The police are back, but for how long?

Perhaps the people happiest with humankind’s failure to turn the sci-fi legend of time machines into reality are Egypt’s policemen.

Three years ago, and more specifically by the dawn of January 28, 2011, the day that would be dubbed the “Friday of Anger,” policemen were running away from masses of angry protesters. Some of them removed their uniform and ran in the streets in their underwear, calling for salvation. Others chose to stay inside police stations, waiting for orders to retreat, as protesters set their offices on fire.

In contrast, a few days ago, police trucks drove down Ramses Street in Downtown Cairo amid supportive chants from masses of Egyptians who took to the streets to celebrate the third anniversary of the January 25, 2011 revolution. Police forces were just back from a mission to disperse a smaller demonstration of 1000 protesters organized by the Revolution Path Front, which opposed both the current pro-military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Forces occupied the area facing the Journalists Syndicate, where the protest took place a few hours before. The streets soon filled up with pro-military protesters carrying policemen on their shoulders.

“It is an amazing development in redefining the relationship between the police and society,” says Mohamed Mahfouz, a former police colonel and coordinator of the initiative Police for Egypt’s People. “I thought that relocating the seeds of trust between the police and the people would only take place after many years and much legislation. But, police participation in the June 30 revolution alongside the people reignited this trust, bringing renewed hope that there would be a change for the better.”

On June 30, masses took to the streets to demand the resignation of President and Brotherhood-affiliate Mohamed Morsi, amid widespread support from the police and the military. Days later, the military intervened and ousted him, ushering a new dynamic between the police and the people that is radically different to that of the last three years, in which the police have often been demonized, clashed with, and violently targeted.

For Brigadier General Sayed Emarah, the head of Criminal Investigations at the Daqahliya Governorate, popular support for the police today represents a radical shift from the situation on January 28, 2011. This support, he says, “gives policemen the self-confidence to stand against any security challenge.”

“The people, with their intuition and intelligence on June 30, discovered who is behind the destruction of the police apparatus. So they revolted against those who did this and supported the police,” says Emarah. He adds that “the pure revolutionary forces” as he puts it, never meant to dismantle the police apparatus back in January 2011.

Emarah is not the only person today to seize the current popularity of the police to rewrite the January 2011 narrative of anger against security forces by blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for stirring such sentiments.

But Karim Ennarah, a researcher in police issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, sees popular support for the police as representative of a temporary intersection of interests. Both parties, the people and the police, are united by their hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, he says.

More critically, this support of the police, Ennarah argues, may very well change, given the heightened arbitrary violence committed by the security apparatus.

“Some policemen are stupid. Once the door is open for them, they practice repression widely, not only on Islamists in their so called war on terror, but also in criminal investigations, at checkpoints, and in other areas,” Ennarah says.

Besides repressing Islamists supporting Morsi, the police have gone against many protests undertaken by revolutionary forces, even those who participated in ousting the Brotherhood on June 30.

Many activists considered to have been at the forefront of the January 25 revolution have been imprisoned using the newly passed Protest Law, which was pushed by the Ministry of Interior and adopted by the interim government despite the opposition of various civil forces and human rights organizations.

Other activists had their homes raided and searched without orders from the prosecution, as with Aalem Wassef on January 24. Wassef, an activist, was later arrested and released on the same day. Hassan Nafea, professor of political science at Cairo University, described the situation as “determination from a sector within the police to retaliate against the activists who made the January 25 revolution happen.”

Emarah responds by saying that the police apparatus is quite aware of the critical need for popular support and that the force is constantly raising awareness of this. He thinks it will be hard for people to lose their confidence in the police apparatus as a result of violations in the future. “In the case of any violations, there will be some rigid procedures to be taken,” he adds.

But for this popular support of the police to continue, Ennarah argues there has to be reform of the police apparatus. Certain practices by the police have to stop, he says, while there has to be a process of social and economic containment by the regime, or absolute repression will lead to an explosion eventually.

During Hosni Mubarak’s time, bribery was common, especially among traffic police and police in general. A repressive relationship governed the dynamics between the police and society, especially the lower classes. 

The police practices that survived for decades are believed to have led to the burning of police stations on January 28, 2011. Videos showing violations such as citizens’ torture in police stations and in the streets circulated online before 2011. The case of the young Alexandrian Khaled Saeed, beaten to death by policemen, went viral online and has been considered by some as one of the seeds of the Egyptian revolution.

“No regime will be ruling for more that a year if the police continue what they are doing now without reforms,” Ennarah maintains.

He says that this process of redeeming trust has to be pursued carefully. “Even if we talk pragmatically and away from the discourse of rights and freedoms, this process cannot be based on repressing the common enemy alone, namely the Brotherhood, as well as a large portion of the people. This process has to be accompanied by structural changes within the police apparatus, which will produce a new relationship with society. This hasn’t happened yet,” he says.

Mahfouz agrees with Ennarah with regards to the need for training and rehabilitation for the police, in order that they don’t lose the trust initiated on June 30. 

“The police are not required to be trained to kill. It’s not the army, which has to train to kill enemies at wartime. The Ministry of Interior’s job is to surround criminals and arrest them, but not kill them. Arms have to be used only for self-defense and in extreme necessity,” Mahfouz adds.

There are divergent views on the ministry’s restructuring. For Emarah, restructuring means getting rid of corrupt figures within the apparatus, without changing anything else. He also sees a need for developing technical support and proper training to deal with the people respectfully and professionally. This process, Emarah argues, is ongoing. “Restructuring doesn’t mean what the Brothers wanted, which was the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the Ministry of Interior.”

But Ennarah and Mahfouz think that restructuring the ministry requires an overhaul that is not limited to personnel in order for the apparatus to become a patriotic one that serves the people and respects human rights.

Mahfouz says that nothing has changed in terms of policies and legislation within the Ministry of Interior.

“There were no reforms to the police apparatus except the raising of salaries of those working in the ministry. Despite the fact that this is a good thing, it is a convincing bribe for those working in the police apparatus to guarantee their loyalty,” he says.

“The reason is that there was never the political will among decision makers, be it from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [that ruled the country briefly following the 2011 revolution] or the Brotherhood, to perform a true restructuring of the Ministry of Interior,” Mahfouz adds.

Ennarah, like Mahfouz, thinks that restructuring the Ministry is tightly connected to political will. Every minister of interior that came after the January revolution would pursue “the prestige of the state campaign” and the first of his victims would be street vendors. But for three years, the police did not manage to control the public sphere, Ennarah adds.

“The only minister who dealt with a reform discourse was Mansour al-Eissawy, but he didn’t pursue any genuine reforms or change. Following the Maspero events in October 2011, this reform discourse disappeared and was replaced by the discourse of state prestige and its exposure to conspiracies that have to be confronted,” Ennarah says.

Eissawy took over the ministry in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, which governed from March to November 2011. He resigned following the Mohamed Mahmoud violence in November, when tens of protesters were killed and hundreds were injured in clashes with the police.

After Eissawy, came Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri. During Ibrahim’s time, the Port Said football massacre took place, when 72 Ahly Club fans were killed in the aftermath of a game with the Masry Club before a silent police. Clashes followed in Cairo between security and protesters angered by the negligence that accompanied the death of Ahly fans, while the Islamist-controlled parliament backed the security forces.

The first cabinet under Morsi’s rule, headed by Hesham Qandeel, brought Ahmad Gamal Eddin to the Ministry of Interior. Gamal Eddin is known for his popularity among policemen, because he spared them from defending the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood that were subject to several attacks across the country after Morsi pronounced the Constitutional Declaration in November 2012, through which he immunized his decisions from judicial oversight, stirring widespread anger.

Morsi ousted Gamal Eddin shortly after Brotherhood supporters accused him of not standing firmly against protesters opposing Morsi at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace. These protests ended in fierce clashes in December 2012 between Brotherhood supporters and their opponents, when 11 were killed and hundreds injured.

Ibrahim came back to stay and survive Morsi’s ouster, even when he stood against Morsi’s opponents, only to then stand against his supporters following June 30 under the banner of the “war on terror.”

Ennarah says that for the last three years, there were a lot of opportunities for police reform, such as in the aftermath of the Port Said massacre. But the Brotherhood didn’t use this opportunity, given the lack of political will in reforming the police. Ennarah adds that in the aftermath of the Port Said massacre, a group presented a proposal for the restructuring of the Ministry of Interior to Parliament, but it was kept on the back burner. “With many opportunities missed consecutively, now we’ve reached a period where the war on terror discourse prevails and the talk of police reform has disappeared,” he says.

“After June 30, the situation changed, since the enemy changed for the people from the Ministry of Interior to the Brotherhood. The situation also changed because of community violence, which gave the Ministry of Interior the legitimacy of repression that was used to control the political sphere long before June 30,” Ennarah adds.

Ennarah argues that any ruling regime with good intentions struggles to strike a balance between reforming state institutions on one hand, and imposing power and control through its security apparatus on the other. For him, the success of any regime depends on its ability to establish both. This is where the Muslim Brotherhood failed, as they couldn’t perform either adequately.

“Any attempt to talk about ministry reform now is met with hesitation. Colleagues inside the apparatus consider themselves to be in a dangerous situation, as they are leading the war on terror. They consider that there is no space to talk about police reform because they are dying in the streets,” says Mahfouz.

But Ennarah reminds us, “the war on terror should not be the excuse for the continuation of police corruption.”


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism