Egyptian Police Continue Beatings, Get Raises
Published Friday, November 2, 2012
Nearly two years after Egypt’s revolution, the security officials responsible for widespread brutality have not been held accountable. Instead, they’ve been promoted. As Egyptians seek to reform their law enforcement agencies, they must reckon with both the violence of the present and the past.
On the evening of September 16, Atef al-Mansi walked up to the local police station in Meit Ghamr, an industrial town in the Nile Delta, to help file an assault complaint against the police. When he reached the gates, officers began beating him with the butts of their rifles and dragged him inside the station. He would not come out alive.
An hour earlier, police forces had launched a raid on cafes and shops in the nearby area of Wesh El-Balad, making several arrests. Witnesses said police overturned and smashed furniture while insulting and beating residents. One of those assaulted, an elderly proprietress, wanted to file a complaint against the police. Mansi – on vacation from work in Libya to visit his parents – offered to escort her to the station.
Family and friends of those arrested had already gathered outside to demonstrate against the brutal raid. These eyewitnesses later attested to Mansi’s beating at the hands of security forces. Shortly thereafter, the 47-year-old's bruised body was dumped outside the station gates. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at hospital.
Mansi's death prompted the demonstrations outside the station to grow, with some protesters hurling rocks at the police. Officers opened fire on the crowd, killing a second person, Sayed Adel, 24, and gravely wounding another, Rami Mohamed. Both were unarmed.
The Ministry of Interior later claimed a group of thugs had converged on the police station to try and free their friends who were detained inside and the police had responded with necessary force.
The incident in Meit Ghamr encapsulates the key characteristics of an internal security apparatus in Egypt that has remained untouched by reform nearly two years after the revolution: increasing levels of torture and use of deadly force against civilians; the continued targeting of poor and marginalized communities; and a reinvigorated sense of impunity. The only thing changed is an unyielding citizenry that is no longer silent in the face of abuse.
"Police practices are the same if not worse than before," said Magda Boutros, the criminal justice director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "We are seeing a trend of more brutality in the way police are acting."
In an October 6 speech, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi lauded his administration's performance in his first hundred days in office, claiming to have fulfilled his campaign promises to tackle Egypt's five most pressing problems, one of which was surging crime and lawlessness. Speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands at Egypt's largest sports stadium, Morsi claimed he had achieved a 70 percent improvement in security.
Yet the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of of Victims of Violence, based in Cairo, published a study shortly after Morsi's speech that found more than 240 cases of police brutality during the first hundred days of his presidency. The study found that police killed 34 people in police stations, public places, or prisons in the past three months. There were another 88 cases of torture and at least seven cases of sexual assault. Morsi's first hundred days also saw the forceful dispersion of at least ten protests, including those held by Nile University students, teachers, and organized labor.
"This is not security," said Aida Seif El Dawla, co-founder of the Nadim Center. "A tendency to stability that is based on killing people is not stability, this is Mubarak's style of governing."
The longstanding enmity between the police and the Egyptian people was one of the basic causes of the revolution. Indeed, the 2011 uprising coincided with National Police Day. Yet 21 months later, there have been no serious changes within the police and security apparatus.
"The same mindset that was present before the revolution at the Interior Ministry is the same mindset now," said Dr. Mohammed Mahfouz, a former police colonel and a founding member of the Honorable Police Officers Coalition. "It's a mindset that views citizens as enemies, a mindset that believes security can't be achieved without doling out punishment and the abuse of human rights."
Several human rights groups working in the area of security reform claim that police abuse in the past few months may exceed pre-revolution levels. Security forces are more prone to use firearms and lethal force on civilians and cases of police torture resulting in death are increasing.
"There is a sense of revenge among Ministry of Interior officials," Dawla said, referring to the forced withdrawal from the streets of security forces on 28 January 2011, the so-called "Friday of Rage," after failing to contain the massive anti-Mubarak protests.
Meanwhile, open resistance to police violations has become a common feature of Egyptian society as citizens, emboldened by the experience of the revolution, often confront security forces in the face of abuse. "Communities have become less silent than they used to be," said Boutros. "This resistance causes more brutal responses from the police."
Since Mubarak's ouster, changes within the Interior Ministry have come only in response to mounting public pressure and thus far have been largely cosmetic. On 5 March 2011, protesters stormed several offices of the notorious State Security Investigations service (SSI). The estimated 100,000-strong SSI was infamous for its contempt for human rights and was heavily involved in some of the most repressive practices of the Mubarak regime, including relentless crackdowns on dissent and arbitrary arrests.
In the wake of these protests the Interior Ministry announced that the SSI had been dissolved and would be replaced by the National Security Agency. Yet the change is widely viewed as being in name only. "The regulatory framework of the police is exactly the same and the practices are the same if not worse," Boutros said. "The only thing that has changed is a raise in salaries for police officers."
In July 2011, following mounting public pressure, former interior minister Ibrahim Eissawi retired 82 colonels and 505 generals, including 27 accused of killing protesters "in what was described as the biggest police reshuffle in history," according to a special report by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) on security sector reform in Egypt. Similarly, in July of this year, former interior minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced the ending of service of 454 major generals.
"Many considered the 'retirement' of major-generals as a 'safe exit', making accountability for any human rights abuses they may have committed or ordered elusive," Amnesty International stated in a recently published report, “Agents of Repression: Egypt's Police and the Case for Reform.”
One glaring example is Wael el-Komi, the former head of the Investigative Police Unit in the Raml district of Alexandria. Prior to the revolution, Komi had faced repeated charges of abuse and torture. After Mubarak's ouster, he was accused of being personally responsible for the killing of 37 protesters on 28 January 2011. In the July 2011 reshuffle at the Interior Ministry, Komi was transferred to the the police department monitoring electrical power where he was given a higher position and a salary raise.
"Wael el-Komi is being rewarded with a very comfortable retirement package rather than being punished," said Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "We cannot talk of institutional reform separate from accountability and justice, separate from the documentation of abuse and compensating those with grievances."
Indeed, the lack of justice or accountability for crimes committed by security forces, most notably the killing of hundreds of protesters during the revolution, is arguably the single biggest impediment to initiating a process of reform within the internal security apparatus.
While impunity was commonplace during the Mubarak regime, expectations were high in the wake of the revolution that perpetrators of police violence would be brought to justice. Yet dozens of officers charged with killing protesters, including top officials in the Interior Ministry, have been acquitted in court. To date, hardly anyone has been found guilty for the deaths of over one thousand Egyptian citizens.
"If you look at the number of acquittals it's almost routine," said Said Haddadi, the author of the Amnesty report. "It gives police officers the sense that 'they are trying to cover up for whatever abuse we do' so they continue to act as if they are above the law."
As in years past, police abuse is primarily directed at the poor and marginalized sections of society. "The absolute majority of people who get illegally detained, tortured, who lose their lives to torture or to use of gunfire are people who are socially or economically deprived," said Dawla. Furthermore, those lacking financial clout or political connections are much more likely to go from being victim to offender. The Meit Ghamr incident is a case in point where the police accused demonstrators outside the station of thuggery.
In March 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) amended the country's penal code to add the crime of "thuggery," vaguely defined as "displaying force or threatening to use force against a victim." Yet in addition to being a legal crime, thuggery has become a common term in the media applied to poor people involved in demonstrations (well-to-do protesters are referred to as 'revolutionaries') allowing for violent police crackdowns.
Since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011, various conferences and seminars have been held to discuss police reform. "The most comprehensive proposal for change has come from the National Initiative for Rebuilding the Police, a civil society initiative that includes human rights nongovernmental organizations and concerned citizens,” according to the USIP report.
The initiative proposes a series of immediate and long-term steps that "aim to reform the domestic security establishment based on the principles of accountability, political leadership, and decentralization. The plan also seeks to uphold the civilian character of the security forces and grant police the ability to unionize and lobby for greater rights and better working conditions," as summarized by the report.
For example, as an immediate measure, the project proposes the minister of interior suspend all police officers charged with killing protesters and to put police officers convicted of human rights violations on reserve. As a long-term measure, the initiative calls for a civilian to head the ministry, rather than someone promoted from within the security apparatus.
"There is a very big difference when you get a security official and ask him to execute a political agenda to protect the regime or you get a political official and ask him to execute a security agenda to protect society and its citizens," said Mahfouz, the former police colonel who is a key member of the project's working group.
The project was presented to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and successive governments under their rule in 2011 with no response. In February 2012, project members began lobbying the newly-elected parliament. By May, the Defense and National Security Committee within the People's Assembly had agreed to adopt a set of transitional legislative provisions proposed by the reform initiative that could have paved the way for reform measures to begin.
"We had a breakthrough," said Shahbandar, a member of the project's working group. "They were going to adopt our project with very minor changes." However, the process was derailed when parliament was dissolved by a court ruling in June. The group is now lobbying Morsi's office with reportedly positive feedback from presidential advisor Pakinam El-Sharkawy and Vice President Mahmoud Mekki.
Yet reform advocates remain skeptical of the Morsi government – or the group from which he hails, the Muslim Brotherhood – are inclined to adopt major policies needed to reform the Interior Ministry.
"I don't think there is political will to reform the security sector in the real sense of the word," Boutros said. "The Brotherhood keep talking about restoring security in order to bring investors to Egypt but we don't hear from them any talk about reforming the security sector for it to be more respectful of human rights or the rule of law."
The Morsi government is seeking to revive a struggling economy plagued by dwindling foreign reserves and an ever-widening budget deficit. Stability and security are at the top of the agenda to entice foreign investors and secure international loans.
"Morsi's regime is motivated by economic growth, inviting foreign investments and so on," said Dawla. "There is no big difference between them, the Brotherhood, and the Mubarak regime in this respect. They want stability for money to pour in, the rest can wait."
In August, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki announced that the Ministry was preparing a new emergency law to enable the president to to ensure security. The draft was subsequently withdrawn following a public uproar. A few weeks later, the Interior Ministry proposed another law under the heading “The Law to Protect Society from Dangerous People,” seeking to use emergency-like powers to deal with "recurrent crimes." After this bill was rejected, a slightly modified draft resurfaced this month under the name “Safeguarding the Gains of the Revolution.”
The cabinet has also proposed another law to criminalize obstruction of work – namely strikes – that can be applied to anyone who incites or promotes the obstruction of work, even if no actions take place. "This is something that is clearly against human rights, it's very difficult to justify," said Boutros. "It basically allows you to give sentences of detention in workplaces for periods of time that are undefined for people who have not committed any crimes."
Despite the formidable obstacles to achieving police reform in Egypt, advocates remain cautiously hopeful about the prospects for change.
"There is a limit to what oppression people can take," Dawla said. "One thing that was gained in this revolution is the sense that we can change something, we can induce change if we want to, if we persist."