In Egypt, Police are the Revolution's Greatest Obstacle
June 6 marked the first anniversary of Khaled Said’s death. One year ago, Said was dragged from an internet café and beaten to death on a street in Alexandria, Egypt, by two plain clothed policemen. Images of Said’s horribly disfigured corpse quickly circulated throughout online communities and incited mass outrage. Said was murdered because of a video he shot of the two policemen sharing the spoils of a drug bust. The 28-year-old's brutal murder is still a bitter reminder of what was routine practice in pre-revolution Egypt — torture, abuse, and humiliation.
The Egyptian revolution set out to cleanse Egypt from a system in which police torture was commonplace. The transitional government has vowed to reform the police apparatus, but to a nation that is used to receiving empty promises, actions will always speak louder than words. There are several steps that should be taken to ensure that the reform is genuine.
A complete overhaul of police laws and regulations, as well as the education and training methods for policemen is essential, to establish humane treatment of suspects and prisoners. Acceptable standards need to be applied at jail facilities and outside auditing is a must; they should be open to supervision and inspection at any given moment. The People’s Assembly, the Ministry of Justice and civil society should all have a role in this process. Otherwise, human rights activists will have no reason to believe anything has changed.
Last week, hundreds took to the streets in Cairo and Alexandria to commemorate Said’s death. Many of them protested in front of the Interior Ministry in Cairo chanting, "People want the purification of the Interior Ministry." They believe the practices of police officers are still the same as before the revolution.
One of the biggest driving forces that led to the mass protests was police brutality. It is no coincidence that the first day of demonstrations against former President Hosni Mubarak was set for Jan. 25, the Egyptian National Police Day. Citizens saw no reason to celebrate the police, and every reason to take a stand against their everyday abuse and corruption.
The police and State Security were the most loathed government institutions; their vast force symbolized a corrupt government that preyed on its citizens. The victims included political opponents, human rights advocates and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the major demands of the revolution was to dismantle the State Security Investigations agency. The transitional government complied and decided to dissolve the country’s State Security, notorious for their torture methods and other human rights abuses.
However, human rights organizations believe that police brutality is still hindering Egypt’s transition to democracy. In less than 3 weeks, four people allegedly died at the hands of the police.
One of those victims was Ramzy Salah el-Din, who was transferred to a hospital following questioning in a police station. He died of internal bleeding in what some media sources called the first post-revolt incident of police torture. His crime? Failing to pay a debt.
Another case that received a lot of media attention was the death of driver Mohamed Saeed, allegedly at the hands of police. Details of how Saeed died were unclear. While investigations were still underway, the Ministry of Interior released a statement that blamed passersby for Nasser’s wounds. Further angering activists, the ministry claimed bystanders attacked Nasser when they saw him attacking the police officer. The same old excuses are still used to cover up for violations.
In a step to improve police behavior, Italy offered to train Egypt’s police as part of a debt-for-development agreement between the two countries. However, this might not be the best idea, as Italy’s police force is known to be among the most brutal in Europe. Such a deal would have been better if made with Britain, for instance. The Egyptian police has a lot to learn from the British police forces, for they are not only among the most transparent forces in the world, but are also known for their efficient use of verbal communication rather than weapons.
There are other urgent steps that should be taken to reform police in Egypt. Civilian oversight of the security sector is crucial, along with official supervision by the government. Media and press should also play a role in overseeing the matter by criticizing and shedding light on any violations that might occur. A free media is key to ensuring a just security system.
To guarantee that Egypt is headed on the right track toward democracy, there should be immediate reform and significant changes in the police sector. Otherwise, Egypt risks its law enforcers resuming their law-breaking habits.
Photo Credit: Maggie Osama