniforms on their birthday; when children wanted to be policemen when they grew up.”
“Now, an ordinary, law abiding citizen will cross the road to avoid any contact with police. They know that, even if they have not done anything wrong, the police are notoriously abusive and act with complete impunity--and not in the interest of the citizen,” he adds.
Yet Bebawy contends that such claims are baseless. “This is not a general feeling. Some papers just say that in order to sell copies,” he says. He goes on to accuse human rights groups of serving foreign agendas. “Half of the human rights groups are very nationalists, but half of them are led by lawyers who are saying this just to get money from the west,” Bebawy says.
The Egyptian Organization for Human rights recorded 304 torture cases perpetrated by police from 2000 to 2004. In 2009 alone, the group cites 65 cases of arbitrary detention.
Mahmoud Qotri, another former policeman, adopts a more critical approach to the matter. While he acknowledges human rights abuses, he blames violations by his former colleagues on poor training.
“Investigative work does not rely on science,” he said. “It only relies on bringing in the suspect and hanging him until he confesses.”
In recent years, human rights activists have disclosed several incendiary cases of torture and human rights abuses in police stations. In two famous cases, policemen were prosecuted.
However, the punishment of low-ranking policemen has not been enough to satisfy the opposition. With the above-mentioned video, youth-based opposition groups have called on people to rally this week behind popular demands to sack the interior minister, lift the longstanding emergency law and improve living conditions. Police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protesters has only served to heighten the animosity.
“The Egyptian regime does not have any way to disperse protesters except through the use of violence,” says Abdel Hamed.
While activists accuse the police of brutality, interior ministry officials hold that violence is only used against “rioters” who threaten public order. Yet previous incidents have shown that the police can deploy their traditional tools against peaceful demonstrators as well.
In 2005, the opposition lambasted police after plainclothes policemen assaulted female protesters at an anti-government demonstration. The incident was widely covered by international and local media.
“I am a former policeman and I can sense the plight of any policeman that is put in charge of controlling a protest,” says Qotri. “He is caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he might believe that these protesters are right; on the other, he fears being punished by his boss if he does not follow orders.”
These are not the only occasions when policemen must act according to orders that might contradict their moral beliefs, according to Qotri. They can often find themselves in similar positions during national elections.
“Vote rigging is an illegal practice; it is a crime, but the police do not do it on their own initiative--they are simply following orders,” says Qotri, who authored a book, “Counterfeiting of a State,” in which he testified to bad police behavior during elections.
While fulfilling their legal duty to secure polling stations, policemen are often implicated in violations, including voter intimidation, according to human rights groups.