“We take courses in human rights, but where is it on the ground? I haven’t seen anything applied or in practice,” says a police officer who wishes to remain anonymous.
Prompted by the death of 22 football fans outside the Air Force Stadium in February 2015 when security forces tried to disperse the large crowd, the officer circulated messages among police officers to call for change within the security apparatus.
“We had learned before that we should not disperse crowds in small spaces. We learn these things, but then don’t apply them,” he tells me.
The officer called for reform to provide citizens with better services and improve the relationship between the people and the police, as well as to protect the rights of the police themselves in the face of attacks by militant groups. Higher ranks got wind of these calls, and Mohamed Ibrahim, minister of interior at the time, ordered the officer into forced retirement. He now has to live on LE500 a month, and is banned from working anywhere else.
Before demanding the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, protesters started off by demonstrating against the police on January 25, 2011, National Police Day.
In the days following the revolution, there were promises of police reform with initiatives such as the National Initiative to Rebuild the Police, which was established by a few police officers and members of civil society.
Karim Ennarah, a researcher on criminal justice and police issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who was involved with the initiative, says the Ministry of Interior never really intended to reform itself.
The initiative involved a small number of officers and members of the Honest Police Officers coalition, he adds, while the majority of police were defensive against it.
While the conversation on reform interested a few, others were more concerned with redeeming the prowess of the security apparatus and creating the suitable political environment for change.
The anonymous police officer says he and other officers submitted research and suggestions to establish a body within the ministry that would be responsible for reform, but it was all “thrown into a drawer.”
The officer criticizes the higher ranks for monopolizing ministry initiatives when officers are the ones out in the field, often taking the blame when things go wrong.
“Don’t make me represent you when you are making me go through all this, as well as monopolizing the thought process,” he says. “They say that there is intention, and that the security apparatus is being cleansed. But where is the reform? Have people felt the reform?”
The year saw the end of any political need for Interior Ministry reform. The police returned to full force, and the media made sure to reflect that. But the ministry has been put on the defensive in the face of criticism. Throughout 2015, and particularly in the last two months leading up to the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, the ministry has come under fire for cases of civilians tortured to death at police stations, forced disappearances and unlawful arrests.
“It is clear even to the blind that there has been an increase in violations,” says Colonel Mohamed Abdel Rahman, the coordinator of the Police Officers Coalition that has been involved in ministry reform initiatives following the 2011 revolution.
Abdel Rahman says there is consistent denial of the existence of these violations, which makes it impossible to discuss change.
“If they deny it, then what can you discuss?” he says. “Right now there is no hope for dialogue.”
At the height of public outrage against the ministry, with four known cases of citizens tortured to death in police stations within a span of two weeks, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Police Academy in December and urged security forces to end human rights violations.
Although the president made sure to salute policemen and thank them for their work in maintaining the country’s stability, he also called for accountability with regard to any human rights abuses.
On the question of reform, Sisi’s December speech is a slight improvement on a similar speech delivered on January 20, 2015, when he blamed police violations on ongoing security threats.
“Nobody is against human rights, but today Egypt is facing exceptional circumstances,” he said then.
Ali al-Raggal, a researcher specialized in security, considers the president’s most recent speech a form of criticism from the state — perhaps the first of its kind.
“The Ministry of Interior is a tool of oppression, and this is the cost [the state must pay for] the system in place,” says Raggal.
The state has given the Ministry of Interior permission to control society, Raggal claims, and it is thus impossible to make the ministry abide by any rules — often at the expense of members of other state bodies, such as military officers or prosecutors.
The ministry wants untrammelled power, but at the same time must attend to public anger in recent torture cases. The ministry has consistently stated that these violations are individual acts, and denies that there is a systematic application of torture.
Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar said in an interview with the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, “If 10 or 15 officers made a mistake, why should the other 40,000 police personnel be blamed for this?” The ministry will not allow for individual acts to compromise the “long history of the national work of the Egyptian police and the sacrifices by its men in fighting terrorism,” he added.
The ministry also went on a public relations campaign showcasing its dedication to human rights.
By the end of December, newspapers were reporting that Abdel Ghaffar was advising the human rights departments at different security directorates to fulfill their duties to Egyptians. Additionally, the press also highlighted cooperation between the ministry and the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Sisi met with NCHR head Mohamed Fayek on December 21 to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt, stressing that members of state bodies who commit violations must be reprimanded.
While EIPR’s Ennarah believes that the ministry’s campaign is insubstantive, he has noted an increase in the number of police officers referred to investigation and prosecution. The end of the past year saw more than 10 different cases brought against police personnel on charges such as torture or corruption.
The Ministry of Interior detained four police officers on charges of torturing Talaat Shabeeb to death in a police station in Luxor, while also sentencing two National Security officers to five years in prison for the death of lawyer Karim Hamdy.
“I can’t say that there is a radical change yet, though. It’s too soon,” cautions Ennarah. “One of the most important pillars of police reform has been accountability. Accountability measures are either nonexistent or dysfunctional.”
But General Abdel Latif al-Badiny, who formerly served as deputy minister of interior, believes the ministry’s actions were more than sufficient.
“The police do not support torture,” he declares, maintaining that any act of torture is a rogue act most often committed by low-ranking policemen.
“Since we were young police officers, there have been inspections and supervision procedures that the ministry follows,” Badiny says.
Some pro-state officials in the ministry believe the strength and survival of the state lies in the morale of police officers.
“When there is a minor mistake, it is made into a far bigger issue,” says former Assistant Interior Minister Gamal Abu Zekry. “Instead, we should support the Ministry of Interior and try and improve the morale of officers under the current circumstances when we are fighting terrorism.”
He accuses those seeking to bring attention to violations of “wanting to destroy the country.”
But for others, the ministry’s violations are becoming an actual liability for the state and Sisi’s administration.
Raggal says that even the fight against the rhetoric of terrorism that’s often invoked to justify impunity for the security apparatus ceases to be relevant when torture cases involve ordinary citizens. He points to the example of the pharmacist who was tortured to death inside a police station in Ismailia in late November.
In Raggal’s analysis, while the state does view these violations as exceptional cases, and the current wave as one that will pass, they also realize they are implicated in the excesses of the police apparatus.
“They didn’t know how to deal with it at all,” he says. “It’s clear that the situation is out of their control.”
The anonymous police officer now living in forced retirement believes that if the ministry continues with these methods, it will eventually lead to the downfall of the state.
Raggal agrees. “Before even starting to discuss politics, people will go and set police stations on fire,” he predicts.
Realizing this, the administration has to perform a tough balancing act between maintaining its authority through the security apparatus, and avoiding major public uproar, Raggal says.
“They aspire to have a security apparatus that is violent,” he asserts, “but that doesn’t kill anyone.”