Reform of Egypt's police hits a wall: The Police
September 18, 2011
CAIRO—A gang that broke out of prison during the revolution was killing people and robbing merchants in the town of Abu Teeg. So the chief of detectives gave his officers their orders: Do nothing.
"The revolution let them out, so let the people have a taste of their revolution," he said, according to two of the seven officers at the meeting, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals.
For the next four months, residents in the southern Egyptian town say, they appealed repeatedly for help, but were rebuffed by a police force still bitter about its humiliation in the uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak's rule. The gang went on to kill at least seven people, officials and residents believe.
The Egyptian police force has long been hated for its corruption and use of torture, and many Egyptians saw the downfall of the police state as a critical goal of their 18-day uprising.
But current and former officers say some members of the force are thwarting any attempt at change, and in many cases are avenging their fall from power by refusing to do their jobs.
These alleged sanctions are blamed for a surge in crime. According to Interior Ministry figures, there were 36 armed robberies nationwide in January but the figure rose sharply to 420 in July; murders went from 44 to 166, kidnappings from three to 42.
Midlevel officers have "an attitude that borders on mutiny," says Lt. Col. Mohammed Mahfouz, who left the force in late 2009 and now advocates reform.
Their attitude, he told The Associated Press, is that "Egyptians must be taught a lesson before the police come back to the streets. They want people to suffer without effective policing so they realize the prestige of the state is a red line that must not be crossed again."
As far back as the 1952 coup that put the military in power, the police force, now one million-strong, has been a sworn enemy of reform and its advocates.
From street cops to agents of the daunting State Security Agency, policemen were untouchable and intimidation kept order on the streets. Talking back to a policeman could earn a slap on the head or worse. In 2006, in an incident that was filmed and posted on YouTube, a Cairo minibus driver who annoyed an officer was dragged to a station and sodomized with a wooden pole.
Torture was a basic investigative tool. If a car was stolen, police would often round up suspects and beat them until someone confessed. Bribery was common. Rarely was a policeman investigated, much less prosecuted.
And then there was the State Security Agency, an arm of the police that operated at the political level but was seen by the public as just another instrument of police oppression.
The agency was involved in election-rigging to keep the ruling party's in power. It weighed in on the running of universities, trade unions, the media, and even had the final word on appointments of Cabinet ministers, governors and ambassadors.
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It also suppressed and spied on the opposition. After Kareem el-Behery, a 27-year-old blogger, helped organize a protest against corruption in April 2008, he was arrested, taken to a basement in a State Security compound and tortured through the night, he said.
It was the casualness of the scene that stunned him, he said. He recalled how his tormenter listened to recordings of recitations from the Quran, Islam's holy book, even as he inflicted electric shocks, then took a prayer break.
"How can you do this to me while listening to the Quran, and then just go and pray?" el-Behery says he asked the officer.
"I'll go and give God what I owe him, then I'll come back and give you what you deserve," the officer replied. "You think I'm an infidel like you?"
The anti-Mubarak uprising shattered the fear barrier.
On Jan. 28, the deadliest day, tens of thousands of protesters withstood water cannons, tear gas and gunfire until overwhelmed police broke and ran.
The next dramatic move came in March, when protesters stormed the main Cairo headquarters and several branch offices of the State Security Agency, aiming to stop the shredding and burning of secret documents.
"It was sweet revenge for all those who have been tortured there over the years," said el-Behery, who was among the protesters.
Since then, momentum has faltered.
Interior Minister Mansour el-Issawi, who heads the police, dissolved the State Security Agency and replaced it with a new body called the National Security Authority, which he vowed would not be involved in politics. However, it has kept on nearly half the staff of the outgoing agency.
Protesters have handed back most of the documents they seized lest they embarrass the victims of State Security's spying. There has been no public airing of the agency's abuses since.
Prosecutors have put 140 police officers on trial for killing protesters during the uprising, and in July, el-Issawi sacked 700 senior officers from the various police branches, including the State Security Agency and the notorious Criminal Investigation Department, but most of them were near retirement anyway.
Many State Security officers whom activists and victims have identified as being involved in torture have simply been transferred to other posts. El-Issawi says their experience is still needed.
He acknowledges that some police were reluctant to shoulder their duties, but denies it's a conspiracy.
He also says police are wary of acting to restore order, because some of those being prosecuted for using lethal force did so to fend off dangerous mobs.
"People who were shot dead while trying to storm police stations are counted as 'martyrs' just like the protesters killed in cold blood," el-Issawi complained in a TV interview.
One group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has put forward a detailed proposal for reform, starting with a widespread investigation of officers suspected of abuses.
It calls for monitoring police stations for abuses and appointing a civilian as interior minister instead of a career police officer. It says police should get better salaries and crime-fighting technology to blunt the efficacy of bribes and beatings.
So far, the group says, the ministry has shown no interest.
"Many in the police force are filled with a desire for revenge," said the group's head, Hossam Bahgat. "They are convinced that for them to be an effective police force again, fear of the police must be reinstalled in society."
Mahfouz, the former officer, keeps in touch with his colleagues on the force and says most police know no way other than intimidation. "They can only work in a climate that does not respect human rights."
Lt. Col. Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, a serving officer who also heads a reformist group, says that even though Mubarak is ousted and on trial, senior officers have been helping pro-Mubarak businessmen hire thugs who attack pro-democracy demonstrators. The charge, in many variations, has been widely reported by the media and sometimes repeated by officials, but no investigation is known to have taken place.
In Abu Teeg, a farming and trading town of 300,000 people some 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, the five escaped criminals went on a rampage for months. They smuggled drugs and weapons, carried out robberies and settled old blood feuds.
Brig. Mitwali Abdou, who headed Assiut Province's Criminal Investigations Division at the time, denies the charge that he told the seven district chiefs of his division at the Feb. 15 meeting in his office not to pursue the criminals.
Speaking to the AP, Abdou praised the anti-Mubarak uprising, saying "the revolution is a glorious thing."
One of the two officers who described the meeting, a major, said he opposed the order but did not speak up, since that would have meant "swimming against the current."
"It is a decision that saddened me, a decision whose consequences we'll have to live with for years to come," the major told AP.
Desperate residents went to police in Abu Teeg and the nearby provincial capital Assiut, but each time were told to just protect themselves, said a local resident, Younis Darweesh.
Eventually, it was the army that took action, capturing two of the five criminals.
Abdou has been moved to the post of general inspector in October 6 Province, near Cairo. Three of the seven district chiefs at the Feb. 15 meeting have been transferred to the central police headquarters in Assiut following repeated complaints from residents that they were using criminals and thugs to protect police stations.
Abdel-Rahman, the officer and reformist, said the police force's "job has been to protect the (Mubarak) regime, not the people. ... Only a genuine purge of the force will bring reconciliation between the people and the police."