Egypt's reviled police plead for understanding, support

Egypt's police, besieged by criticism for helping the government crack down on protesters, say they have been put in an unfair position and need protection. 

Khalil Hamra/AP
Two Egyptian police officers wear masks as they stand guard during clashes with protesters, not seen, near the state security building in Port Said, Egypt, Wednesday, March 6, 2013.

The police have withdrawn from the streets of the Suez Canal city of Port Said, and in the el-Sharq police station, officers in civilian clothes huddle around their weapons, waiting for an attack. 

Egypt's police are under assault as representatives of a state and a security apparatus that, protesters say, remains brutal and unreformed two years after change was demanded in Tahrir Square. El-Sharq's officers say they feel besieged by criticism from the media and a public that do not understand the difficulty of being caught between the government and the growing number of Egyptians angry with its actions.

They have joined police in at least 10 other governorates in a strike to demand better weapons, new political leadership, and immunity from prosecution. They say their weapons are inadequate for protecting themselves from the crowds they are sent out to control and they face what they consider unfair repercussions for their tactics. 

Deputy Station Chief Mohamed el-Adawy claims that Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has turned the police forces into a political tool by using them to control anti-government and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations.

“He is using the security forces as the first tool in political fights”, he says. “So we now refuse his orders.”

The police strikes are a rare public display of dissent from an institution that is much better known for suppressing demands than for voicing them. Egypt’s security services have been vilified for helping President Mohamed Morsi’s government crackdown on protesters.

But last week police in Alexandria and Ismailia refused orders to deploy to Port Said as the government struggled to regain control over violent street clashes thereFour days of fighting left more than 450 injured. On Friday morning, more than 30 police stations were closed in just a few hours. By nightfall, 10 barracks of riot police were also on strike.

Demonstrators or thugs?

El-Sharq's officers insist that weapons are not used against those who express legitimate grievances, but demonstrators say that unarmed protesters are routinely targeted with live ammunition.

Lying in a hospital bed, Amr Kamel shows bullet wounds in his chest, arms, and back that he says were sustained as he ran from police at a demonstration last week. His father says an unknown man visited the family and warned them against telling the media that their son had been shot with live ammunition.

Eyewitnesses at the scene describe a violent standoff between police and protesters, with small rocks being thrown by some of the demonstrators. According to Kamel, police eventually broke through the line of demonstrators, and chased them through the dark roads, firing as they ran.

But el-Sharq's officers insist that protesters were not the targets. "There were a lot of thugs beside the demonstrators," says Adawy. "Maybe they shot them by accident."

The regularity with which officers find themselves policing political demonstrations has prompted police to call for the resignation of the country's interior minister.  They argue that Mohamed Ibrahim is too close to President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party and that in a period of increasing polarisation between the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition groups, he is using the police force to silence dissent against Islamist rule.

In addition to grievances about being asked to stand against their own people, police officers also argue that they are not equipped to defend themselves at ongoing, sometimes violent demonstrations, claiming that their weapons often date back to the 1970s.

"They're not working properly”, says Mahmoud Metwaly, a sub-officer, “When you have a [misfiring] weapon it's like it doesn't exist. I'm not asking for everything. I just want the minimum."

Mr. Adawy waves his hand at the boxes of bullets that litter his desk. "This city is full of thugs," he says. “This ammunition is not for demonstrators, it is for people who we know will be coming to the station.”

Do police need protection too?

The officers also want legal protection from prosecution for harsh tactics they consider essential to do their job. They say their ability to work is being stymied by fears that a single misstep might result in a jail sentence.

But two years on from Egypt's revolution, the judiciary maintains the feeblest of records when it comes to prosecuting police for killing or injuring demonstrators. Last week, Mohamed el-Shenawy, known as the "Eye Sniper of Cairo," became only the third police officer to be jailed for attacking demonstrators since January 2011.

Mr. Shenawy is accused of intentionally blinding demonstrators with his shotgun, an act that el-Sharq's officers believe should be afforded immunity under their proposed law. They believe that they should be afforded leeway to use a higher degree of force when defending state institutions. 

“We believe that anyone acting illegitimately should be charged,” emphasizes Metwaly, “but Mohamed el-Shenawy was defending a very important institution: the interior ministry.”

The policeman's case came to light through YouTube footage that showed him firing at protesters during several days of violence in a street near Cairo’s interior ministry in November 2011. The officers believe that Shennawy’s prosecution proves that the current legal framework protecting police is insufficient, and argue that Shennawy’s actions were justified as they took place one street away from their ministry’s headquarters.

“Before people criticize us for using force against demonstrators, they must stand with us on the other side of the line,” says Ahab Kamel, a sub-officer in Port Said’s police force. “Thousands of people are attacking us.”

The Army steps in

As the strike gathers momentum, draining the government of security manpower on the streets, Morsi has ordered their full withdrawal from Port Said’s streets and called on the Army to step in.

Announcing news of the police's withdrawal to crowds gathered outside the city's security directorate, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Wassefy was greeted with chants of "the Army and the people are one hand." Despite a troubled stint in power after the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s military commands a far higher level of respect than the police, and is viewed by many as a symbol of national pride.

According to Robert Springborg, an expert on Egyptian military affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, the military's response to the request to contain protests will be more mixed.

“The military has never wanted to be in the crowd control business, nor do they want to be seen as taking orders from President Morsi,” says Professor Springborg. “But there are no other institutions with the authority to step in.”

Because the Army's budget and leadership are autonomous, it is in a strong enough position to assert independence from the government – even as they accept its request to deploy on the streets of Port Said, Springborg says.

Meanwhile, Egyptian police are increasingly reluctant to even acknowledge their job in public. Back inside the beleaguered el-Sharq station, Adawy looks hounded as he reflects on his decision to stop wearing police uniform.

“As an officer today, I have zero-self esteem. I am hiding that I am an officer wherever I go."

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