The Middle East Channel

Reforming the Egyptian police?

The second wave of the Egyptian uprising that led to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, took many by surprise. Besides its massive size and scope, the June 30 demonstrations revealed a significant change in the police’s handling of anti-regime protests. Unlike their vicious reaction to peaceful demonstrations in January ...

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

The second wave of the Egyptian uprising that led to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, took many by surprise. Besides its massive size and scope, the June 30 demonstrations revealed a significant change in the police’s handling of anti-regime protests. Unlike their vicious reaction to peaceful demonstrations in January 2011, the Egyptian police have been more cooperative — even welcoming — to the countrywide anti-Morsi demonstrations. The change in police behavior is not the result of security sector reforms but rather a better reading by the police of the domestic balance of power.

When pro-democracy activists took to the streets in January 25, 2011, they knew they were facing a brutal police that had been the repressive arm of the regime for decades. In fact, it was this very repression that encouraged many to join protests against former President Hosni Mubarak. Fueled by a long record of human rights abuses, the uprising was against police impunity as much as it was against Mubarak’s corruption; there is no doubt that the eruption of protests on Police Day was no mere coincidence. But contrary to activists’ expectations, the Ministry of Interior’s repressive machine broke down after the first few days of the 2011 uprising. 

Over the past two and half years, Egypt has taken some steps toward establishing a democratic system including holding free parliamentary and presidential elections, and legitimizing banned political parties. But the vital step of reforming the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and its police force has lagged behind. Except for changing the name of its intelligence unit from State Security Investigation to National Security and the color of police uniform, little can be claimed about a serious restructuring of the MoI. Despite the numerous conferences and initiatives dedicated to this end, efforts faltered because several political forces pulled in different directions. The quest for a new MoI reflected a competition among the military, members of the ancien regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, and human rights activists to reshape the state’s institution of law and order. Meanwhile police officers failed to formulate a unified vision for the future of their institution, and at times their preferences collided with the interests of these four groups.

In the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, the military emerged as the strongest and most cohesive state institution. Bearing the responsibility of governance at a time of surmounting challenges, it tried to provide security through its military police (MP), yet its direct engagement with society came with a heavy price tag. The MP lacked the proper training for civilian policing and complaints about its abusive detaining measures aired as early as the first weeks of the transitional period. It also lacked detailed information about criminals’ networks and their activities — knowledge that is readily available for the MoI. Unwilling to lose its credibility and public trust, the military took measures to improve the performance of the MoI while keeping it under its aegis. It agreed to improving the material benefits, training, and equipment of the police, but resisted calls to form independent syndicates for police officers. Encouraged by national calls for reform, some low and mid-rank officers proposed initiatives such as the General Coalition of Police Officers in the early months of the transitional period. They believed that an independent syndicate would be the best venue to express their grievances and protect their rights. Fearing contagion into its rank and file, the military firmly blocked the official recognition of police syndicates. Fragmented and still suffering from the collapse of their institution in 2011, MoI officers could not but accept the wishes of the big brother.

Unlike the military, the MoI suffered from limited professionalized and internal institutional imbalances under Mubarak. This reflected in an imbalanced distribution of benefits and services for the institution’s personnel. Many low ranking police officers and personnel below officer rank compensated for their low income by using the power of the badge to get free services from citizens, especially in the more impoverished quarters of the country. But perhaps the most serious problem has been the close association between some corrupt officers and members of the ancien regime and criminal networks. It may be common practice for police forces to use outlaws as informants, but in Mubarak’s Egypt, the affiliation developed into an employee-employer relationship; thugs were hired by some MoI officers to do Mubarak’s National Democratic Party’s bidding. In the process of protecting the frail regime, and as plans of grooming Gamal Mubarak for the presidency went ahead, services of criminals were appreciated and sought after. On officers’ demand, thugs targeted and attacked opposition leaders and their supporters especially during election seasons. As subcontracted agents of violence, criminals forged partnerships with some MoI officers. To a great extent, these security officers helped nurture and reproduce the very elements they were supposed to fight. In fairness, many officers within the MoI had rejected this approach, but there was little they could do especially since the Mubarak ruling elite seemed unbothered by this development. With Mubarak’s fall, a subtle conflict has emerged within the MoI between officers pushing for reform and those working to maintain the status quo. The entanglement of financial interests has made these business-violence networks more resilient than expected and has complicated the development of internal reform initiative.

On its side, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) endorsed rhetoric that called for a complete overhaul of the MoI but took few effective steps in that direction. Though these calls corresponded with those of human rights groups, the MB leadership seemed more interested in reshaping the MoI to guarantee a cooperative relationship with its members and political allies. From the beginning of the transitional period, the MB and its Freedom and Justice Party made attempts to take part in the state’s instatement of order. They offered to deploy some of their members into the country’s congested streets as aides to traffic police. They also called for the appointment of a minister of interior from outside the MoI, and the hiring of non-police academy graduates as police officers. The MoI rank and file adamantly refused all these proposals seeing these demands as attempts to penetrate the police force rather than professionalize it. Officers have argued that the MoI has enough human resources to provide security, positing that the way to improve the quality of policing is through reorienting the security missions and objectives and not by outsourcing new personnel. Furthermore, officers engaging in initiatives such as Officers But Honorable (OBH) and Officers Against Corruption (OAC) complained that their suggestions to improve accountability, rules of promotion and retention, and training received little attention by the MB’s ruling regime. Facing difficulties in penetrating or controlling the MoI, the Morsi administration sought a different route by introducing a bill to privatize security in February. The bill was to legalize private security providers and allow them to be bear arms around private properties. Both police officers and human rights activists objected to the proposal. They feared it would legitimize and expand private militias especially in light of the influx of massive quantities of arms from Libya and Syria to Egyptian territories and their availability in the black market. The MB’s reform suggestions resulted in widening the gap between Morsi’s administration and the MoI.

On another level, human rights groups have criticized the performance record of the MoI for years. Since the mid-2000s, activists have spoken not only about the MoI’s infringement upon political rights of dissidents, but also abuses against un-politicized citizens in police stations. Human rights groups have called consistently for the reorientation of the MoI’s missions emphasizing the priority of societal security over political security. They have argued that the state’s confrontation with militant Islamists in the second half of the 1990s impacted police performance by making them more violent when dealing with average citizens. Whereas some officers responded favorably to human rights demands, the majority of the officer corps felt that these criticisms were unfounded. As serious efforts to bridge this gap lacked, major disagreements with regards to models of policing, measures of efficient policing, the use of violence in enforcing law and order, and accountability of officers prevented a more collaborative effort by the two sides.

As protests against and for Morsi continue, the MoI body remains factionalized; it includes groups with different political inclinations and few reasons to defend the ousted president. Given the limited reform undertaken by the Morsi administration, there is no doubt that some elements are still loyal to the ancien regime, but there are many others who oppose Morsi’s policies on their own merits. In addition to those who feel they have not received enough institutional backing despite promises to do so, there is a substantial group who are troubled by the presence of militants within Morsi’s support base. These officers are not necessarily loyal to the Mubarak regime, but had engaged in a long violent battle with radical groups in Upper Egypt and still perceive its members as terrorists and enemies of the Egyptian nation-state. To them, the re-emergence of these militant figures in pro-Morsi rallies and over satellite television shows is a troubling development. And militants’ implicit threats to use violence against Morsi’s opposition only increase doubts about their respect for democracy. Notwithstanding their different political inclinations, officers agree that the most important lesson of January 2011 is that defending an unpopular regime is a wrong bet. They also learned that the autonomous military made a different decision and has enjoyed relatively higher public support and trust.

There is no doubt that the first and foremost goal for MoI officers now is to regain societal respect but that goal may be harder to realize given the delicate situation in Egypt now. Images of police officers giving out water bottles to anti-Morsi protesters are challenged by images of the violent disbanding of pro-Morsi protesters around the premise of the presidential guard. The road to building a more cohesive and professional MoI may be longer than expected.

Dina Rashed is a Ph.D. candidate at the political science department at University of Chicago. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes, armed actors, and civil-military relations.

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