Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Police in Egypt try to recover from reputation for abuse

Brutalised themselves by their superiors, the security forces in Egypt were brutal to the country's people, through enforced bribes, beatings and false charges. Now, since the overthrow of President Mubarak, they are facing up to a new environment.

CAIRO // Like many young recruits, Sayed Abdul Hamid, 26, joined the Egyptian police for what he thought would be prestige and a regular paycheque.

The money still comes, $85 (Dh312,2) a month, but instead of respect Mr Hamid's time on the force has been a study in humiliation: first at the hands of commanders who, he says, brutalise new trainees and now by a population angry over years of police abuse and corruption.

After the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, the population's widespread fear of the police has given way to a general disdain for the forces that beat and teargassed demonstrators during recent protests.

"If they would just let me explain that I would never beat them, that they are my brothers," Mr Hamid says of the people who, instead of offering deference, now holler words like "traitor" at him when he is at his post. "I just stand there, and I don't know what to say."

He used to wear his uniform proudly on his three-hour commute to work. Now he stuffs it in his backpack.

More than 330 people were killed during the 18-day uprising in Egypt that brought down Mr Mubarak's regime. The country's riot police and internal security force has borne the brunt of the blame for what were otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

In the past Egyptians rarely challenged police authority, dutifully paying bribes, and helpless against any beatings or false charges levelled by an organisation considered largely unaccountable and loyal to the regime. Rogue police would occasionally be brought to trial for the most horrific cases. But diplomatic cables and human rights reports paint a consistent picture of an institution undertrained in modern police work and almost systemically abusive to the people they were meant to protect.

Of all the institutions Egypt may need to overhaul if it hopes for a true democratic transition, the police and security forces are among the most important. Mr Hamid and many of his colleagues are already trying to re-brand themselves as victims in their own right. They were caught, they said, between the regime and the people, forced to obey sometimes aggressive orders or face punishment.

Mr Hamid, who works a second job at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet, said he wasn't involved in quelling the riots, but knows that the orders to crack down came from high in the organisation.

"These were orders and instructions from above," he said. "Citizens have told me, 'We don't want you here.' I swear I would have protested with the people, but my commanders would have punished me."

The standard, he said, was set during training when commanders kicked or punched new recruits if they saluted too slowly or fell out of step on drills.

"This is how we learned," he said. "When the police are treated unjustly, they treat the people unjustly."

In the same neighbourhood as Mr Hamid, a group of state security police gathered outside a building they guard. Their branch of Egypt's internal security apparatus is particularly feared, its ranks filled with young conscripts paid as little as $30 a month but nonetheless intimidating when massed with their riot shields, black helmets and uniforms, and nightsticks.

A young man who would offer only his first name, Samuel, was back at work for the first day since police attacked protesters in Cairo on January 28. That morning his father tried to lock him in his room, afraid that he would be killed on the job. Five of his friends were injured during demonstrations and he worried that people would take revenge on him for the actions of other police officers.

"Before, people respected us but they didn't like us. Now they don't respect us," he said, laughing nervously. His baby face was framed by a policeman's beret. His colleagues nodded.

"They had the right to feel like this toward us," he said. "But I never did anything to anyone."

The economic grievances shared by most Egyptians also weigh on the low-ranking officers of the police force. They too can barely afford meat, and often shake down citizens to supplement their incomes.

As Mohammed and Samuel chatted with their peers a man walked by and stopped.

"You shot rubber bullets at me and beat me with your batons. You hit me with tear gas, but we took it," said Kareem Omar, 25.

"The tear gas is good for you," said Ahmed, one of the police commanders, and laughed. "We were not out there to hurt you."

"We are blamed now for the bad system, the bad regime," Mohammed said after the man walked off. "Things are getting better now. It just needs time to heal."

* The Washington Post

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National