Egypt: A Police Under Fire and in Need of Reform

20 February 2013

Suffering from both external and internal pressures, Egypt's much maligned police force urgently needs reforming.

Last week, for the first time in decades, thousands of Egyptian police officers went on strike in several governorates.

Their demands included the resignation of the interior minister, who they claim is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the abolition of the recently approved Demonstrations Act which criminalises protests and thus, according to the striking police, puts officers in constant confrontation with protestors. The demonstrating officers also demanded better salaries and better resources to defend themselves against increasing attacks on police stations.

While many police are angry at the government, much of the public are angry at the police. Many politicians, activists, and NGOs and have been accusing the police of being as brutal and corrupt as it was before the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

This unhealthy relationship between the people and their supposed guardians raises lots of questions about the relationship between building a modern democracy and security sector reform in Egypt.

Egypt's police remain, to a great extent, one of the country's most hated institutions. The police's brutal attitude and its bloody legacy during Mubarak's last years made it hard to reconcile with a people revolting against injustices and human right violations.

During the Egyptian uprising, which started on 25 January or National Police Day, clashes between the police and protestors left about 840 protestors dead and 6,000 injured.

As well as being distrusted for their brutal sins of commission in the past, however, Egypt's police are also criticised for their sins of omission - namely their incompetence and alleged deliberate negligence, for example during the Port Said football riots in February 2012.

The police force has thus found itself under fire whilst needing to undergo crucial reforms.

Under pressure

For decades, the Ministry of the Interior has been extremely influential and present in Egyptians' daily lives. Around 2010, the ministry employed an estimated 1.3 million to 1.7 million people, including 850,000 police officers and 400,000 officials.

There are no clear figures about how many exactly worked in the powerful and feared State Security Investigations Service (SSI); however, there is some data about the layoffs that took place after the revolution. In response to the accusations against it, the interior ministry did not convict any of its members but attempted to cleanse the SSI by sacking hundreds of personnel.

After protestors destroyed many of the SSI's headquarters a few months after the uprising, the SSI was formally dissolved and replaced by the National Security Service. Many, however, just see this institution as the old guard with a new name.

The environment in which the security forces have been operating has radically changed since 2011. The police, which have generally been feared rather than respected, are now attacked frequently.

Hundreds are believed to have been injured in the last month alone, and since January 2011 around 200 officers have been killed. Police cars have also been burnt and checkpoints and buildings attacked; while recently, a trend has emerged of the families of detained suspects attacking police stations to free their relatives.

At the same time, the police force is also dealing with internal problems. Most police officers have low wages and suffer, as do most Egyptians, from the rising cost of living and the deterioration of the country's economic situation.

These pressures are particularly acutely felt by low-ranking and newly-recruited officers who work difficult hours for relatively little pay.

Additionally, within the Ministry of Interior, there have long been certain kinds of discrimination that can add an extra layer of discontent from within. For example, the recruitment of new officers and awarding of promotions are allegedly often decided based on social criteria such as social class.

The need for real reform

The main goal of any restructuring or reform process would be to build a modern and efficient police force that would be able to both provide security and protect human rights such as the right to peaceful protest. And real reform cannot be based on merely substituting the leadership with new faces. On the contrary, it must be deep and institutionalised.

Several topics are on the reform agenda. One of the most important of these regards a certain police culture which is believed to have encouraged violations and police impunity in the past. Several NGOs and experts have thus proposed changing the police academy's syllabus to emphasise public service and provide legal training around human rights.

Another initiative being called for is to bolster laws against torture and abuse of suspects, activities which were arguably encouraged during Mubarak's reign in the name of national security.

To help reform the force, some have proposed the formation of a kind of independent police syndicate outside the Ministry of Interior that could help defend the rights and interests of the police, give the opportunity to individual officers to take greater responsibility in decision-making, and generally hold officers more accountable for their actions.

Elsewhere, there have been calls for the police force to become subject to greater public oversight, and to ensure the force is placed under civilian leadership.

The current form of parliamentary control seems to have proven ineffective given the fact that the legislative committee responsible for the police has been mainly composed of deputies who were ex-police generals or chiefs. Truly civilian control could help reform one of the pillars of the new democracy that Egyptians seek to establish.

Other proposals have including more straightforward gestures to enhance accountability and improve the police's relationship with the public; for instance, each officer could wear a name tag to facilitate the complaints process. And many have called for the integration of female officers.

As positive as it is that many solutions have been proposed, a key factor that remains is political will. Strangely, after decades of being fiercely chased by the police, the Muslim Brotherhood, now leading the country, does not seem to be seriously interested in reforming the police.

This perhaps leaves the challenge of driving reform and restructuring to the force itself. Success in changing this institution's old habits would be a significant leap forwards on the road towards establishing a modern effective democracy.

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