Ferguson’s lessons for Egypt

What’s unfolding in Ferguson Missouri is undoubtedly a terrible sight.

A young unarmed man was shot at least six times and killed by a police officer. Witnesses claimed the fatal final shots came as his hands were up and standing at an unthreatening distance. The Ferguson police department has a history of using excessive force and racial profiling. Taken in this context, the killing of the 18-year-old Michael Brown is far from surprising. Indeed, every week over the course of seven years, white police officers have killed an average of two black men. Not every instance has been unjustified, but there have been too many and too many have been inadequately investigated. Every such instance increases tension in communities and well-founded suspicion of the police.

In some ways the societal view of police in Egypt and the United States is not that different. There are deep divisions in society, where certain people see police as a central source of order doing a difficult and sometimes risky job and others see police as an arbitrary bludgeon of the state and people of privilege. Both can in fact be true and almost certainly are. In Egypt, these concerns are exacerbated by frequent corrupt acts by police that virtually everyone has witnessed if not been affected by personally. This is decidedly less common in the US. That’s not to say there’s no corruption among American police but it simply isn’t on the widespread scale we experience here.

As of late, some Egyptians have looked at Ferguson, like the rest of the world, in horror at what is taking place there. That is a normal and humane response to a community that is in mourning and faces repression. However, others appear to look with a degree of pleasure that America is engaging in repressive action against protesters. This second group seeks to liken the actions of the Ferguson police department to that of our own police in dealing with protesters and use this analogy to claim, that if this is how American police treat protesters, no one should be complaining about the behavior of Egypt’s police in managing crowds.

This analogy, like so many in our society, is profoundly weak. While the behavior of the Ferguson police is condemnable and I join in the condemnation of it, it is in no way comparable to what has been witnessed in Egypt with respect to police brutality against protesters. The first people who should be angry with and condemn the behavior of Egyptian police when dealing with protesters are Egyptians. They kill, maim and torture us. UN condemnations and human rights investigations aside, we should be the main source of fury and criticism against a security apparatus that casually brutalizes critical voices in our population.

In the United States there is widespread solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson and condemnation of the police. The media in the United States has cast an increasingly critical light on the behavior of the police and journalists in Ferguson have been overwhelmingly negative in their reporting on police actions there. In Egypt, too many have justified terrible violence against protesters and the media has been all but silent if not supportive of police brutality.

The sad truth is that no matter how badly the Ferguson police have behaved themselves over the past couple of weeks, it would represent a dramatic improvement in the quality of policing in Egypt if our police were half as restrained as theirs. What is the body count after two weeks of protests in Ferguson, which while mostly peaceful has also included destruction of property and looting? The only person killed was the person whose death sparked these protests to begin with: Michael Brown. While his death is already one too many, it likely wouldn’t make a headline in Cairo these days. We have grown accustomed to and even complacent about police killings.

The most important difference between the behavior of Ferguson police and Egyptian police is not that the police are better or more caring people. Indeed, their embarrassing record of racial repression and violence demonstrates that this is not the case. No, the most important difference is the quality of their training. Police in the United States do use excessive force and far too often to be excused as isolated incidents, however they are far better trained to deal with crowd control, protests and even riots while avoiding using lethal force. To date, no government has made a serious investment in training our police to deal with crowds without large body counts. The result is many unnecessary deaths of our fellow Egyptians.

The call for a better trained police force is not a call for leniency nor even a criticism of individual police officers. Like any group of people, Egypt’s police would benefit from higher quality training so that they can do their job more effectively and with less loss of human lives. Other benefits of this training would be less anger towards police and the state they represent. As Ferguson has shown us, every unnecessary death can create deep divides between communities and the police. In many communities the brutality of the police has resulted in deep distrust between citizens and the individuals who ideally are meant to protect them.

If we are to attempt to continue this transition towards a new Egypt, that new state must place a higher value on the lives of its citizens. One way it can do that is train its police well in how to deal with protesters without using lethal force. Protests are here to stay. A sign of progress in Egypt would be ensuring that not every protest need to be followed by a funeral or series of funerals which escalates tensions and increases the likelihood of violence from both sides.

We often insist the blood of Egyptians is not cheap, it’s time to put our money where our mouths are and make the necessary investment in training the police in crowd control and protest response. Too many lives depend on this investment.

Timothy E. Kaldas 

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