Egypt Turns to Youth to Augment Security Forces

Egypt’s police force is to be bolstered by a new round of young recruits as per a decree issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In amending the Police Authority Act, he has also granted this new rank the power of arrest. 

The recruits, aged between 19 and 23, will be trained “according to the latest cutting-edge policing programs,” a presidential statement said. It stressed that the role of the ‘Police Aides’ will be to “ensure the strengthening of the security capabilities in the face of the threat of crime in all its forms and patterns.”

Karim Ennarah, a researcher on policing and criminal justice with Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told EgyptSource the same amendment was proposed earlier this year as a “community police force.” The name change “is the only difference” from the previously publicized amendment, he said. The public rejected the idea, which Ennarah attributes to a lack of familiarity with the concept of community policing and an excuse for pro-government “vigilantism.” Vigilantism, a real concern for Egypt, has reared its ugly head on several occasions since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Mohamed Nabil, a political officer in the April 6 Youth Movement, is concerned over the decree’s potential consequences, believing it will legitimize “thugs” that are already on police payroll, adding that this was commonplace during the January 25 revolution. The word baltagyea (‘thugs’ in Arabic) became a commonplace expression heard in post-Mubarak Egypt, often referring to institutionalized thugs for hire, working with state security forces.

“Community policing without tight accountability mechanisms, and a robust legal framework governing, it can lead to increased securitization and vigilantism,” said Ennarah. He added: “The atmosphere is already securitized and militarized.”

According to Ennarah, Egypt’s police force consists of 30-40,000 officers who hail from the police academy, a course lasting four years. The rest of the force consists of the “sub-officers,” which includes non-commissioned officers, who spend only two years at the police academy, and conscripts, bringing the total size of the police force up to 600,000. The figures are only estimates due to the lack of transparency in the ministry of interior, he said.

Ennarah believes the decree is an “easy and quick way to get more boots on the ground.” He added that the minimum requirement of education and the age bracket for the ‘Police Aides’ are set as such as the state views these troops as “easier to control.”

Admission into Egypt’s Police Academy is not always straightforward. A 2012 report on security sector reform from the United States Institute of Peace said there is an “impression that the police academy is not open to Egyptians from all walks of life”. The report added that people with “critical political views of the government and the sons of low-income families that lack connections to power and privilege” are discriminated against in the application process.  The ministry of interior has denied there is favoritism or discrimination in the process.

Those wanting to become a ‘Police Aide’ can register at five locations from December 27, 2014 until January 17, 2015. If they meet the announced specifications (170cm tall, an 85cm chest, no felonies, unmarried, and physically fit and healthy), they will begin an 18-month long training course.

Nabil believes this is not sufficient time to properly train the young men. He is concerned that new recruits will not have the education to “understand and implement the law correctly and will have the right to put us in jail.”

Ennarah said the acceptance of young men into the police force is not unusual, pointing out that many conscripts are aged between 19 and 21, the difference being that conscripts do not have the power of arrest. This raises further concern for Nabil who said the recruits “will taste the power of authority,” adding: “He should be learning what is right and wrong first.”

The rank of ‘Police Aide’ itself is somewhat of a revival of the ‘Police Representative’ rank that was disbanded about five years ago, said Ennarah. The recycling of the rank has led to the annoyance of some officers within the force who believe there should be investment in the existing structure, according to the researcher.

Public opinion of the police in Egypt has fluctuated over the last few years. Tahrir Square hosted thousands on January 25, 2011 on Egypt’s national police day to protest against systematic repression handed out by police. By July 3, 2014 people were hoisting uniform clad policemen into the air in celebration following the removal of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in the very same square. The Ministry of Interior and the media framed the resulting violence as a fight against “Brotherhood terrorists”, a phrase commonly used in ministry statements.

The decree from the Egyptian president, who can issue and amend laws in the absence of an elected parliament, comes amid a tense security climate. The armed forces and police are the targets of militant attacks led by Islamic State affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in North Sinai, and Ajnad Misr in the Greater Cairo area and the delta region.

On the other side of the coin, the ministry of interior has been clamping down on opponents of the government, with security forces equating a war on terror to a quest for stability. Fridays often see a handful of protester deaths as a result of clashes between demonstrators and police forces. In 2014 at least 10,000 people were arrested for “rioting” and “belonging to terrorist organizations” according to the ministry.

Sisi has focused on security during his first six-months in the presidential palace on the logic that a secure and stable Egypt can attract investment and boost the ailing economy. A series of decrees and proposed laws have sought to expand the scope of terrorism related charges and crimes that can land civilians in a military court, a practice that activists have been working to eradicate for years. Sisi also ordered the creation of militarized ‘forbidden’ zones along Egypt’s borders where even the police must have a permit following on from the ‘secure zone’ formed on the Egypt-Gaza border.

The new police troops won’t be on the streets until 2016 but the uncertainty surrounding the competency of a new rank will remain a concern.  There has been no indication of the specific role the new recruits will play when they are deployed. Ennarah said it is “problematic to increase the numbers of men on the ground without the technical ability.”

Sisi has often referred to the importance of Egypt’s youth to the future of Egypt. Following his election in June he stated: “people, police, army and youth in Egypt are one hand” and in September said he intended to include the youth in government and national projects. However, while Sisi’s security forces have put an end to mass street protests the students in Egypt’s universities have continued protesting despite a crackdown on campuses, which could continue to cause the government a headache in the future. This latest move however does not look to placate the students but instead empower the uneducated youth within Egypt’s security apparatus.

Joel Gulhane is a Cairo-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @jgulhane

Image: Photo: Violet Paradise/Flickr