Major clashes erupted in Cairo overnight, underscoring the volatility of Egypt as it seeks to transition from revolution to a more democratic state. Thousands of protesters, demanding speedier prosecutions for the police who killed hundreds of demonstrators earlier this year, clashed with riot police in Tahrir Square.
The rioting snowballed after a planned memorial service for Egyptians killed in the uprising went awry last night. When families of the dead arrived at the Balloon Theater downtown, they were turned away by security. Shouting soon escalated, and police began beating people and using tasers, with the crowd eventually swelling. Later in the evening, the clashed moved to Tahrir Square.
Today the roads to the iconic square, which served as the epicenter for a revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, were lined with rubble Wednesday. Ambulances whizzed by, police lobbed tear-gas canisters, and protesters retaliated by throwing stones. Nearly 50 policemen and 132 protesters have been injured, according to security and hospital officials cited by the Associated Press.
The police, once feared by civilians, are now seen as leftover elements of Mubarak’s regime and treated with little respect. Pulled off the streets after violently cracking down on protests in January, they are now trying to reshape their role in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
But their tarnished image and dwindled presence since Jan. 28, which has coincided with a rise in crime, are having harrowing effects on Egypt's stability. Analysts say reduced levels of effective security are one of the foremost issues thwarting potential mending of the troubled economy.
“There are a lot of people speaking out against the police and instances of people breaking into police stations, which is unheard of,” says Ahmed Kamaly, associate professor and chair of the economics department at the American University in Cairo. “They are going to scare off investors.”
Police cadets train despite popular disdain
Inside the sprawling, majestic complex of Egypt's Police Academy, drums boldly beat as horses trot across the equestrian field. Cadets move about in crisp white uniforms with their heads held high despite feelings of disdain among the population they’re training to serve.
“When people on the street see me in uniform, some respect me, but others yell things like ‘You’re useless!’,” says third-year student Mohammad al-Zawahary sitting poised in his black-rimmed hat. “But I don’t get upset, because it’s expected.”
In one recent case in early June, an outraged mob lit fire to a police station not far from downtown Cairo after a brawl erupted between a bus driver and a policeman; the driver had been found to be dead. While the Interior Ministry denies foul play in the case, others claim police killed the driver after he was brought in to the station. Ninety police stations have been burned since the revolution’s start, according to government statistics.
As a result of ongoing attacks by civilians, policemen face demoralization, prompting the government to take action. Emad Hussein, president of the police academy – which is under the jurisprudence of the Interior Ministry – says it is addressing the psychological impacts these traumatizing events have on students. The academy is also stressing education about human rights and the importance of having good manners when it comes to dealing with civilians.
“This is the only way to regain confidence between people in the street and policemen,” Dr. Hussein says, sitting inside his stately office.
The Interior Ministry launched an community partnership initiative this month that aims to mend ties between civilians and police by having volunteers voice their ideas to police chiefs about how to solve crises and improve their services.
Khaled Said verdict due out tomorrow
The Interior Ministry has dissolved the State Security Investigations division, considered the ministry’s most abusive wing, which helped soften some of the public’s fears. Interior Minister Mansour El-Essawy apologized for violations committed by police and vowed to address civilians’ concerns.
But activists and human rights organizations are not satisfied.
Several hundred protesters gathered outside Cairo’s Interior Ministry in early June on the anniversary of Khaled Said’s death. The young businessman and activist was beaten to death outside a café in a case that quickly became a potent symbol of police brutality in Mubarak's Egypt, planting seeds of revolution.
The court verdict on whether police were in fact guilty of beating Said is due to come out tomorrow.
“We’re trying to end corruption,” said Amr Lofty, who attended the Said protest, as chants burst in waves around him. “You can’t end the big things and leave the little; you have to end it all.”
Dozens of policemen stood nearby in rows, wearing face-shielding helmets and holding black batons; but they didn’t use violence that day.
“We’re not intending to use force against the people,” said one police officer, leaning against a parked car as he clutched his walkie-talkie. “The only goal is to make sure Egypt is secure – most people don’t understand that.”
In a statement released in June, Human Rights Watch called on the government to allow civilian oversight of the police, permit independent auditing of detention sites, and allow torture complaints to be investigated transparently, among other demands.
But despite the troubles, one young cadet at the police academy says he is prouder than ever to put on his uniform.
“Police and society are one entity,” says 18-year-old Mahmoud Al Shafy, who just finished his first year of officers’ training. “My mother and father are from society, so I am from society – and what we need to think about is how we are going to rebuild it again.”
Moments later on the academy’s equestrian field, men loudly and proudly sounded their trumpets.
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