x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

January 25 anniversary: Egyptians, their police and a trust deficit

Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent, reports on an ambitious attempt to rebuild a relationship destroyed by 60 years of brutality and oppression.

Riot police on guard outside Egypt's parliament in Cairo on January 23 for the first session since elections.
Riot police on guard outside Egypt's parliament in Cairo on January 23 for the first session since elections.

CAIRO // When Egyptian activists chose January 25 for national protests last year, they were taking direct aim at the security forces.

In 2009, Mubarak had named that date Police Day to honour 50 police killed by British troops when they refused to surrender their weapons in the city of Ismailia in 1952.

Rather than applaud the police, the protesters poured into Tahrir Square last year to chant slogans against a force that had grown all-powerful and oppressive under Mubarak. Torture, corruption and the rounding up of Islamists had become commonplace.

Today, as protesters return to the streets - to celebrate the anniversary of the uprising or to protest the once revered military who have cracked down on dissent while ruling post-Mubarak - the police are likely to be nowhere in sight.

The generals yesterday partially lifted the emergency laws ahead of the anniversary.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in a televised address the draconian emergency laws, in force for more than three decades, would be lifted from today but would remain applicable to crimes committed by "thugs".

The military has often labelled organisers of anti-government demonstrations "thugs".

The United States praised lifting of the emergency laws and hand power to the parliament as major steps toward normalising political life. What the emergency law all but lifted and in line with their low-profile approach, police instead will mobilise to protect key government buildings, but often behind the safety of barbed wire fences and concrete walls erected late last year after more than 40 people died in street battles with security forces.

It is a potent reminder of the lack of reconciliation between the people and the police since a year ago, when the force took to the streets to defend the Mubarak regime and more than 840 people died.

Only a couple of generations ago, it was so different.

"In the 1950s, it used to be that people wanted to have their picture taken in the streets with police officers," said Ihab Youssef, a former interior ministry official who created a non-government organisation called People and Police for Egypt in 2007. "That's how respected they were. Now, they don't talk, they don't trust each other."

The latest project for the NGO is a community policing programme at 25 police stations across Cairo, where initially about 10 to 15 civilian volunteers will as soon as next month don yellow vests and help to improve relations by acting as go-betweens between the officers and the local population.

If the pilot programme works, it will be extended to every police station across the country.

"We started our NGO … because the situation had got to the point where there was a huge gap between the people and the police," said Mr Youssef. "You have to have someone you trust to make complaints to. This is a first step and it's still far away."

Mr Youssef, who held posts in the special forces, as an investigator and as an instructor in the police academy during his 20-year career at the ministry, has seen at first hand the deterioration in the quality of policing in Egypt.

It was tacitly accepted in the ministry that detectives resorted to torture to speed up the closure of cases, he said.

"It wasn't happening everywhere, but the ministry would only investigate incidents of torture if it became a big political problem.

"The problem was a lack of training, low wages, and no reform of the ministry for decades."

Former ministers, prominent businessmen and a newly elected member of parliament are on the board of trustees of the NGO.

By Mr Youssef's estimation, the reputation of the police has sunk even further in the past year after repeated battles with protest groups.

The ministry has done little to reform itself and has stoked the flames of discontent with unpunished acts of brutality and a refusal to own up to its shortcomings under Mr Mubarak, he said.

About 100 people have died in clashes since the military took control of the country on February 11 after the chaos that surrounded Mr Mubarak's fall.

Images have been broadcast of police beating unarmed protesters with truncheons, throwing stones and tear-gas canisters by the hundred at demonstrators.

Activists and the city's coroner said live ammunition was used, but officials denied their officers opened fire.

"We've seen more incidents this year than we've seen in the past five years," said Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

"We've seen everything from beating and torture of protesters to the forced virginity tests of women.

"It has been very targeted and brutal and was made possible by the demonising of protesters in the aftermath of the revolution."

She made clear she was referring to both the military and police, neither of which had significantly changed how they handled demonstrators a year after the uprising.

"I would have thought one of the lessons learnt would be to take more care," she said.


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