Egypt’s police: From liberators to oppressors

Any Egyptian policeman would delight at reading The Times of 26 January 1952 in which Egyptian police were portrayed as having led the resistance to British occupation.  At that time, two years before the signing of the Evacuation Treaty of British forces from Egypt, anti-British sentiments had reached their peak in the country.

Egyptian historians write about how ordinary Egyptians expressed anti-British sentiments, Egyptian workers boycotted British military bases, and farmers refused to deliver basic foods to British bases near the Canal Zone, which hosted around 80,000 British soldiers and officers.

On 25 January 1952, British forces in the city of Ismailia asked the city’s two principal police stations to evacuate the buildings and surrender their guns. Then Interior Minister Fuad Serag Eddin requested the policemen not to surrender and, if necessary, fight for their dignity as Egyptian patriots.

In a news story the following day, The Times wrote, “British troops yesterday assaulted and took by force the two principal police buildings in Ismailia after the Egyptian police, acting on orders from Cairo, had refused to surrender.  The fighting lasted for three hours. Three British soldiers and 41 Egyptian policemen were killed and there was a number of wounded. About 790 police eventually surrendered; of whom not more than 100 were regulars.”

Following the military coup of 1952, major Egyptian newspapers celebrated the policemen’s sacrifice in what became known as the battle of Ismalia and a model of anti-imperial heroism.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took charge of the Ministry of Interior for four months when he headed the cabinet in 1953, revealed the first sign of the police’s new politicization in a speech on 31 July, 1954. This came in a context where police power paled in comparison to that of the military, especially in the first years after the revolution.

After pointing to the battle of Ismailia, Nasser addressed the police’s role in cooperating with the army to protect “internal security.” He also celebrated police achievements in reducing crime rates following the coup.

Nasser rewarded the police by awarding them new functions such as the issuance of national IDs and passports so that decades later, the police existed as a giant bureaucracy, in which 23 administrations regulated a wide range of activities. Later, 25 January became Egypt's Police Day and in 2009, President Hosni Mubarak ordered that the day become a formal public holiday. 

The role played by the police in Egyptian society became yet more prominent over the following years, posing what political analysts and rights activists consider “distinct challenges to the prospects of democratization in Egypt.” A large budget that is not subject to parliamentary oversight has permitted political regimes to use the police to control and suppress political opposition.

During the first years after the coup, the army was the main actor in investigating and holding trials for the “enemies of the revolution.” However, in later years, especially in 1966 when Nasser appointed Shaarawy Gomaa as minister of interior, the police increasingly challenged the army’s hegemony over internal politics.

In 1967, war with Israel led to the imposition of the state of emergency which, in turn, helped facilitate crushing political dissidents. Dozens of political dissidents as well as ordinary citizens became subject to torture in police stations.

After President Anwar Sadat took office in 1970, the police continued to suppress political rivals, especially at university campuses, which housed the fiercest criticism against the president. And in 1977, the police conducted a massive wave of arrests in when food riots threatened the regime.

The power of Egyptian police reached its peak during Mubarak’s rule over the last three decades when Mubarak gave police the green light to exercise additional functions. His efforts to expand the powers of the police were helped in no small part by Sadat’s assassination, which helped him to reactivate the State of Emergency. The law served as a major tool for Mubarak’s police apparatus to crackdown on militant Islamists who posed a major threat to the regime during the 1990s.

Habib al-Adli replaced Hassan al-Alfi as Minister of Interior after the November 1997 Luxor massacre in which six assailants, who were believed to be affiliated with the militant Islamic Group al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, shot to death 62 people, mostly tourists. Al-Adli has proven to be Egypt’s longest serving minister under Mubarak.

Police activity during the last three decades has included violating the right to assembly and referring civilians to military courts that do not meet commonly accepted standards of fair trial. The police have also restricted political activity and targeted voices in independent media. Most prominent, torture has emerged as a major feature of police practice in recent decades. Local rights groups say that citizens are abused–and even killed–by the security on a daily basis.

Sayyed Bilal, 31, is the last known victim of police abuse. He was allegedly tortured to death in an Alexandria detention center one day after his arrest on suspicion of being linked to the New Year's Eve attack on an Alexandria church that left 23 dead.

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