Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Voicing public concern

Parliament is working to respond to rising public discontent, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of last week’s murder of a citizen by a policeman in the Cairo district of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar parliament is conducting a review of the performance of the Interior Ministry.

At Sunday’s parliamentary sitting, MPs warned that while individual abuses by low-ranking policemen should not be exploited to tarnish the image of the security apparatus as a whole, reform of the Interior Ministry and a radical overhaul of its attitude towards human rights are long overdue.

MP Mustafa Al-Guindi pointed out that while the last year and half has seen an increasing number of police assaults against ordinary citizens, the Interior Ministry has failed to take any disciplinary action against the offenders.

“Two weeks ago a number of low-ranking police officers stormed a hospital at Al-Matariya and the Interior Ministry simply turned a blind eye,” said Al-Guindi.

“Egyptians revolted against the Interior Ministry twice yet it has returned with more power than ever and is committing abuses at an unprecedented rate.”

 Al-Guindi urged President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to take whatever steps are necessary to “uphold the dignity of citizens”.

Nasr City MP Samir Ghattas claimed that policemen who were dismissed from the Interior Ministry after the 25 January Revolution but later allowed to re-join police ranks have become “a state within a state”.

Ghattas said that low-ranking police officers — or police assistants — are threatening the foundations of the Egyptian state. “They are out of control. They have a free hand to perpetrate all kinds of abuses. They extort money from citizens and trade in all manner of contraband goods without facing any kind of accountability,” he said.

Neighbours and friends of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar driver who was shot in the head by a policeman organised a large demonstration outside the nearby Cairo Security Directorate to protest police abuses. The protest received widespread media coverage.

President Al-Sisi has ordered legislative amendments to make it easier for errant security personnel to be disciplined. Prime Minister Ismail met with senior officials from the Interior Ministry on Monday to stress that a new social contract between the public and police, based on mutual respect, is needed.

At a press conference on Monday, Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar promised to introduce legislative amendments within two weeks that will help stem police abuses and ensure that the security apparatus shows greater respect for human rights. Abdel-Ghaffar, added, however, “The return of military trials for policemen is not among the changes being considered.”

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati underlined the point when he said, “Military trials will continue to apply only to soldiers and central security forces.”

He added, “The law could be changed to allow for disciplinary councils to be created that could then impose penalties on unruly policemen.”

Abdel-Ghaffar said that 99 per cent of low-ranking police officers are “good people”. He nonetheless announced that, “as a preventive measure”, they will only be allowed to carry firearms when on duty. The measure triggered an angry response, with policemen insisting that they need guns at all times to protect themselves from possible terrorist attacks.

In a TV interview this week, security expert Khaled Okasha said that while “it was important following the removal of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in June 2013, and the subsequent surge in terrorist attacks, that police assistants carried handguns at all times”, improvements in the security situation meant this was no longer the case.

“The majority of senior police officers are highly disciplined,” said Okasha. “The problem lies with these low-ranking assistants who are not offered adequate training on security and human rights issues. Recently, they have formed what Egyptians call ‘the independent republic of police assistants’ and if we continue to ignore their abuses we will be acting like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand.”

Said Okasha, “Radical organisations like Human Rights Watch always exploit police abuses to paint a bleak picture of Egypt. I agree with MPs that the time has come to overhaul security policies for the good of the country.”

In addition to demanding an overhaul of the Interior Ministry, MPs are busy attempting to ensure that poorer citizens do not bear the brunt of economic policies that could involve the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and a reduction in subsidies on essential goods and services, including water and electricity.

Speculation is rife that a cabinet reshuffle is in the cards. Some press reports say the crisis caused by the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar shooting could force the removal of Interior Minister Abdel-Ghaffar and other senior members of cabinet, and that Al-Sisi is likely to order the reshuffle before he leaves to visit Japan and South Korea next week.

Meanwhile, Ismail was scheduled to deliver his government’s first policy statement before parliament on Sunday, but MPs have told reporters it will be difficult for the prime minister to give his speech before parliament’s 28 committees have been appointed.

Alaa Abdel-Moneim, spokesman of the Support Egypt bloc, said MPs want Ismail to come to parliament on 1 April. Alaa Abed, spokesman of the Free Egyptians Party, insists that 1 March would be better.

“A return to IMF-sanctioned policies like devaluing the pound and cutting subsidies at a time of security tension is like pouring oil on fire,” Anwar Al-Sadat told Al-Ahram Weekly. “We told the government that parliament cannot support policies that might spark wide-scale street protests.”

Ismail denies that his government is planning to introduce harsh economic measures. “We do not intend to harm the interests of those on limited incomes. All we want to do is stem the tide of imports that represent a drain on currency reserves and hurt domestic industry,” he said.

The House of Representatives also attempted to mend fences with the Press Syndicate and apologised for an incident in which reporters covering parliament were attacked by MPs.

Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal’s offered his apologies a day after two MPs — businessman Mahmoud Khamis and high-profile TV anchor Tawfik Okasha — assaulted two reporters covering parliament’s Monday session. The Press Syndicate said it would accept Abdel-Aal’s apology as long as the reporters did.

Khaled Al-Balshi, chairman of the Press Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, announced that a conference will be held on Thursday in support of freedom of speech and in solidarity with journalist and novelist Ahmed Naji. He was sentenced to two years in prison after a court convicted him of publishing a sexually explicit article in the state-owned weekly cultural newspaper Akhbar Al-Adab.

“There has been a ferocious campaign against press and other freedoms in recent weeks,” Al-Balshi told the Weekly. “Journalists, novelists, cinema producers and other media people are being detained and referred to prison. We have to stand up to this.”

Yehia Qallash, chairman of the Press Syndicate, told the Weekly, “We are waiting to see how parliament will approach new press legislation.”

He continued, “It is good that the speaker apologised for attacks on reporters and it is good that Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend has said the syndicate’s own draft press laws will be debated by parliament. Now we need these good words to be backed by actions.”

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