This is Part 3 of a 3-part series: Egypt’s Transition
Parts 1 / 2 / 3
Post-revolution Egypt is struggling to rebuild its political system and revive its economic development, but instability is hindering progress on both fronts. During the popular uprising in January and February of this year, police stations were burned and law enforcement personnel suddenly disappeared from the streets. Five months later, many police officers still have not returned to their jobs.
Aware that soldiers are not capable of performing police duties, the army generals, who have placed themselves in charge of the country until elections are held, apparently have taken on a daunting task: reform the existing police force – or what remains of it – so that law and order can be restored.
The job is not an easy one as the relationship between the police and the Egyptian public is in shambles. Among the gripes that brought Egyptians to the streets in January in the first place were thirty years of police brutality and corruption they endured during President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Police abuse, instead of dissipating with the onset of the revolution, actually spiked during the uprising, with police and security forces using what was widely condemned as excessive force against protesters. The confrontation opened old wounds and only deepened lingering public distrust in the police. In the aftermath of the revolution, thousands of Egyptian police officers never went back to work fearing public anger and possible retributions.
General Sameh Seif El-Yazal, Chairman of El-Gomhoria Center for Security Studies in Cairo, says that getting officers to report back to duty creates one of the biggest challenges facing post-revolution Egypt.
“The feeling of [being] insecure is a bad feeling,” he said adding that this “actually affects the economy a lot as well as the stability of the country.”
El-Yazal strongly believes that lack of security is also negatively impacting domestic and foreign investment as well as tourism, with the latter accounting for about 30 percent of foreign currency revenues.
Mubarak era remnants
Omar Afifi is a former police officer in Egypt and author of a widely popular book that got him in trouble with Mubarak’s security apparatus. The book, whose title roughly translates to “So you don’t get hit on the back of your neck,” was meant as a guide to Egyptians on how to avoid getting their rights abused by police.
Afifi argues that the existing security gap is being artificially maintained by elements of the old regime. He says it's intended to intimidate Egyptian citizens and serve as a pretext to postpone elections that are due later this year. According to Afifi, it’s a rather well orchestrated ploy.
“Thugs are being hired to achieve that goal by insiders from within the Ministry of Interior and the recently disbanded state security apparatus, and financed by remnants of Mubarak’s dissolved National Democratic Party," Afifi said.
Afifi believes that, despite some opposition, there actually exists a good amount of political will to reform the police - something he thinks could have and should been done within a couple of months after Mubarak’s resignation. But even today it's not too late, he says, arguing that only a few steps would be needed to create a viable and effective police force.
The first step Afifi suggests would be to purge the top layer of Egypt's police force of corrupt officers who worked closely with the former minister of interior. Then, he suggests hiring the 150,000 graduates of law schools who recently finished their military service. They would be trained for one month on the basics of police duties with a focus on how to operate without violating citizens’ rights.
Afifi says such a new recruitment effort would not even require dipping into already limited resources since the new recruits would replace officers who are already not performing their jobs.
Ihab Youssef, Secretary-General of People and Police for Egypt, a non-governmental organization hopes to improve the strained relationship between the public and the police force. He says in addition to reform, some sort of reconciliation process is needed between the two sides.
Youssef believes the Ministry of Interior, first and foremost, should go public and acknowledge the mistakes that have been committed in the past. Also, he thinks that the ministry needs to embrace new methods and technologies – ones that would allow it to move away from old practices, such as extracting information through the use of force.
Youssef says new police stations should showcase an entirely new conduct that should be based on respect and a sense of public service. He believes if that happened, the police could gain public confidence which, in turn, would allow it to perform its job more effectively. He also stresses that a police force respectful of citizens’ rights is key to improving the situation. Youssef adds but that policemen should have more rights as well, including better salaries and shorter working hours.
Security experts agree that the Egyptian security apparatus is due for a complete institutional make-over. They say reforms should focus on how to make various institutions democratic, service-oriented and respectful of basic citizens’ rights. As for how to address the deeply entrenched arrogance and brutality among many officers, some suggest psychological training for younger officers and reassignment of higher ranking officers to different jobs. Others suggest that Egypt should look at and use as models other countries that went through similar experiences transitioning from autocratic regimes to democracies - like Georgia and Chile.