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Reforming the police is the solution, not emergency law

Published in Ahram Online on February 2, 2013

President Morsi, his group and government, have failed to resolve Egypt’s present crisis, and have deepened it. And while the opposition flounders, only the youth of the revolution can be relied upon

On 28 January 2011, the Friday of Rage, I walked with my friends on a long march from Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandiseen towards Tahrir Square. For nearly one hour we chanted what eventually became the slogans of the revolution: “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice” and “Peaceful, Peaceful.”

When we reached Galaa Square we were met by legions of State Security forces with their armoured vehicles, helmets, batons and hundreds of teargas canisters.

I remember well how we were fearless and did not retreat, standing our ground in the face of the tyrannical police force. We continued to chant our slogans in the few moments in which we caught our breath.

Then I found myself no more than one metre away from a State Security soldier holding a teargas gun ready to shoot it in our face, but he panicked because of our numbers and kept shouting, “Don’t come any closer” and we responded, “Don’t shoot.” He shook his head and kept repeating in a clear Upper Egyptian accent, “This is wrong; there’s something wrong here.” He put his gun down and began weeping.

Although the officer who watched this scene unfold ordered the conscript removed to police vehicles stationed behind the Sheraton Hotel and replaced him with another, at that moment I realised this was a defining historic moment. That the police had indeed collapsed and would not be able to stop us from reaching our target: Tahrir.

Since that day and over the past two years, many have called for reforming the police apparatus and restructuring the entire security sector. The events of the Friday of Rage revealed that the Central Security Forces — created in 1968 to deal with strikes in cities by mobilising large numbers of soldiers of rural origin to suppress demonstrations in urban areas — were powerless in the face of protests like the Friday of Rage.

The many protests that erupted across the country since then until today have proven that large sectors of Egyptians are fed up, not only with State Security policies but also police conduct that was commonplace under Mubarak’s rule and has not changed after the revolution.

This includes abuse of power by police officers; a degrading manner in dealing with citizens on the street and in police stations; recruiting thousands of dangerous criminals to work with them as guides; rampant torture in police stations and holding cells everywhere in the country, not only of the enemies of the previous regime (mostly Islamists) but also of suspects in ordinary criminal cases. This even resulted in death in many cases.

Over the past two years, there have been many articles and studies demanding an end to these violations, as well as reforming the police sector. These includes suggestions to change the unified uniform, choose a civilian to serve as minister of interior, not a police officer, review how officers are trained, change Police Academy curricula and demilitarise it. Also, developing new mechanisms for civilian oversight of this sensitive apparatus, and subjecting it to supervision by parliament and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Voices have gone hoarse stressing the importance of this issue, how it’s a balancing force and how neglecting to reform it would hinder the recovery of the judiciary’s stature as well as the economy. There have also been many warnings that if definitive steps are not taken quickly to reform this apparatus, it is likely that the peaceful character of the revolution would fade and it would take a violent and bloody turn.

Despite these many calls, diagnoses and proposed cures, those in power — starting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and ending with Muslim Brotherhood rule — did not give this issue the attention it deserves, leading to the explosive situation we live today.

The serious crisis we are experiencing nowadays is rooted in many causes, including the collapse of the economy, government paralysis, severe divisions and polarisation in society, a constitutional crisis that further divided and deepened instability.

At the same time, the opposition has failed to express the resentment and anger against Kandil’s government and Morsi’s presidency.

While all this is true and pertinent, I believe that at the heart of this crisis — and at the heart of the revolution — is the issue of security and police corruption.

Successive acquittals of officers accused of killing demonstrators compelled young demonstrators to revise the peaceful nature of protests. Other factors were the events at Port Said Stadium in February 2012, which highlighted the dubious role of police officers and the top brass in the bloody incident and inability of State Security forces in Suez to control themselves, as Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki declared in his landmark statements to Alaa Abdel-Fattah on one satellite channel programme.

These incidents confirmed once again how poorly these troops are trained and how unprofessional the entire apparatus is. Then came the death sentences in this case against civilians and none of the officers charged in the same case; for many, that was viewed as evidence that the justice system is off kilter.

Instead of realising the dangers of neglecting this issue and leaving the police without reform, President Morsi took measures that deepened the crisis and made matters worse. He neither ordered an independent investigation of the bloody events in Port Said that followed the verdict, nor did he call in the top security brass to question them about excessive use of violence. Neither did he fire the minister of interior.

To the contrary, and in clear defiance of logic, he decided to heal the sickness with the causes of the malady: he declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew in Suez Canal cities, and gave the military police judicial jurisdiction.

Thus, he resorted to the same failed methods as Mubarak had, which sparked the revolution. As for his group, instead of reminding him of the risks of a state of emergency, that they were the first to suffer under, and that security solutions are futile, they rushed to bless his move and demand more draconian measures.

The serious crisis we are experiencing is primarily caused by the corruption of the security sector, and is enforced by a lack of political will to end this corruption. President Morsi — who only left Mubarak’s jails two years ago — should have realised that the current crisis would not be resolved through security methods, but rather by subjecting security agencies to oversight and accountability.

The Muslim Brotherhood should have remembered their suffering under the state of emergency, in prisons and under torture, and insisted on reforming the Ministry of Interior. Meanwhile, the opposition should admit it completely failed to handle this crisis and step aside to make way for others to express genuine and effective opposition to the president, his group and government.

Lastly, the youth of this revolution, who launched and led it, must realise that they are the only ones who can make an accurate diagnosis of the crisis, have a clear vision of how to handle it, and steadfast determination to do so.

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