Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Post-revolution policing

Jailan Halawi on a year in which the security forces sent out a host of mixed signals

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is no coincidence that the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak began on 25 January, Egypt’s Police Day. One of the targets — perhaps the target — of protesters’ ire was a security apparatus that had spun out of control. Police and security forces had long operated without any checks. Brutality was their modus operandi, torture in police stations across the country a daily occurrence. Egypt was a vicious police state: it was the secret everyone knew but few mentioned.
For decades the security apparatus had been the iron fist of the regime, suppressing dissent by terrorising anyone who questioned the status quo. Two years ago, though, its monstrous grip on Egyptian society was broken. As activists and the wider public joined forces the regime’s front line of defence — the Central Security Forces — simply melted away. Protesters broke through the fear barrier and in the absence of fear the billions of dollars poured by the regime into the Ministry of Interior and its Byzantine security networks proved worthless.
The withdrawal of the police from the streets that followed the bloody attacks against protesters on 28 January 2011 inevitably created a security vacuum. The immediate response of the public was to exact revenge on the people who had oppressed them for so long. More than 100 police stations went up in flames.
Yet if the public had hoped for a radical transformation of the security forces and policing practices in the wake of the revolution those hopes have been disappointed. People want a security apparatus that works for their safety not that of the regime. Meanwhile the police, who lost any vestige of public trust years ago, say the attrition they suffered during the revolution has left them unable to meet public expectations.
Demands for a complete overhaul of the Ministry of Interior have been repeated endlessly. But that, say security officials, cannot happen overnight. In the interim, they argue, the public must give the police the benefit of the doubt: trust us, they say, and eventually everything will improve.
The last 12 months have seen two ministers of interior. Mansour Eissawi oversaw the disbanding of the State Security Intelligence (SSI) apparatus which had been the ministry’s backbone for years. It was replaced by the National Security Apparatus (NSA). While some welcomed the move others said it was no more than window-dressing since the vast majority of personnel were the same.
In August a new minister of interior was appointed. Ahmed Gamaleddin assumed office amid more promises of reform of the security forces and an end to the policing vacuum and oversaw an increase in policemen on the streets.
Following the election of Mohamed Morsi as president attention turned to how the relationship between the security forces and its new master — a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood — would play out. Would the Interior Ministry, which had always dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood as enemy number one, be able to adjust to a situation in which the Brotherhood was in the ascendant?
President Mohamed Morsi was quick to express his full trust in the security apparatus and the potential of its forces to maintain order. But as far as the public is concerned the real question is where the security forces’ loyalty lies. Has the Brotherhood simply replaced the National Democratic Party? In the event of a conflict between a newly Brotherhoodised state and the people, will the police simply support their new bosses?
Has there been any real change in police tactics, let alone in their mindset? The signals are mixed.
When demonstrations were organised to commemorate the first anniversary of the deaths of protesters killed in Mohamed Mahmoud Street just weeks before parliamentary elections the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Yet when crowds gathered in Tahrir Square to protest at Morsi’s sweeping constitutional declaration of 22 November there were no reports of force being used by the security forces.
Early in December when Brotherhood members surrounded the Supreme Constitutional Court in Maadi and prevented judges from entering the building, forcing Egypt’s highest court to indefinitely postpone a session set to rule on the legality of the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament and the body that drafted the new constitution, the police took no action, leading to accusations that they were bowing to Islamist pressure. Two days later, on 4 December, when protesters marched in their thousands to the presidential palace to express their anger at Morsi granting himself untrammeled power, the security forces withdrew from the scene. Is such caution a sign that they want to avoid confrontation at all costs? And if this is the case, where does that leave legitimacy and the rule of law?
On Wednesday, 5 December, anti-Morsi protesters camped outside the presidential palace were attacked by the president’s supporters in scenes that brought to mind the notorious Battle of the Camel when revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were violently assaulted by “unidentified thugs”.
The Ittihadiya Battle left eight dead and more than 750 injured. The security forces were conspicuous in their absence, leaving anti-Morsi protesters prey to appalling violence. The Ministry of Interior subsequently issued a statement saying it had acted with the utmost restraint in the interests of the nation. Victims of the assault said they had been offered no protection from murderous Brotherhood members.
Yet the Brotherhood has itself complained that the police have failed to intervene on attacks against its offices and those of the Freedom and Justice Party, several of which were torched in the uproar that followed Morsi’s granting himself unfettered power.
So what is happening?
“It is time the people realised that the police have changed too. Our cadres no longer take action or obey orders that make no sense, or that involve uncalled for aggression,” said one security source speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.
The majority of police deployed in the streets, explained another source, are officers in their 20s or early 30s: “They belong to the same generation as those who began the revolution and they are no longer willing to obey orders unquestioningly.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed, says the source, is that the Interior Ministry’s headquarters remain off limits. “The headquarters are a symbol and no aggression will ever be allowed against them, just as we won’t allow any acts of violence against the nation.”
Perhaps the best explanation for the erratic performance of the police over the last 12 months was provided by political activist Hanan Hassan. “Only when Egypt has a solid regime will it have a solid security apparatus,” she says, “for we are partners in the same destiny.”

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