1 May 2011
Over the course of the 25 January Revolution, a host of violent, even bloody confrontations took place between the people and the security forces. Revolutionaries burned and plundered police stations nationwide and most Egyptians took advantage of the revolutionary climate to display their deep hostility towards police and security personnel and lost no chance to humiliate them.
The disproportionate use of force during the 18-day-long revolution and the arrest of former Interior Minster Habib al-Adly over charges of giving orders to use live ammunition against peaceful protestors further augmented the negative image of the police.
The animosity, however, has deep roots. For as long as any Egyptian can remember, policemen and officers abused their power so flagrantly that random arrests, beatings, torture and even killings in police stations were not uncommon. Given the general humiliation suffered by anyone who had the misfortune of dealing with the police, most people were eager to avoid at any price venturing into a police station. This held true even in case of routine or procedural purposes such as getting an ID or voter card, or reporting thefts, lost items, or harassment.
The fines collected by traffic policemen were another reason for public discontent. Fines for illegal parking were commonly averted by bribing policemen, a practice which contributed negatively to any respectable image of the police.
Notwithstanding the thousands of honest, hardworking policemen who spared no effort to protect lives and property, the police and security apparatus gained an inferior reputation. It is worth noting that the Egyptian security apparatus is among the most efficient on the global scale when it comes to catching criminals.
Reign of terror
The withdrawal of the Interior Ministry on 28 January, as the military stepped in, led to countless criminal incidents. The escape of some 24,000 prisoners and the theft of arms from prisons and police stations bred a climate of fear and chaos. People defended themselves through forming neighbourhood self-protection groups, the members of which armed themselves with sticks, wooden or metal beams and pipes, bottles, as well as any licensed guns available, to guard homes and streets. They searched cars and arrested thieves and thugs and handed them over to the army. Despite the effort exerted by the army to restore order and protect lives, the absence of the police created a sense of insecurity among the population.
A week later, the Interior Ministry was back in operation, but the damage had been done and the police had already lost all respect among the population. The re-deployment of the police then had minimal effect on the generally poor security situation since, predictably, a policeman without respect is a policeman without ability.
The terror and insecurity remained. Egyptians began thinking twice before going out of their homes; they only went out for ‘absolutely necessary’ errands. Fearing rampant kidnappings—many of which were done for ransom money—many parents kept their daughters home from school or even university. Stories were circulated of highway robberies, attacks against schools and buses, homes and parked vehicles; official figures reported that crime soared 200 per cent since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president on 11 February, with murder, violent theft and kidnapping all seeing sharp increases. In short, there appeared to be no safe place around.
In desperation, many members of the public resorted to carrying arms to protect themselves, a move which in itself augmented the insecurity since it gave rise to more violence and terror.
Abuse of power
With the rift between the public and the police still wide, the common question in Egypt today is whether there is any hope it may close some time in the near future.
Watani took the question to Mukhtar Ghubashi, vice-president of the Arab Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the Justice Ministry. “How can the image of the post-25-January policeman be ameliorated, so that police and security personnel would make a comeback into our daily life without being rejected by people?” Watani asked. “Can some ‘reconciliation’ be achieved between the public and the police?”
Dr Ghubashi said the problem was much older than 25 January 2011. The culture of the police and security apparatus, he explained, endorses violence and humiliation; there is no minimal standard of human rights. Even while still at the Police Academy, he said, cadets are encouraged to see themselves as superior to other members of the community. Is it any surprise then, he asked, that they go on to behave as such? And is it any surprise that this creates hostility between them and the public?
It did not help, Dr Ghubashi said, that the public prosecution has long been ignoring its vital duty of conducting periodical inspections of police stations and prisons to check on conditions and detainees there. Unfortunately, this urged some policemen to give free rein to their hunger for dominance.
“It cannot be denied,” Dr Ghubashi stressed, “that criminals and thugs must be dealt with strictly. But this by no means implies they may be subjected to torture. In a police station in Mansoura, a number of prisoners were tortured to death, then cast outside under the claim that they had attempted to run away.
“In another case, in the Cairo district of Shubral-Kheima, a police officer who went to catch a suspect and did not find him home caught his sister instead, in order to pressure the suspect to hand himself in. The officer had the young woman’s hair cut at the police station till she looked absolutely bald. During the post-revolutionary attacks against police stations, this station was torched and the demonstrators particularly demanded this police officer.
“The police were also notorious for detaining suspects several days after court orders for their release were issued.”
“Trust has to be rebuilt between the people and the police,” Dr Ghubashi concluded. “Each party has to understand and implement its role without exaggeration. I suggest that material on human rights should be included in the Police Academy curriculum. And, as a prompt solution, policemen should undergo psychological rehabilitation so that they would not despair, especially after the fierce media attack against them.
The other side of the coin
It was only fair that Watani should hear out the police themselves, especially those among them who are in daily direct contact with the public. And it is also only fair to admit that our community suffers of many social ills that ought to be tackled by the society as a whole but for which the police bear the entire brunt, whether on the public or the official level.
Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Qandil works with the 6 October traffic department and has previously spent time working at police stations in various parts of Egypt, including places as far apart as Marsa Matrouh in the north and Qena in the south.
Lieutenant Colonel Qandil told Watani that the police always projected awe and sternness before the 25 January Revolution. Now the image of the police has become distorted, thanks largely to the media, he said.
Policemen and officers deal in the major part with criminals, he explained, and thus have to be tough. People forget, he said, the thousands of crimes resolved by the police: the thugs, thieves or criminals caught, and the thousands of stolen goods brought back. “Criminals in the first place violate the rights of the community,” he said. “If human rights activists were in our shoes, they would be the first to defend police rights. It’s easy to talk when you’ve never been there. The popular saying goes: Hands in cold water can never know what it feels to be in the fire,” Lieutenant Colonel Qandil reminded.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Qandil, there are hundreds of examples that the State as a whole needs restructuring and laws need revision.
An obvious case is the traffic law, he said. In several places in Egypt, including the town of 6 October, tuktuks are banned from circulation, yet some one million of them roam streets. When a policeman attempts to stop a tuktuk, the driver/owner vehemently fights for his livelihood. The policeman looks ugly because he is depriving a man of his livelihood, yet he is simply doing his duty in imposing the law.
Another common cause for conflict between citizens and the police, Lieutenant Colonel Qandil said, is building on agricultural land, a practice strictly banned by the law. When the police enforces the law by demolishing violating buildings, the land owners get around the law and obtain licence to build, through bribing officials. This makes a mockery of the law, and gives the police a poor reputation.
Trucks carrying excess weight than that allowed by the law pay petty fines and continue violating the law. In many cases, Lieutenant Colonel Qandil said, crimes arise because of official shortcoming, but it is the police that takes the blame for being heartless and ruthless.
People commonly think that traffic policemen get kickbacks from the fines they impose on traffic violations, he said. “Let me insist that this is not true. All the money goes to the treasury of the Ministry of Justice.” Which is not to imply, he said, that there are no corrupt policemen but, sadly, there is corruption everywhere; among doctors; engineers and even lawyers. And corrupt policemen, he insisted, are frequently brought to justice.
Take their time
During the 25 January Revolution the police and security apparatuses were devastated. “The Police cannot be against the Revolution,” Lieutenant Colonel Qandil remarked; “on the contrary; we are Egyptians and venerate Egypt more than anything. But what is the relation between the Tahrir honest revolutionaries and those who burned the police stations and attacked the prisons? When the police stood against these thugs, they became the ones to blame.” Many policemen lost their lives, others fled after the police stations were robbed of weapons and ammunitions and the criminals set free. Yet the police were branded by the community at large as traitors.
It is very sad, according to Lieutenant Colonel Qandil, that the police are widely seen as corrupt. “This is not true,” he heatedly said, “I am a Lieutenant Colonel, and to date I do not own a private car; our salaries are the same as those of public servants, despite our hazardous work conditions.”
“How can there be any ‘reconciliation’ between the police and the public?” he asks. “How can I reconcile with someone whom I penalised because of his infringement against the law? Criminals and outlaws will always hate police, while those who respect the law will always respect the police.”
It is Lieutenant Colonel Qandil’s opinion that relations between the public and the police will take time to improve. He perfectly agrees with Dr Ghubashi, however, that the curriculum of the police academy has to change to cope with human rights and the technological age.
“The police, the military and the people of Egypt are one hand,” should be the motto of the coming period, they both agreed.