The Reinstatement of Egypt’s Police Force

As Egyptians took to the streets in widespread protest against ousted president Mohamed Morsi’s regime, a peculiar sight graced the demonstrations. Rather than facing off with Egypt’s police force, Egyptians marched side by side with uniformed officers. Policemen passed out bottles of water, as their colleagues were carried on the shoulders of anti-Morsi protesters. While the Ministry of Interior has engaged in a post-July 3 nationwide crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, it would appear that a large sub-sect of society is cheering on its police force, as the Ministry of Interior once again asserts itself as the state’s keeper. 

Reinstated Societal Gate Keepers

Egypt’s police force seems to have regained its position as a societal watchdog. The security force’s backing of Morsi’s popularly supported ouster during the June 30 protests and subsequent return to policing the streets in their struggle against their age old enemy, the Brotherhood, has bestowed upon them a second chance in the eyes of many Egyptians.

“Today the police are being reinstated in the eyes of Egyptians as they are fighting a war on terrorism. A new alliance has emerged between the people, army and police,” Dr. Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo says, explaining the shift in public sentiment towards the police. According to Sadek, the people have given the police a ‘green light.’ Millions of Egyptians taking to the streets on July 26, following minister of defense Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s call to grant the security forces a mandate to fight terrorism, has also been seen as an expression of a revived trust in the police. 

Continuous attacks against security personnel and Morsi’s opponents have facilitated the reinstatement of the police’s position as Egypt’s security caretaker and have further isolated the Brotherhood. Concerns over security sector reform have been overtaken, although maybe provisionally, in favor of supporting the police force’s strategy for dealing with Morsi’s supporters. Activists who are both anti-military and anti-Brotherhood have been caught underfoot, and receive little sympathy from the majority of Egyptians who crave a return to stability.

Since Morsi’s ouster, attacks on security forces by Islamists have been on the rise, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. While exact numbers are unavailable, over a hundred police and army personnel have been killed in continuous attacks throughout the country. 

Public sentiment in support of the police was fuelled by an attack on a police station in Kerdasa. In the wake of the August 14 dispersal of the pro-Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in, 11 security officers were killed and the Kerdasa police station torched. Violence directed at communities perceived to be anti-Brotherhood, particularly the Coptic community, have also strengthened the Ministry of Interior’s campaign against the group, dubbed “Egypt’s War on Terror.” A feeling of insecurity led to many welcoming the state of emergency and curfew declared by the interim government, which have now since ended.

Rather than criticize the police for its use of excessive violence, some Egyptians have criticized them for not doing enough. “The police must do everything in their power to protect us. They need to follow a policy of zero tolerance,” Egyptian housewife Sherine Mohamed says, pointing to the increasing number of civilian casualties and the destruction of national property. Despite what appears to be a return to the pre-January 25 police practices, Mohamed’s opinion is one that is touted in both state and private media, and she is one of many Egyptians who believe the Interior Ministry is practicing as much restraint as possible, in an attempt to avoid further international and domestic reproach.

The Rationale Behind the Police Joining the June 30Protests

Police distrust of Islamists is not a novel phenomenon. Ihab Youssef, a former police officer, secretary-general of the NGO, People and Police for Egypt, and president of the Risk Free Egypt consultancy, says that the Brotherhood’s newfound power was a tough pill to swallow for an institution indoctrinated to hate the Brotherhood. As a result, it was not a stretch for the police to take to the streets alongside other Egyptians on June 30.

Hesham Saleh, spokesman for the Egyptian Police Officers cites the lack of justice and accountability for police killed and kidnapped since the revolution as another reason for contempt for the Morsi regime. The poor economic status of lower ranking officers, which saw little improvement under Morsi, also allowed them to relate to protesters’ economic demands. Central Security Force (CSF) soldiers, the most underprivileged members of the security forces, are underpaid, earning around EGP 300 ($43) per month. The CSF is made up of an estimated 350,000 conscripts, coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds. CSF conscripts are essentially army conscripts, enlisted without a choice, and who are relegated to the Interior Ministry for a lack of educational qualifications. Security expert and former high-ranking police officer Mohamed Kutry says that while ministerial reform is fundamental, the inhumane treatment of Egypt’s police should not be overlooked.

“The police are treated inhumanely, they are very poor, with inadequate equipment and transportation. They are fighting for us, yet are suffering dearly themselves,” he says. Conditions, experts suggest, have not improved since 1986 when around 17,000 CSF officers, protested in Cairo in response to the rumours that their three year service would be prolonged by one additional year. The riots lasted three days until the military restored order. Official reports suggest the death toll among conscripts was around 107.

Political sociologists suggest on-going poverty, injustice and fierce indoctrination endorsing violent practices inside the Interior Ministry rationalizes the corruption of the security forces. Among low-ranking personnel, monthly wages are nominal, making bribery a common practice within the ministry. Evident brutality and involvement in illicit trades—such as drug trafficking—are also direct products of ministerial injustice according to Kutry. 

According to security experts, police participation in the June 30 demonstrations and the dispersal of the sit-ins was also an attempt to regain police pride and public trust.“The police wanted to rid themselves of their sins of the past,” explains Amir Salem, a prominent human rights lawyer and author of The State of Police in Egypt, referring to their sense of remorse concerning their involvement in torture and corrupt practices, as another feasible reason for decision to stand uniformly with Egyptians.

Juxtaposition: Empowered and Resented

Ironic as it may seem, the police believe the dispersals of the pro-Morsi sit-ins were an integral part of this absolution, and they dismiss the idea that revenge is the real driving force behind the ministry’s actions. Police brutality was a key trigger for the January 2011 uprising. Preceded by evidence of commonplace practices of torture in Egypt’s police stations, and followed by a subsequent security vacuum, a growing resentment contributed to a loss of respect for the Ministry of Interior’s forces.

Since Morsi’s ouster, hundreds of protesters have been killed, and thousands tortured and arrested, for the sake of national security according the Interior Ministry. Incidents like the death of thirty-seven detained Morsi protesters, who suffocated in a police van after tear gas was fired in an apparent attempt to thwart a jail escape, have led to criticism of the current Morsi-appointed interior minister, and increased calls for his removal. With all indications that the police are returning to their Mubarak-era practices, activists and international human rights organizations decry a violent attempt to demand that respect. 

Most recently, the protest law passed by the interim government has given police a free hand in clamping down on street protests, and has seen the net widen to include not just pro-Morsi protesters. The No to Military Trials group, the April 6 Movement, and the Revolutionary Socialists are among those who have been on the receiving end of the protest law, and leading activists including April 6’s Ahmed Maher, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Douma have been arrested.

However, gauging the general public’s reaction to the August 14 dispersals is indicative of why the police believe their own perceptions. On June 30, Egyptians chanted, “The people and the police are one hand,” and two weeks later, in the wake of the protest dispersals, only nine Egyptian human rights organizations condemned the incidents, while dozens other praised the police force for its decisive action. This response has only further empowered the police force to continue with its widespread crackdown, which has now extended beyond the Muslim Brotherhood.

Future Security Inclinations

It is too early according to analysts to predict exactly how long this confrontation between the state security and the Brotherhood will continue. Police dissatisfaction however, is not to be dismissed in this equation. While police protests were a common occurrence under Morsi, on December 8, police staged their first post-Morsi protest demanding better pay, in defiance of the very law they have been upholding.

Egypt’s security experts are, however, optimistic. “As an ex-security official myself and renowned advocate of ministerial reform, this is the first time I will thank the police for what they are doing. Egypt will be safe soon,” Kutry says. 

Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of legitimacy under Mubarak.

Image: Photo: Jonathan Rashad