At the edge of Tahrir Square on Tuesday night young men—and a few women—vied for a place in the front lines fighting the riot police, where, decked out in scarfs, goggles, and surgical masks, they formed a fearless rank.
When the protestors fell and were carried to the motorcycles and ambulances ready to spirit them to makeshift clinics and hospitals, others were ready to take their place.
The fiery confrontation taking place in Egypt today is about pushing the Army out of power. It’s also about teaching the police once and for all that the unchecked brutality it has long considered its privilege will no longer stand.
One might have though that lesson had been learned already. But “nothing has changed since the revolution,” says Mohammed Mahfouz, a former police officer. “The Ministry of Interior doesn’t respect the law, doesn’t respect human rights, doesn’t respect the dignity of citizens.”
The police force, which collapsed during the uprising against former Egyptian president and dictator Hosni Mubarak last January, “feel they’re in a feud against society,” says Mahfouz. “They have a desire for revenge.”
Police and protesters have clashed more or less continuously for the last four days. The police feel “not that they are enforcing the law but it’s a battle for their survival,” says Ihab Youssef, a former high-ranking officer in the Ministry of Interior who left the force to found an NGO dedicated to improving relations between citizens and the police.
The police’s use of excessive force in clearing a small encampment in the square Saturday morning is what led thousands of indignant Egyptians to come out into the streets in protest. The brutality that followed, with policemen aiming tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters’ heads and piling bodies on the curb like so much garbage, triggered the most violent confrontation and intense political crisis Egypt has witnessed since Mubarak’s ouster.
The police appear to have been instructed to keep protesters from camping in the square—and from reaching the nearby Ministry of Interior, a perennial target of popular anger—at any cost. The result is 33 dead, hundreds wounded, and the beginning of what looks like a second uprising.
“They managed the whole situation totally wrong,” says Yousssef. “They escalated the problem.”
The Army and the police “were afraid that if people stayed in Tahrir there would be a second revolution,” says Mahfouz. They tried to clear them out and got “the opposite result—what they didn’t want to happen, happened.”
That’s no surprise, says Youssef, given that the police force—used as a brute enforcer by the Mubarak regime—has not accepted the need for reform or changed any of its methods in the nine months since the dictator’s fall. “Mismanagement, mistraining,” says Youssef. “That’s why they are dealing with people with bullets.”
The Minister of Interior resigned Tuesday night alongside the entire interim cabinet. One of the protesters’ demands is now the complete overhaul of the police.
A reform of the security sector was also high on the list of revolutionary demands nine months ago. But nothing came of it.
The authorities took purely “cosmetic” steps, says human-rights activist Ghada Shahbandar—changing their official motto to “The Police at the Service of the People” and handing out glossy brochures about the mutual duties and responsibilities of police officers and citizens. There is no political will to reform the police force, she says: “It’s not coming from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, not from the government, definitely not from the Ministry of Interior.”
In fact, the ministry, which employs 350,000 policemen and officers (and oversees another 200,000 riot police drawn from conscripted youth) is infamous for its corruption and abuse of powers.
Mahfouz served in the police force for 21 years. Anyone working in the Egyptian police force knows the “self-loathing” he felt, he says. He witnessed the police overseeing electoral fraud, spying on citizens, and organizing the battalions of paid thugs that are used to attack demonstrators and intimidate voters. There was widespread corruption, with policemen extracting bribes from drivers, from anyone wanting to make a complaint, and from anyone wanting to have a judgement enforced. The breaking point for him came when he was assigned to “secure” a polling station and a member of Parliament for the ruling party showed up with a stack of IDs and started filling out the ballots of “his” voters.
And that’s not to mention the systemic torture that has long constituted the police’s main investigative method.
Part of the problem is that the powers that be have made it a policy to keep policemen violent, dependent, and corrupt. They are badly paid, badly trained, and threatened with early retirement or a court-martial if they disobey orders, says Mahfouz. The real responsibility lies with the higher-ups in the ministry, he argues, who earn fat salaries and make all the decisions.
The other problem is a culture of unaccountability and denial. Police officials don’t want to hear about the need for reform, says Dalia Youssef, Mr. Youssef’s wife, who also works at the NGO he founded and has met with Ministry of Interior officials to discuss reform.
“We're dealing with their pride,” she says. “I remember in one meeting I personally said: ‘How are you going to hold yourself accountable? How are you going to clean up the house from inside?’ I was attacked like hell. 'How dare you say that to us? Who told you we need cleaning up? We're clean! We're talking about a few individuals.' ”
For the last 10 months, the police have largely refused to do their job, arguing that—their dignity tarnished and their powers checked by the revolution—they don’t command the necessary “respect” anymore.
Meanwhile, although more than 800 people died and 11,000 were injured in the uprising against Mubarak, only one low-level police officer has been convicted for the violence—in absentia.
“High-ranking police officers are responsible for serious crimes,” says human-rights activist Shahbandar, “ranging from torture to killing to withdrawal from their positions [during the Jan. 25 uprising] and the opening of prisons and killing of prisoners. No one has been held accountable. Their trials are taking forever, and they are still in place.”
“It’s all just delays, delays, delays!” says Mohammed Habib, who was shot in the head and arm last February and was protesting in Tahrir recently, indignantly waving the cheap plastic medal the government gave him, emblazoned with the words ‘For the Sake of Egypt.’ “We’ve seen nothing real.”
In fact, police officers have reportedly threatened and harassed the witnesses against them. One officer on trial for the murder of demonstrators recently showed up to court with a retinue of supporters who carried their guns into the courtroom and clashed with the relatives of the victims.
Now many here say the Ministry of Interior—tasked with securing the elections—doesn’t have the legitimacy to do so. The elections will need to be postponed, they argue, while the new minister of the interior undertakes real reforms.
And those reforms will be part of ending a poisonous culture of impunity that doesn’t begin and end with the police. “You can be sure,” says Mahfouz, “that the Ministry of Interior takes its orders from the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces.”