The police and the people: one hand, for now
One of the main reasons many Egyptians are nostalgic about the Hosni Mubarak era is the absence of security. Or rather the false sense of it.
"The Interior Ministry never provided general security, just political security (i.e. crushing dissent and bullying the Muslim Brothers)," says a former member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity and confessed to never quite understanding what gave the public the wrong impression. It was this sense of security that was overturned by the events following January 25, driven, the former NDP official sniffed, by “emboldened thugs” and the collective realization that one can drive in any direction one pleases on almost every road after the 2011 uprising.
Now, three years after the January 25 outburst of public fury they partly caused – which consumed much of their dignity, stations and vehicles, breached their prisons and relieved them of their weapons – Egypt’s Interior Ministry is still struggling to get back on its own two feet and restore some of that longed-for political security with excessive force and arbitrary arrests, as always disregarding the risk of galvanizing more opposition. A practice justified by pointing at the recent bomb attacks on police installations.
There is, however, something new about the general attitude towards security forces. After all, they went from having to withdraw from the streets after failing to quell protests against Mubarak in 2011 to receiving shoulder rides and kisses for handing out water to anti-Morsi protesters rather than spraying them with it in 2013. The change in police activity and popularity here – as videos and reports of continued police abuses suggest – is not the fruit of quick and radical police reforms, but rather the result of the popular reconciliation with them and the military in the wake of their overthrow of the unpopular but elected president Mohamed Morsi. This would not have been possible if it weren’t for the incredibly effective “[image] polishing [media] campaign,” according to a grateful police general, who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
It was hard trying not to stare at the 15 bullet holes in the wall behind the general’s head, while he was talking about how life has improved for police officers after June 30.
He caught me looking and laughed.
“These things [he looked over his shoulder to wave off the plaster-oozing evidence of attacks on the police station] happen in the best of countries,” he said. What matters is that policemen can, once again, sport their white uniforms everywhere without fear of verbal or physical abuse and they can arrest people without need for reinforcements to overcome the families and neighbors of the arrested, who used to body-block their vans to help a loved one or an acquaintance in cuffs. This is progress, he announced contentedly.
Much of that progress, the general, who is also head of a major explosives department noted happily, is thanks the media’s reframing of the police’s mission as a war on terrorism rather than a war on activism and opposition to the deep-state. This coverage of the shadowy war has substantially increased public sympathy for security forces in the past few months. Having decided from the very beginning that the terrorist attacks were too many to count or investigate, most journalists and TV presenters chose to simply blame the Brothers, even though Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for them. These anti-MB media rants are always more zealous after attacks like the one on the Mansoura Security Directorate . In fact, had the constitution not been passed yet, they would have probably turned the attack into another Vote Yes To Disappoint Terrorists commercial, complete with blood dripping from the MB’s four-finger Rabaa sign for symbolism.
When asked to comment further on the media’s enthusiasm for this topic, the general awkwardly admitted that they do exaggerate slightly, but they have good intentions. “It is not to spread panic in society, but respect (for policemen),” he added paternally.
While the uptick in attacks in Sinai seems more plausible given the region’s lawlessness, and drug, weapons and human trafficking trade, the reports coming out of the rest of the country are unreasonably exaggerated -- so much so that most of the police officers I have spoken to laughed when they heard the numbers and one asked if it included the tumultuous First Intermediate period of Ancient Egypt.
The few numbers reported in national and independent newspapers so far are 300 attacks in Sinai alone and a total of 1072 incidents of political violence, according to Democracy Index’s November report (that is, in four months here, more than double the total number of attacks in Iraq in the two years following the US invasion).
It is important to note that Democracy Index also supported the fantastical tales of 30 million protesters marching against Morsi in July and that newspapers used its figures to figuratively pat the state's shoulder, despite the fact that the report says that less than one-tenth of these attacks targeted state institutions.
FROM POLICE VS PEOPLE TO ‘RESIDENTS’ VS PEOPLE
According to the report, 190 of these acts of “political violence and terrorism” are clashes between protesters and security forces – 101 of which are clashes with plain clothed men dubbed “residents,” which, according to another former NDP MP, is code for baltageya (hired thugs) – which the MOI now uses to disperse protests to save the police force the effort and the damaging footage bound to emerge. Also, because there is the added advantage that no one seems to have qualms about a group of presumed civilians shooting one another, so long as the ones left bleeding are bearded. Sixty-two incidents are classified as protest that were dispersed by said residents; 16 attacks by Brothers on property, journalists and regular citizens; four attacks by citizens on MB property; 64 student clashes in universities and 32 clashes between students, security forces and the so-called residents. This leaves 610 incidents completely unaccounted for.
The real number of terrorist attacks, the head of the explosives department said casually, is around 100. Most probably. They, too, are not really keeping track. “(The count) is relative,” he said, airily.
That one-hundred-something, he added, includes all failed and successful attacks on police officers, soldiers, stations, checkpoints and churches, etc, that happened from July 3 to December nationwide. Yet Giza’s police department, for example, used to get an average of ten to twenty car bomb reports a week and about 200 reports of suspicious objects per month from mid-August to November.
“There is like a one in fifty chance the report is legitimate and it’s an explosive device...But just imagine that: an actual explosive device that can explode and kill people,” he said, as if shocked by the mere prospect of something blowing up in the middle of an allegedly merciless war.
Although driving for two hours with an explosives detection team for nothing is a pain, the general admitted, the police has and will continue to kindly refrain from legally pursuing citizens who make false reports, provided they are related to terrorism, to maintain the newly built bridges with the public. There is no point in arresting a housewife or shopkeeper wary of a dusty car parked in front of their property, when you can have a dog sniff it and save the day. This combined with the fact that the police seem to have taken the advice of national radio talk shows and now do ask nicely for one’s driver’s license in checkpoints has more than redeemed their image in the eyes of many, namely taxi drivers.
Meanwhile in Sinai, little to no news comes out, except for the rare Western report, and the army's daily self-congratulatory "(Insert any number) dangerous takfiri(s) down" reports and obituaries. This intense focus on defused terror threats stands in stark contrast to the reluctance to or disinterest in discussing the casualties and exact details of the “war on terrorism.” However, oddly enough, many are not denying the reported loss of civilian life and property due to the military’s campaign in Sinai in comparison to the disturbingly sincere denial of the violence the Raba’a el-Adawiya sit-in’s dispersal, which the majority of the police officers I spoke to exhibit. To them, only 43 people died on August 14. And they were all officers, regardless of what the official health ministry’s 627-dead report says.
There are two main approaches to justify the casualties of the military’s campaign in Sinai. The first argues that the Egyptian army is doing what the US army did to Afghanistan in the American war on terror: Following an understandably violent, but ineffective strategy. Supporters of this approach blame the Sinai mess on the hobbling of Egypt’s hated State Security, which they say means there is little intelligence for the military to use to narrow down their targets, and so it has to go in blind. In order to improve the situation in Sinai, the minister, they suggest, should man up and empower National Security – which former interior minister Mansour el-Essawy created to replace State Security – so it can do what its predecessor has always done well: oppress the bearded. The second approach says to shush.
“The army is doing a good job and this is good practice,” proclaimed one of the interior minister’s aides. “They haven’t fought since 1973, this is very good,” he added, with a thumbs up.
Another gain from the June 30 protests and its subsequent polishing campaign, according to a Giza police colonel, was the end of the “broken record” of complaints about police abuses of human rights, which briefly fooled people into thinking the police needed reform. “All that 'police are the tool of oppression' talk really got old,” he muttered.
The colonel’s reading of a leading cause of the 2011 uprising is unsurprisingly common inside the ministry. So is his ill-concealed contempt for the society that gave the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to rule, having failed or not even bothered to grasp the wisdom behind the ministry’s long history of persecuting it.
GRUDGINGLY BACK TO SCHOOL
In addition to pushing the subject of radical police reforms (a revolutionary demand) to the bottom of the list of things that can be discussed when (and if) the war ends, the media have also helped shove the fed-up security forces back to direct confrontation with protesters, namely student protesters. Ever since college campuses nationwide have become the center of MB protests, a debate within and outside the ministry has raged over whether or not the police should ignore another revolutionary demand (that they stay off campuses). The debate further exemplifies the police’s disdain for the civilian inability to appreciate their heavy-handedness.
“If Cairo University bursts in flames right now, I will not budge,” vowed the red-faced colonel, who still remembers the days when faculty members filed a lawsuit for the removal of security forces from campuses for freedoms and other nonsense, he said mimicking their voice childishly.
“The MOI is not (their) handmaiden, or anybody else’s for your information,” the colonel snapped, wagging a finger. “(Universities) kicked us out when we took care of things, so don’t come running back now. We don’t from and go as you please.” Which is why the police now require a phone call by the head of a university requesting their services before they make an appearance at or near the gates, where they obligingly position their weapons between the bars to shoot bullets and tear gas canisters at the protesting, rock-throwing students. Although they often wander further in and kill or seriously wound someone.
A NEW FRIENDSHIP
To many officers, the most significant change since 2011 in the ministry – besides the long-awaited pay raise, which was presumably granted to bring back absent officers who didn’t want to face angry Egyptians for less than 2,000 pounds a month – has more to do with the army and how the MB helped them get over their old rivalry with the Interior.
“There is used to be coldness between us,” said a young detective lieutenant. “We thought we were better than them and they thought they were better than us. But after Morsi, we started talking... And we worked on the street shoulder to shoulder, protected each other and broke bread together. We are one now,” he added, earnestly. This seems to corroborate a Reuters’ report about how mid-ranking police officers actively sought out and met their military colleagues to win them over and explain why their arch-enemy, the MB, should be a common enemy.
Some of the friction between the two is believed to have been born from police resentment of the additional financial and social privileges their army colleagues received, which should have been reduced by the pay raise, according to another ex-NDP MP.
However, some things don’t change – like the officers' respect for Mubarak's infamous former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, which they justify with tough-dad analogies and by citing his sagaciously heavy hand with Islamists and the creation of fancy sports clubs and hospitals for the force in his time. That deference to el-Adly has been passed down to the recently-graduated generation of officers, who never even worked under him and believe the rumor that the ministry’s budget allocated 6,000 pounds a month for their lowest-ranking officers (the lieutenants), when they were in fact only getting a meager 750 pounds. “[El-Adly] even used to tell officers who complained about their salaries that it was just their ‘pocket money'… you take your actual salary from the citizen,’” said the ex-NDP MP, chuckling at al-Adly’s (and her own) candour.
But despite the pay raise and the promise of more to come, lower level officers are unlikely to attain much social or personal gain in the coming years. A first lieutenant's salary is still, and will probably continue to be, not enough to afford him a life where he can sit in cafes often, shop or marry comfortably without the help of his father. “I have been working for three years now and I still have to take money from my parents,” a young detective said, laughing sheepishly. "Better than taking it from the citizen, right?"
The detective went on to say that if we ignore the fact that the force is underpaid, overworked, under-appreciated and under-equipped, it is one of the best in the world for it “has nothing, but does everything,” according to the impressed, and overtly envious, Western envoys his superiors told him about. “They [the Western envoys] always ask them: ‘How do you do this?’” he said with satisfaction.
Also happy with June 30 are the feloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime) who are suddenly also proud of their label, the ex-NDP MP said.“You know, when I walk into a conference or meeting, the first thing I say is I am feloul. We all do. The best minister in the cabinet now is feloul,” she said, patting her ironed-stiff black hair before adding that there was and still is nothing wrong with supporting Mubarak’s dictatorship or the “inheritance project” [i.e the plan to pass down the presidency to his son, Gamal] since at least, she argued with a sneer, it would have yielded civilian rule – “the unlikeliest form of governance in Egypt now.”