From New York Times, 18 December 2013.
Link for article on NYT, below.
As Pressure Builds, Egypt’s Police Experience a New Feeling: Fear
By KAREEM FAHIM and MAYY EL SHEIKH
CAIRO — For six hours, heavily armed officers fired fusillades of buckshot and tear gas at students who were the latest front of anger toward Egypt’s military-backed rulers.
But as night fell and the students scattered last week, it was the police who seemed defeated, certain that the end of one protest simply marked a pause before the next. As two of the officers clad in black riot gear trudged away from the gates of Cairo University, one described the students as “bullies.”
“I’m not going back,” he told a friend.
Since the military ouster more than five months ago of President Mohamed Morsi, the interim leaders have leaned heavily on the police, sending them to stamp out dissent and stabilize the streets in a strategy that so far has come up empty.
Over the last three years of revolt, protesters have refused to be silenced, even when the authorities use deadly force.
And Egypt has also become far more dangerous for the authorities, with more than 150 police officers killed since mid-August alone. The attacks have affected police morale, officers said, and raised troubling questions about the government’s ability to secure the country in the face of increasingly frequent attacks by militants.
“Before, it was dramatic to lose an officer,” said one senior police official who serves in southern Egypt. Now, he said, “the likelihood has become normal.”
Between the attacks, including by armed jihadists, and the nonstop protests, the police, already poorly trained and equipped, have been stretched thin. On Thursday, at least one officer was killed and 20 were injured when a bomb detonated at a police camp in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, in the kind of attack that has become commonplace.
Officers have been pulled from their regular details to watch over demonstrations or secure suddenly vulnerable public buildings. They have also been called on to ensure compliance with a new law that criminalizes unauthorized gatherings — a law that the senior officer called “unenforceable.”
In a sign of the growing anger, hundreds of officers held a rare protest this month, the first by officers since the military takeover, demanding higher wages.
The new pressures on the police have served to highlight their abysmal reputation, which has long been haunted by allegations of corruption and torture. Complaints about police abuses helped fuel the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, but since then, none of Egypt’s leaders have made any serious effort to overhaul the department.
After the military takeover, the police boasted of a new era in their relationship with the public. The department’s failings persisted — and even grew worse — but the police won support from Egyptians weary from years of instability and crime.
There was little uproar, for instance, during the deadly crackdown on Mr. Morsi’s supporters, Islamists cast by officials as enemies of the state. But as other demonstrations flared, including by non-Islamist activists, police officials dismissed them as the work of conspirators, and spoke confidently about their ability to contain the unrest.
The students, though, have been harder to dismiss, and the forcible response to the protests has drawn more criticism of the police.
The protests intensified after the police were accused of killing a Cairo University student, Mohamed Reda, with birdshot last month. The Interior Ministry has reacted defensively to the charge that its officers are using excessive force.
As Egypt’s leaders struggle to quell the protests, two senior officers spoke about the growing toll on the force.
Friends and relatives on the force have been killed and their police stations have come under attack, they said. They complained that the public did not seem to notice their sacrifices, but they also faulted the military-backed government for relying so heavily on them to resolve its own political confrontations.
Many officers’ families have been torn by the same arguments that divide the rest of society. And relatives have grown increasingly worried for the officers’ safety, after a campaign of attacks by jihadist groups singling out the police and the army.
Those lethal strikes began soon after the security services violently dispersed two Islamist sit-in demonstrations in August, gunning down hundreds of people.
Two weeks later, witnesses said they saw gunmen wearing balaclavas open fire on a small police post on the outskirts of Cairo, killing an officer, as well as a furniture deliveryman who was nearby.
The senior officer stationed in southern Egypt, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said men besieged the encampment where he was stationed on the morning the Cairo sit-ins were stormed.
The Interior Ministry had given him no warning about possible retaliation, he said. As he and the 20 officers he commanded were overwhelmed, he called the ministry for help and received none, he said.
“May God be with you,” he quoted an official as saying.
He and his colleagues hid on top of a water tower for a time, and then he took shelter in a home near the base. Since then, he has sent his family back to their hometown, worried for their safety.
“People think we’re robots,” he said. “We have families.”
Another officer, Maj. Haitham Abbas, complained that the entire force had been tarnished by the response to the unrest, giving the example of a colleague who works in a unit that guards tourists:
“They told his son at school: ‘Your father is a murderer. He kills people in the streets,’ ” the officer said. “He probably never even pulled his gun out.”
Major Abbas said his normal duties included securing the Nile, but these days he is frequently asked to respond to protests — “so much that I don’t have time to do my original job, though it’s important.”
“The government must find a legitimate mechanism to change instead of having people march in the streets every time they have a complaint,” he said.
- A New Feeling for Egypt’s Bare-Knuckled Police: Fear (nytimes.com)