Egyptian Police: Million Man Mafia?
Cairo, Egypt – Unloved and dejected, the Egyptian policeman’s lot is not a happy one. I’m on a research trip to Cairo and it’s hard to see how the country’s police will ever establish the trust and authority it needs for a successful transition to Egyptian democracy.
The force has little political or public support and is in dire need of an overhaul. The January 25, 2011 revolution was sparked by a call to mark national Police Day with protests about police corruption and torture of detainees. The movement soon spread to address other grievances and within three weeks the Mubarak regime was gone.
The police are blamed for attacks on civilians before, during, and after the revolution. A report commissioned by Egyptian President Morsi and published earlier this month held police responsible for the deaths of 900 protestors, including by snipers perched on the roof of the American University in Cairo. There is little sign of any public affection for the force.
The new civilian government has yet to offer meaningful rehabilitation to the police and the force appears to be doing little to help itself. It’s largely absent from the streets of the capital and very few people told me they would bother calling Cairo’s finest if they were victims of petty crime. Some women say they feel more vulnerable to attacks on the street than before the revolution, and even in upmarket areas like Heliopolis, many abide by a self-imposed curfew of 9 or 10pm.
Earlier this month, Egypt was ranked the least safe and secure tourist destinations of 140 countries in a report by the World Economic Forum on the international travel industry, falling below Yemen and Pakistan.
Human Rights Defender Basem Fathy is one of the organizers of the original January 25, 2011 Police Day demonstrations in in Tahrir Square. “In the old days, there were 1.2m security personnel but most of these were riot police or in intelligence. Ordinary crime is now more common, with carjackings and so on, but the police still aren’t there for that because the force hasn’t been restructured from suppressing dissent,” he told me. “Basically the police is still being used politically by the new government for political purposes. This is the same behavior that Mubarak’s police used to be criticized for, prioritizing political security over fighting crime, even though crime is now higher than before.”
There are reports of a rise in local justice or vigilantism. Last Friday’s papers carried reports of the lynching of a suspected car thief in Sharqiya province. Police claim it is the 17th such killing in that province alone since the 2011 revolution.
Even so, in general, the social fabric appears to be generally holding despite the country being barely policed. “It’s sort of safe because we the public have decided that it should be,” said Fathy. “But we can’t last forever without a real police force.”
Cars and even children are said to be stolen for ransom. Those who do report crime to the police are often met with a shrug and told, “Isn’t this what you [protestors] wanted? What did you expect from the revolution?” Another women’s activist told me that when someone she knew reported being attacked to the local police station she was called a few hours later and told, “We’ve got the guy. Do you want us to beat him up or do you want to come and do it yourself?”
The police face increasing social stigma and ridicule, and it’s difficult to see how that will be easily overcome. Industrial action by some offers this month was met with disdain by some of the public, who noted that the police “were on strike and no-one noticed.”
Some suggest there is debate within the police force about the urgent need to reform, with the lower ranks particularly disgruntled with the Ministry of the Interior for failing to address its image problems. There is a clear need for training, for accountability and for a culture of professionalism to take root. It won’t be easy. “It’s a million-man mafia,” said one diplomat.
Many in the current government, when in opposition, suffered long years of abuse at the hands of the police. That adds to the current strain in relationships between political leaders and the force. But if Egypt is to establish democratic institutions and allow the rule of law, there is little more vital than a root and branch overhaul of its civilian security.