- Life Style
On 28 May, Al-Jazeera aired “Hadret al-Zabet” (Mr Police Officer) – the first documentary film to tell the story of the 25 January revolution through the eyes of low-ranking police officers. After her 2007 documentary “Waraa al-Shams” (Behind the Sun) , which highlighted torture cases in Egyptian police stations, Al-Jazeera producer Howaida Taha returns with “Hadret al-Zabet”.
The role they played in the revolution was wrongly portrayed by the media, the policemen in the film argue, touching upon a number of controversial issues. They point to the indiscriminate trials of police officers, “some of whom were falsely accused of killing peaceful demonstrators,” as well as underground attempts at internal reform at the Interior Ministry, both under former minister Habib al-Adly as well as by the newly formed coalitions.
The Egyptian police force has long been seen as a tool wielded by the ruling regimes to quell opposition and rebellion. It is portrayed as a corrupt entity that only serves the ruling regime, abuses its power and violates civil rights.
Films often reflected people’s perception of the police. In the seventies, “Al-Karnak” and “Ehna Betoo al-Autobees” (We Are the Bus People) portrayed the practices of police forces during the Nasser period, when they were responsible for rounding up and torturing opposition groups in detention camps.
The 1987 “Zawget Ragol Mohem” (An Important Man’s Wife), meanwhile, tells the story of a State Security officer during the 1977 bread riots. More recent productions, such as “Wahd Men El Nas” (One of the People) and "Tito", reflect the proliferation of corruption amongst police officers under the Mubarak regime, focusing mostly on daily acts of injustice.
“Hadret al-Zabet”, however, tells the story differently, highlighting how the Mubarak regime deployed police forces to deal with various issues, from political dissidence to sectarian strife.
The film starts with a scene showing Taha being welcomed by police officers to film at an Alexandrian Central Security Forces (CSF) camp – a taboo under the former Mubarak regime. Previously, even when journalists managed to obtain the required permits, they were often abused by police forces. This has changed, Taha argues, saying, “It really is a revolution.”
On 28 January – otherwise known as the “Day of Anger” – police forces withdrew from the capital after a tough battle with demonstrators, resulting in a “security void”. Many police stations were subsequently attacked and commercial centers robbed. It is commonly believed that this was orchestrated by the Mubarak regime to scare the public, pressuring protesters to back off. The resulting state of lawlessness, as well as the fall of many protesters during confrontations with security forces, have further exacerbated the already tense relationship the public had with the police.
In “Hadret al-Zabet”, viewers are taken to officer Mohamed Zaafan’s home in Alexandria. Zaafan, who worked at al-Montaza police station, is currently being charged with killing peaceful demonstrators on 28 January. According to his story, Zaafan was protecting al-Montaza police station from “thugs”, and he blames the media for failing to objectively cover the attacks. Zaafan’s testimonial is followed by footage showing people throwing Molotov cocktails at the station, as well as interviews with eyewitnesses who confirm the violent attacks. They say, “The thugs attacking the police stations in Alexandria were clearly not the peaceful revolutionary youth.”
One man recounts that he knew the people who robbed al-Montaza police station and that they only returned the stolen items when he threatened to report them. Whether they were thugs or normal people, however, was not clarified in the film.
Police officers received strict orders to protect the police stations without engaging in direct confrontations with the attackers, as an audio recording of police radio transmissions on that day shows. The recording also quotes a senior officer telling his team to say the Shahadah (God is One and Mohamed is his Prophet), which Muslims often say before they die. In this case, the policemen were seen as martyrs.
On the “Day of Anger”, policemen in uniform were also attacked on the street. Documentary pictures show how violently they were beaten. The police martyrs were mostly ignored in media coverage. Taha shows, for instance, how officer Mohamed Kamel Nassar was attacked on the night of 28 January while on duty. He was on his way to protect a bank and was later found dead.
While mostly focusing on the police’s side of the story, Taha seeks to balance her film by interviewing human rights activist, Khalaf Bayoumy. Bayoumy blames the police for long supporting those thugs and providing them with weapons. “Those are the same thugs that security forces deployed during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, respectively.”
Former police officer Mohamed Mahfouz also features strongly in the film. Mahfouz was dismissed in 2009 from the police apparatus after publishing his online political novel al-Ezbah (The Estate).
Mahfouz explains that he didn’t like to enter police stations because of the violations he witnessed in them. “Some officers recruited thugs to control slums and with the full knowledge of the Interior Ministry,” he says. Mahfouz believes that it was thugs oppressed by police-hired thugs who attacked the police stations.
Taha goes on to show that after attacking the police stations, “thugs” began robbing shops. Neighbourhood watch groups were immediately formed to protect shops and residential buildings. A few weeks after Mubarak stepped down, police forces were redeployed, as the return of security was important for the transitional governmental. Some people, however, still can’t come to terms with the fact that people have died and refuse reconciliation attempts between citizens and policemen until the officers responsible are tried for the killings.
Granted permission to film at a CSF camp for the first time, Taha explored the role of the force most often tasked with controlling riots, strikes and demonstrations. CSF officers recount that they were only following the orders they received from the State Security Investigation Service (SSIS), yet they took all the blame.
One senior officer says that on 25 January, the CSF was “happy” with the young revolutionaries and that they were only armed with tear gas. However, protesters started attacking the vehicles of the CSF because “we represented the regime.” He goes on to argue that the revolutionaries on 25 January were different from the protesters on the “Day of Anger” who had been infiltrated by “thugs”.
This segment of “Hadret al-Zabet” did not tackle the way in which CSF officers treated demonstrators while breaking up protests, something that was extensively covered by the media.
The final segment of the film looks into the future of the police force in post-Mubarak Egypt, as imagined by both internal reformers and the general public. Several underground coalitions who tried to combat corruption and injustice in the Interior Ministry before the revolution have now come out in the open. The “Officers, Yet Honest” group, for example, is proposing the appointment of a civilian interior minister, as well as the prosecution of all members of the Supreme Council of the Police Authority and the dissolution of the CSF, arguing that its conscripts should join the military.
Asked what relationship they aspired to have with their police force, people on the streets answer, “I hope that they don’t harass me on my way home,” and, “I hope that they will protect us…”
It’s important that people overcome their prejudices and that the media objectively cover both sides of the story, leaving people the room to make up their own minds.
“Hadret al-Zabet” might seem audacious, yet it tries to reveal the rarely represented perspective of the police on the revolution, while fostering reconciliation between the people and the police, highlighting the intricacies of the situation.