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Who Will Save Egypt from Its Police?

A young man and his fiancée went to Burg el-Arab airport in Alexandria recently to meet two relatives who were coming back from Saudi Arabia after performing the umra, or lesser pilgrimage. The four of them got into a private car and on their way home two cars filled with armed thugs attacked them. The driver tried to escape the thugs, but they kept chasing him. They hemmed the car in until it overturned in an irrigation canal on the airport road, and everyone in the car was killed—four blameless Egyptians whose lives were wiped out in a moment. When the other members of the family went to the police station, they were surprised to find the police officers trying to register the incident as an ordinary collision between two vehicles, and when they went to the chief of police of Alexandria, he said: “We can't do anything about the thugs because they’re armed, and if we beat them they’ll say we’re beating the young revolutionaries.”

This incident summarizes the attitude of the Egyptian police these days: the thugs and criminals who were released from prison are attacking people and the police just look on, almost gloating. It’s as if the chief of police of Alexandria is telling Egyptians: “Didn’t you carry out a revolution against police brutality? Okay, so forget about the police. Go and defend yourselves alone.” There are countless examples of police negligence. Thugs attacked Mataria Hospital in Cairo and terrorized the patients and doctors for four hours, then killed one of the patients in front of his family while the police who were present looked on and did nothing. This was not an isolated incident. The police are now in a sit-down strike: in other words, they go to their work places but they do not work. Some policemen go further than that, and directly sabotage the security of Egyptians. Rose el-Yousef interviewed one of the thugs who set fire to Embaba church, in which he said that a policeman at Embaba police station paid him 2,000 pounds (about $330) to enact this arson and claimed that two members of Mubarak’s dissolved National Democratic Party were with the policemen when they made the agreement. The thug even identified the agents provocateurs by name, and if this article had been published anywhere else in the world there would have been an immediate inquiry. But the article was published in Egypt—so nothing happened, and no one will be summoned for questioning.

The Egyptian police force was the repressive arm of Mubarak’s regime for decades. In police stations and State Security premises Egyptians were humiliated, abused, and tortured. To be fair, this kind of brutal repression was not the responsibility of the police alone. It was also the responsibility of the public prosecutor’s office, which failed to fulfill its duty to inspect prisons and police stations. When the January 25th revolution broke out, the police force rounded off its crimes against the Egyptian people by killing close to a thousand people and injuring 8,000, including 1,400 people who lost their sight because of rubber bullets. On top of that, there are a thousand missing people who have probably been killed and buried somewhere unknown. When the police force collapsed in the face of the revolution, it carried out its final crime when the order went out for the complete withdrawal of all policemen, leaving the whole country unprotected—a crime that amounts to high treason. Then the prisons were opened up and close to 30,000 criminals set free to terrorize Egyptians, another grave crime.

The perpetrators of these heinous crimes against the Egyptian people have still not been held accountable. The Interior Ministry clearly knows the identity of the snipers who murdered protesters but none of them have been exposed or gone on trial for killing dozens of Egyptians. The senior officers who opened fire on protesters are still at their posts, even when they have been charged and are awaiting trial. None of the barbaric State Security officers who gave Egyptians electric shocks and tied them up like animals for slaughter have been held accountable; some of them have merely been transferred to other departments, while most of them have moved to the new National Security Agency. No government official has bothered to ask whose bodies were in the graves that protesters discovered at the State Security building in Nasr City, or who killed them. Major General Mohamed Batran, who was in charge of all Egyptian prisons and who refused set all the prisoners free, was murdered for his trouble, according to the account of his sister, Dr. Manal, who has accused two officers of killing her brother. The prosecutor’s office has not questioned these officers as suspects, however, but only as witnesses. Egyptians cannot regain confidence in the police force as long as there is no accountability for those who murdered protesters and for the monsters who treated the Egyptian people as animals. The media portrays the issue as though the people have wronged the police. There is a malicious attempt to confuse the issue by repeating the line that the officers who killed protesters were defending police stations, but no one has asked what drove people to attack the police stations in the first place and why they did not attack them in the first few days of the revolution. In fact, attacking police stations was the only way to stop the barrage of bullets coming out of them. I saw that myself on Friday, January 28th, when I was in a demonstration outside the American University. Snipers started shooting at us, and injured protesters were collapsing around us. At that point, the protesters tried to get into the buildings where the snipers were posted, in order to arrest them. It was the Egyptian people who were engaged in legitimate self-defense, not the murderous police officers whose consciences allowed them to murder the cream of Egypt’s youth in order to please Hosni Mubarak and Interior Minister Habib el-Adli. And if the officers were defending the police stations, why did they aim at the heads and chests of the demonstrators rather than at their feet, as the law requires? Besides, who is to determine who was acting in self-defense? This should be established at trial, or do the police want to kill as many Egyptians as they please and then say it was in self-defense, and expect to be believed automatically?

The culture that police officers were taught in the Mubarak era was high-handed and corrupt, and held that an officer could win prestige only by arrogance and violence. The culture also held that police officers were unaccountable and above the law. It is amazing that some police officers are angry that their colleagues have been charged with the murder of demonstrators, as if Egyptians are rabbits or chickens that can be killed with impunity. People brought up to despise Egyptians and treat them with contempt cannot change overnight into officers who respect people’s dignity and rights.

The police force has not been purged yet. Habib el-Adli’s aides and the senior officers charged with murdering demonstrators are still in the same jobs. What would one expect from a police general who faces trial for murdering demonstrators and who is still working as a chief of police? Would one expect him to take an interest in maintaining law and order until there is complete change and he is sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison? Or would he do his utmost to cause chaos in order to escape punishment?

In spite of the crimes committed by the police, it is only fair to remember that a broad cross-section of police officers worked honestly and honorably and the Mubarak regime treated many of them very unfairly. These honest officers formed the “Coalition of Police Officers” and the “Officers But Honest”alliance and tried hard to persuade Interior Minister Mansour el-Eissawi to carry out real reforms to purge the police force of leaders who were corrupt and in collusion with the Mubarak regime. But instead of meeting their demands, the minister had them detained until they announced they were disbanding their coalition.

When the revolution broke out, society spontaneously split into three blocs: the revolutionary bloc, i.e., the Egyptians who made the revolution and are always ready to make sacrifices to achieve the aims of the revolution; the counter-revolutionary bloc, i.e., those who benefited from the old regime and feared that they might lose their privileges, or that they might be hold accountable for their crimes, and who are fighting fiercely to prevent change and abort the revolution; and finally the silent or spectator bloc, i.e., Egyptians who suffered under the old regime but were not ready to make sacrifices to get rid of it, who did not take part in the revolution but watched it on television. This last group of people is always fluctuating between supporting the revolution and attacking it. It is this group that is the target of the counter-revolutionary conspirators, who keep trying to turn them against the revolution and who may want to bring back the old regime. This is exactly the role the Egyptian police force is now playing. By failing to do its duty, it achieves two objectives: firstly, to terrorize Egyptians more and more until they accept any solution that provides law and order, and secondly, to eliminate any possibility that the Egyptian economy will improve. How can we bring back tourism and investment when there is no security and thugs are rampaging across the country?

The way out of this crisis is to take specific steps: dismiss the interior minister, General Mansour el-Eissawi, who is a good and honest man but who unfortunately has not been a success in the position, and then appoint a new interior minister from the armed forces, because purging the police force will have to be done from the outside rather than from the inside. In addition, immediately purge the police force of all senior officers involved with the old regime and suspend all those charged with murdering demonstrators. Use the honest officers to purge the force and restore its effectiveness, bringing in new recruits who have graduated in law and giving them police training so that the next generation of officers respects human rights. Finally, raise police salaries to a level that provides them with a decent livelihood.

The reluctance of the police to protect Egyptians is a scandalous conspiracy and we hope the military council intervenes immediately to put an end to it and to restore law and order. Security will hopefully be the starting point for the future Egypt.

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