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Police 'thwarting attempts at change' say Egyptian activists

Many Egyptians saw the downfall of the police state as a critical goal of their 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 properly.

Egyptian police officers help an injured colleague outside the Police Military Academy complex in Cairo during the trial of Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak. In the wake of the anti-Mubarak revolt, many in Egypt's police force are trying to keep the pervasive power they held under his nearly 30-year regime. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo
Egyptian police officers help an injured colleague outside the Police Military Academy complex in Cairo during the trial of Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak. In the wake of the anti-Mubarak revolt, many in Egypt's police force are trying to keep the pervasive power they held under his nearly 30-year regime. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo

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.

Mid-level officers have "an attitude that borders on mutiny", says Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mahfouz, who left the force in late 2009 and now advocates reform.

Their attitude, he said, 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 realise 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 sodomised 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 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.

It also suppressed and spied on the opposition.

The anti-Mubarak uprising shattered the fear barrier.

On January 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.

The 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 promised would not be involved in politics. However, it has kept on nearly half the staff of the outgoing agency.

Prosecutors have put 140 police officers on trial for killing protesters during the uprising, and in July, Mr 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. Mr El Issawi says their experience is still needed.

He acknowledges that some police were reluctant to shoulder their duties, but denies it is a conspiracy.