Egypt police reform moves at snail’s pace

Security forces now receive some human rights training, but critics say there isn’t political will for major changes.

Egyptian Protesters Clash With Police
Constant protests since the revolution in 2011 have left police officers in Egypt exhausted and angry [AFP]

Cairo, Egypt – As a former policeman turned politician and a likely ally of Egypt’s president, Tamer Meky has harsh words about the security problems in the Arab world’s most populous country.

“The lack of security in Egypt is the largest nail in President [Mohammed] Morsi’s political coffin,” Meky, a representative in Egypt’s upper house of parliament or Shura Council, told Al Jazeera.

“He [Morsi] will not be able to fix tourism or the economy without security,” the conservative Salafi politician said. The police do not know how to reform, Meky explained, and the gradual fixes proposed by Morsi have not been working so far.

Many view the 2011 revolution as a rebellion against police brutality, as security forces focused mainly on protecting the president and his cronies rather than average citizens.

‘New discourse’

Yet, since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster more than two years ago, critics say serious police reforms have not been implemented, despite a series of proposals from civil society groups.

In the first few months following Mubarak’s ouster, a few hundred senior police officers were sent into retirement, in a move portrayed by officials as the largest cleanse of its kind.

The State Security Investigation (SSI), one of the most notorious police agencies, had its name changed to the National Security Apparatus (NSA) after activists broke into its offices around the country in early March 2011 calling on authorities to dismantle it.

The SSI used to act as the political police targeting regime opponents, and was infamous for its harsh tactics and disregard for human rights. The renaming came with the promise that the NSA would give up its domestic political role and would focus instead on national security matters such as fighting terrorism. Yet hardly any information is available on the current role and organisation of the new NSA.

“Talk about reforming the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) halted two months after the revolution. We were promised a new law to organise the NSA, but it never came out,” Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group which has been working on police reform since revolution, told Al Jazeera. “Police are now using a new discourse that says: There is a threat to national security; there is security vacuum in the country; stop talking about human rights and reform; we need to go back with full force.”

Crime has been rising since the revolution, and many citizens believe ongoing unrest between the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents disturb daily life, hampering economic growth and tourism.

Police brutality

But many security officers and activists complain about a lack of public trust. Police brutality has increased since late January, Ennarah says.

Protests following the second anniversary of the revolution and a court ruling on January 26 on the killing of football fans in a Port Said stadium last year led to nearly daily protests and clashes with police.

Activists accused police of brutality, illegal detention, and torture during the protests. Dozens of demonstrators have been killed since January. Some police stations were attacked, especially in Port Said where the military had to step in, separate police and local protestors, and take over the duty of policing the city.

A wave of police strikes took place around the country in early March. Some police units in at least 10 of the country’s 29 provinces closed down their posts and called for the removal of the current minister of interior, Mohammed Ibrahim, who has been in charge since December, accusing him of being too lenient to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

They also called for a solution to the country’s political unrest to help reduce public anger and stop ongoing protests.

“It [strikes by police officers] was a spontaneous move by some policemen during which they explained the very hard conditions under which they have been working during the last two years,” Hany Abdel Latif, a police general and a senior media and public relations official at the ministry of interior, told Al Jazeera.

Police force blamed in Egypt revolt deaths

“It was a message to the Egyptian people that policemen are politically neutral and they stand on the same distance from all political groups and parties. Their only goal is the security of the citizens and state institutions.”

Abdel Latif and other police officers who spoke to Al Jazeera complained that security forces are being scapegoated for political and economic problems facing various governments since the revolution.

“Are the police responsible for the shortage of fuel supplies in Egypt and the fights caused as a result?” asked Ali Zain, a police general and professor at the police academy.

“Every time people protest, they only find the Central State Security forces [semi-military anti-riot troops] in front of them. Therefore, people take their anger on the police. Other ministries and officials are shielded. The police always take the first hit,” Zain told Al Jazeera.

Slow reform

Zain and Abdel Latif told Al Jazeera that police agencies have been working hard to reform themselves since the revolution.

The Police Academy has changed its curriculum by adding obligatory human rights courses, Zain said. He also praised decisions, enacted since the revolution, to raise salaries of policemen by about 100 percent. The raise should help policemen focus on their work and fight corruption within their ranks, according to Zain and other experts.

Security forces are also establishing human rights and community outreach units and new training programmes within the MoI, Abdel Latif said. “There are domestic improvements that have been taking place slowly.”

Reda Fahmy, a member of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party and head of the national security committee, seems to agree.

The government, he said, has been handling police reform with “utmost caution”.

“We treat the police as a member of the family who suffers a setback,” he told Al Jazeera. “Police are exhausted because of nearly daily protests for the last two years. We need to support them first before holding them accountable.”

Over the long term, Fahmy wants to see greater human rights training for police, along with better equipment, including surveillance cameras. Laws related to the use of force and the definition of torture need to be updated to international norms, Fahmy said. Getting to this place won’t be easy.

In the near-term, Fahmy cautions against the concept of “cleansing” the MoI or the mass firings of police officers accused of corruption and violence. Police officers, unsurprisingly, don’t want layoffs.

“Strong political will is needed to achieve police reform,” Ennarah, the human rights activist, said. “The Muslim Brotherhood is under many political and economic pressures and they don’t want to anger police at this time. The police will not reform itself and we don’t think there is a political will for change.” 

Source: Al Jazeera