The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged police
The police and the people: one hand, for now
LUXOR, EGYPT - JULY 19, 2010: Egyptian police road check point, On July 19, 2010 Luxor, Egypt. Source: Shutterstock.

LUXOR, EGYPT - JULY 19, 2010: Egyptian police road check point, On July 19, 2010 Luxor, Egypt. Source: Shutterstock.

One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.

"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.

Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of  their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.

There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.

He caught me looking and laughed.

“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.

Much of that progress, the general, who is also head of a major explosives department noted happily, is thanks the media’s reframing of the police’s mission as a war on terrorism rather than a war on activism and opposition to the deep-state. This coverage of the shadowy war has substantially increased public sympathy for security forces in the past few months. Having decided from the very beginning that the terrorist attacks were too many to count or investigate, most journalists and TV presenters chose to simply blame the Brothers, even though Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for them. These anti-MB media rants are always more zealous after attacks like the one on the Mansoura Security Directorate . In fact, had the constitution not been passed yet, they would have probably turned the attack into another Vote Yes To Disappoint Terrorists commercial, complete with blood dripping from the MB’s four-finger Rabaa sign for symbolism.

When asked to comment further on the media’s enthusiasm for this topic, the general  awkwardly admitted that they do exaggerate slightly, but they have good intentions. “It is not to spread panic in society, but respect (for policemen),” he added paternally.

While the uptick in attacks in Sinai seems more plausible given the region’s lawlessness, and drug, weapons and human trafficking trade, the reports coming out of the rest of the country are unreasonably exaggerated -- so much so that most of the police officers I have spoken to laughed when they heard the numbers and one asked if it included the tumultuous First Intermediate period of Ancient Egypt.

The few numbers reported in national and independent newspapers so far are 300 attacks in Sinai alone and a total of 1072 incidents of political violence, according to Democracy Index’s November report (that is, in four months here, more than double the total number of attacks in Iraq in the two years following the US invasion).

It is important to note that Democracy Index also supported the fantastical tales of 30 million protesters marching against Morsi in July and that newspapers used its figures to figuratively pat the state's shoulder, despite the fact that the report says that less than one-tenth of these attacks targeted state institutions.


According to the report, 190 of these acts of “political violence and terrorism” are clashes between protesters and security forces – 101 of which are clashes with plain clothed men dubbed “residents,” which, according to another former NDP MP, is code for baltageya (hired thugs) – which the MOI now uses to disperse protests to save the police force the effort and the damaging footage bound to emerge. Also, because there is the added advantage that no one seems to have qualms about a group of presumed civilians shooting one another, so long as the ones left bleeding are bearded. Sixty-two incidents are classified as protest that were dispersed by said residents; 16 attacks by Brothers on property, journalists and regular citizens; four attacks by citizens on MB property; 64 student clashes in universities and 32 clashes between students, security forces and the so-called residents. This leaves 610 incidents completely unaccounted for.

The real number of terrorist attacks, the head of the explosives department said casually, is around 100. Most probably. They, too, are not really keeping track. “(The count) is relative,” he said, airily.

That one-hundred-something, he added, includes all failed and successful attacks on police officers, soldiers, stations, checkpoints and churches, etc, that happened from July 3 to December nationwide. Yet Giza’s police department, for example, used to get an average of ten to twenty car bomb reports a week and about 200 reports of suspicious objects per month from mid-August to November.

“There is like a one in fifty chance the report is legitimate and it’s an explosive device...But just imagine that: an actual explosive device that can explode and kill people,” he said, as if shocked by the mere prospect of something blowing up in the middle of an allegedly merciless war.

Although driving for two hours with an explosives detection team for nothing is a pain, the general admitted, the police has and will continue to kindly refrain from legally pursuing citizens who make false reports, provided they are related to terrorism, to maintain the newly built bridges with the public. There is no point in arresting a housewife or shopkeeper wary of a dusty car parked in front of their property, when you can have a dog sniff it and save the day. This combined with the fact that the police seem to have taken the advice of national radio talk shows and now do ask nicely for one’s driver’s license in checkpoints has more than redeemed their image in the eyes of many, namely taxi drivers.

Meanwhile in Sinai, little to no news comes out, except for the rare Western report, and the army's daily self-congratulatory "(Insert any number) dangerous takfiri(s) down" reports and obituaries. This intense focus on defused terror threats stands in stark contrast to the reluctance to or disinterest in discussing the casualties and exact details of the “war on terrorism.” However, oddly enough, many are not denying the reported loss of civilian life and property due to the  military’s campaign in Sinai in comparison to the disturbingly sincere denial of the violence the Raba’a el-Adawiya sit-in’s dispersal, which the majority of the police officers I spoke to exhibit. To them, only 43 people died on August 14. And they were all officers, regardless of what the official health ministry’s 627-dead report says.

There are two main approaches to justify the casualties of the military’s campaign in Sinai. The first argues that the Egyptian army is doing what the US army did to Afghanistan in the American war on terror: Following an understandably violent, but ineffective strategy. Supporters of this approach blame the Sinai mess on the hobbling of Egypt’s hated State Security, which they say means there is little intelligence for the military to use to narrow down their targets, and so it has to go in blind. In order to improve the situation in Sinai, the minister, they suggest, should man up and empower National Security – which former interior minister Mansour el-Essawy created to replace State Security – so it can do what its predecessor has always done well: oppress the bearded. The second approach says to shush.

“The army is doing a good job and this is good practice,” proclaimed one of the interior minister’s aides. “They haven’t fought since 1973, this is very good,” he added, with a thumbs up.

Another gain from the June 30 protests and its subsequent polishing campaign, according to a Giza police colonel, was the end of  the “broken record” of complaints about police abuses of human rights, which briefly fooled people into thinking the police needed reform. “All that 'police are the tool of oppression' talk really got old,” he muttered.

The colonel’s reading of a leading cause of the 2011 uprising is unsurprisingly common inside the ministry. So is his ill-concealed contempt for the society that gave the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to rule, having failed or not even bothered to grasp the wisdom behind the ministry’s long history of persecuting it.


CAIRO - SEP 05: Remains of a big local store at Mostafa Nahas st and neighbors cars after explosion that was targeting the convoy of the Egypt's Interior Minister in Cairo, Egypt on September 05, 2013. Source: Shutterstock.

CAIRO - SEP 05: Remains of a big local store at Mostafa Nahas st and neighbors cars after explosion that was targeting the convoy of the Egypt's Interior Minister in Cairo, Egypt on September 05, 2013. Source: Shutterstock.


In addition to pushing the subject of radical police reforms (a revolutionary demand) to the bottom of the list of things that can be discussed when (and if) the war ends, the media have also helped shove the fed-up security forces back to direct confrontation with protesters, namely student protesters. Ever since college campuses nationwide have become the center of MB protests, a debate within and outside the ministry has raged over whether or not the police should ignore another revolutionary demand (that they stay off campuses). The debate further exemplifies the police’s disdain for the civilian inability to appreciate their heavy-handedness.

“If Cairo University bursts in flames right now, I will not budge,” vowed the red-faced colonel, who still remembers the days when faculty members filed a lawsuit for the removal of security forces from campuses for freedoms and other nonsense, he said mimicking their voice childishly.

“The MOI is not (their) handmaiden, or anybody else’s for your information,” the colonel snapped, wagging a finger. “(Universities) kicked us out when we took care of things, so don’t come running back now. We don’t from and go as you please.” Which is why the police now require a phone call by the head of a university requesting their services before they make an appearance at or near the gates, where they obligingly position their weapons between the bars to shoot bullets and tear gas canisters at the protesting, rock-throwing students. Although they often wander further in and kill or seriously wound someone.


To many officers, the most significant change since 2011 in the ministry – besides the long-awaited pay raise, which was presumably granted to bring back absent officers who didn’t want to face angry Egyptians for less than 2,000 pounds a month – has more to do with the army and how the MB helped them get over their old rivalry with the Interior.

“There is used to be coldness between us,” said a young detective lieutenant. “We thought we were better than them and they thought they were better than us. But after Morsi, we started talking... And we worked on the street shoulder to shoulder, protected each other and broke bread together. We are one now,” he added, earnestly. This seems to corroborate a Reuters’ report about how mid-ranking police officers actively sought out and met their military colleagues to win them over and explain why their arch-enemy, the MB, should be a common enemy.

Some of the friction between the two is believed to have been born from police resentment of the additional financial and social privileges their army colleagues received, which should have been reduced by the pay raise, according to another ex-NDP MP.

However, some things don’t change – like the officers' respect for Mubarak's infamous former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, which they justify with tough-dad analogies and by citing his sagaciously heavy hand with Islamists and the creation of fancy sports clubs and hospitals for the force in his time. That deference to el-Adly has been passed down to the recently-graduated generation of officers, who never even worked under him and believe the rumor that the ministry’s budget allocated 6,000 pounds a month for their lowest-ranking officers (the lieutenants), when they were in fact only getting a meager 750 pounds. “[El-Adly] even used to tell officers who complained about their salaries that it was just their ‘pocket money'… you take your actual salary from the citizen,’” said the ex-NDP MP, chuckling at al-Adly’s (and her own) candour.

But despite the pay raise and the promise of more to come, lower level officers are unlikely to attain much social or personal gain in the coming years. A first lieutenant's salary is still, and will probably continue to be, not enough to afford him a life where he can sit in cafes often, shop or marry comfortably without the help of his father. “I have been working for three years now and I still have to take money from my parents,” a young detective said, laughing sheepishly. "Better than taking it from the citizen, right?"

The detective went on to say that if we ignore the fact that the force is underpaid, overworked, under-appreciated and under-equipped, it is one of the best in the world for it “has nothing, but does everything,” according to the impressed, and overtly envious, Western envoys his superiors told him about. “They [the Western envoys] always ask them: ‘How do you do this?’” he said with satisfaction.

Also happy with June 30 are the  feloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime) who are suddenly also proud of their label, the ex-NDP MP said.“You know, when I walk into a conference or meeting, the first thing I say is I am feloul. We all do. The best minister in the cabinet now is feloul,” she said, patting her ironed-stiff black hair before adding that there was and still is nothing wrong with supporting Mubarak’s dictatorship or the “inheritance project” [i.e the plan to pass down the presidency to his son, Gamal] since at least, she argued with a sneer, it would have yielded civilian rule – “the unlikeliest form of governance in Egypt now.”

Police brutality (part 2)

Also published in El Shorouk this week is this horrifying, familiar account of torture by a journalist working for the satellite channel MBC, Islam Fathi, whose ordeal began -- as they often seem to -- when he got into an argument with an officer while trying to approach the site of an explosion in Minya. The piece is too long for me to translate entirely, but here is a sample. After he has been beaten and subjected to a torture called "the bag" that involves tying together and suspending the prisoner from his handcuffed hands and feet:   

As I was hanging there all night I saw the legs of soldiers and officers coming in and out to beat me. I even saw a woman dressed in black, she must have worked in the station, because she made them tea -- she also joined them in beating me, and said to them: ‘Beat him some more, he’s not getting out of here alive.’
Then soldiers took Islam to a cell and ordered him to face the wall. After two hours the door opened and another high-up officer who said: ‘So you’re the one acting like a big man?’and he was taken back to the room for another torture session.
The officer was hitting me himself and said to me: ‘Say: I’m this…I’m that.’

After all this, the officer he had an argument with asks Islam: "Have you learned your lesson now?" He is charged with attacking the authorities (the charges are dropped when he says he will not contest them in any way) and a nearby hospital refuses to document his torture. Eventually he goes to another hospital; files charges; and goes to the press. He tells Shorouk: "If they did this to me for no reason, knowing I'm a journalist, what might happen to poor, simple people?" 

Police brutality (part 1)

This week as part of our In Translation series -- as usually assisted by the excellent folks at Industry Arabic -- we have an op-ed by Salafi spokesman Nader Bakkar in the pages of the privately-owned, secular El Shorouk newspaper, condemning police brutality against female pro-Morsi demonstrators (22 women between 15 and 25 were arrested while protesting in Alexandria. You can see a short video -- in which a police officer is trying to kick the women, and they are yelling "dogs!" -- here). I am slightly surprised that El Shorouk has opened its pages to Bakkar to criticize the police, and that Islamists would focus their indignation on the mistreatment of female protesters when hundreds of people have been killed during demonstrations since the summer (unless the explanation is that the clearing of Rabaa is still off-limits to editorialists). And just as Bakkar asks: Why don’t secularists care about the treatment of Islamist protesters? Others will ask: Why haven’t Islamists spoken out about state brutality – against Copts, young revolutionaries, etc. -- during so many of the demonstrations since 2011? He mentions Magliz El Wuzara -- or the infamous case of the girl in the blue bra -- but the Islamist silence on that violence (which they feared would derail their imminent parliamentary victories) was shameful. 

Young Women of Alexandria
Nader Bakkar
I believe that everyone – regardless of their political affiliation – who has held onto a shred of their humanity was dumbfounded by the arrest of 21 young women in Alexandria, the most recent insult we have witnessed. And not just dumbfounded but horrified that these Zahrawat were not charged with participating in anti-authority demonstrations or even violating the Protest Law, in its current, distorted incarnation – all they were charged with was protesting. 
Although the current security situation is indeed volatile, even if it deteriorates to a level far worse than it is now, the situation would still not justify treating young Egyptian women with such moral depravity and inhumanity. Those of weak faith: if you wanted to arrest one of these women for an infraction or on suspicion, you could have used female policemen to do so; you could ensure they preserved the female detainees’ dignity. Moreover, your religion requires you to act honorably, and governed by a sense of humanity. Unless you have no regard for religion, honor, or humanity? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There are universal laws that are stricter in application than your personal sadistic rules – among them: “Act as you wish; for as you judge, so will you be judged.”
Has the police apparatus forgotten that the countless photographs and videos of their human rights violations and systematic torture that came out over the last ten years of the Mubarak regime -- culminating in the Khaled Said and Sayed Belal incidents -- were the main cause behind the people's mounting outrage against them? The outrage that reached its peak on January 28, 2011 and spilled over to both those who deserved it and those who did not – just because they belonged to the police force?  
The humiliation, the human rights violations, the torture – they repeat themselves again and again on the news. Yet these are not the result of June 30th – they date back earlier than this. Even so, individual violations have increased drastically, calling attention once again to the inherent shortcomings in the Egyptian police’s doctrine for dealing with citizens. 
This doctrine should be placed under review as quickly as possible. Educational experts have previously worked with the security apparatus, and they are not lacking in field experience. These experts have put forth dozens of studies to improve the security system’s performance and the way they deal with civilians. They strengthen our belief that it is possible to uphold both security and human dignity at the same time.
Yet we cannot blame only one unjust party, and turn a blind eye to all the others. Thus the question of blame should be posed to the human rights activists and their organizations: Is the honor of the young women of Alexandria of less interest and importance than the honor of the young woman from the Cabinet protests? Or does their political affiliation prevent people from feeling compassion for them?



"Sometimes the people want ugly things"

A column by Reem Saad (reposted by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) on the recent killing of  37 prisoners in police custody. According to the testimony of the survivors, an officer threw tear gas into the transport truck and waited alongside it as all but 7 of them chocked to death inside, begging to be let out.  

My rough translation:

"These citizens were killed in this ugly way not just under the eyes of the state but by its very hand. This was not the first nor will it be the last incident of this kind, as long as this brutal police force remains unreformed and unaccountable. What is particularly regrettable in this sad story is that the responsibility belongs not only to those who committed this crime but to a large segment of society, which the current circumstances and the continuous media incitement have perhaps put into a state of psychological imbalance, to the point that it dreams of a quick and final way of putting an end to the violence of the Brotherhood and to the brutal behavior of the organization and of others who belong to the Islamist movement. 
The slaughter at Abu Zabal prison is the literal execution of the expressions that have become commonly repeated among ordinary Egyptians, offered as a solution to the problem, such as: "Why not just gather them all up in one place and set them on fire and get rid of them?"
The tale of Kerdasa's police chief

 Thugs are thugs. They attack because they can. It makes little difference whether they are from the MB or not. Those were Kerdasa's police chief Mohamed Gabr's thoughts on his unfriendly neighborhood thugs, according to his relative Mohamed Khalil, which he conveyed a month before his brutal murder became a default example of the violence carried out by some Islamists.

Khalil and his friend Amr (an acquaintance) met chief Gabr the night they got into car accident and were taken to the Kerdasa police station for driving without a license on the Mehwar. The man offered the tea and coffee while they waited for the unlawful released the car without due process. Mostly done as a favor for his relative, partly because parts of the vehicle were going to “get misplaced” in police custody anyway. 

There Khalil and Amr encountered two signs of police weakness. The first came as a suggestion by chief Gabr himself to pay a neighborhood thug some money to let their car be and the second stood as a reminder outside the station. 

It was a lonely watchtower that fell outside of the station’s premises, inexplicably completely out of reach for the officers who were supposed to man it. The tower is the awkward result of a standoff between the police and thugs months ago that took place when the station was being restored after the 2011 nationwide attacks on the police. They had begun to build an enclosure wall around the then-new tower. However, their plan was frowned upon by a group of thugs, who had unilaterally decided that they owned the land outside the station and didn’t wish to see a wall built on it. The land, they decreed, was going to be used as a garage, where they could keep the new cars they found parked alone nearby. Outnumbered (and humiliated I might add), the police conceded to build the wall behind the tower, leaving it stranded in the new garage.

One of the few, if not the only, positive outcomes of Jan 25 that people cite is the breaking of the barrier of fear. People now are not afraid to speak their mind, protest, etc. But courage turned into impudence for some. Now people also feel safe criticizing the killing of hundreds mostly peaceful protesters, or retrieving a family member from a jail cell and shooting whoever doesn’t get out of their way fast enough.

That prompted chief Gabr to take a series of precautions to avoid the recurrent violence. First, he decided not to keep weapons in the stations anymore - nothing more than the handguns carried by each officer, that is - to dissuade nonpaying gun shoppers from visiting. And then he decided to play Hide and Seek (Elsewhere) with the families of all prisoners.

"If I arrest someone, I always make sure they get transferred to another prison so their families wouldn't know where he is," he had explained to Khalil in his office over tea. "If a prisoner spends the night here, his family will come in, take the keys, unlock the gate and take him out. If I so much as say a word; I would get shot." And he did, less than a week ago.

Only he wasn't just shot, they also reportedly slit his throat, stripped him down to his underwear, tied him to a car, next to his subordinates who suffered a similar fate, and dragged him around the station for a while before coming to rest in front of a brick wall (believed to be al-Sho'araa mosque, 300 hundred meters away from the station) where his body was dumped alongside others on the ground for people to gawk at.

There, the corpses were videotaped and asked why they brought that upon themselves. Their mothers were cursed and their red faces were covered with white sheets, only to be repeatedly uncovered by curious bystanders. (To sample the mindless violence, watch this video of one of the victims, seemingly alive, being asked to say the shahada, and when he failed to respond, a bystander furiously concluded that he was a Zionist).

Meanwhile, other bystanders cursed “the bearded sheikhs” that allegedly killed the policemen, only hours after the dispersal of the Raba'a sit-in begun, according to Mohamed Hossam, a local who watched the attack from his balcony with his neighbors.

“The neighbors were crying the whole time. My own father didn’t eat for the rest of the day,” he said, as if more perplexed by the emotional reaction to the vile public murder of almost a dozen people than by the murder itself.

“(Kerdasa’s islamists) lost people in Raba’a, so they wanted to make an example out of the police in Kerdasa,” he added dryly. “I wanted to do something, anything...but if the police can’t protect itself, then who will protect me?”