A crisis between Egypt’s Interior Ministry and police forces escalated this week, with seven leaders of a coalition of police sergeants and personnel who are critical of the ministry arrested on their way to a television appearance.
The detained personnel face charges of incitement, obstructing work and illegal strikes, as well as forming a “banned group” that aims to influence and harm the work of a state authority — the Interior Ministry.
They were arrested while en route to appear on a television show on a satellite channel, and their detention was extended on Sunday for 15 days pending investigations.
The Facebook page “Officers of Egypt,” which has since been taken down, claims to speak in the name of the sergeants’ coalition. Founded by low-ranking police in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the page alleges state security officers fabricated charges of possession of drugs and weapons against the arrested police personnel. A statement on the page pledges that the group will “expose corruption” and that they refuse to be “scapegoats for the corruption of others.”
Dozens of members of the police force gathered in a protest rally on Sunday in front of the Sharqiya Security Directorate in solidarity with their arrested colleagues. They blocked the Oasis road, according to statements by security sources to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
Yet the Interior Ministry didn’t begin to make moves against police sergeants, nor to implement any reforms until after a strong wave of public criticism against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his government following a spate of assaults and violations by police.
Sisi unexpectedly met with Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar in Sharm el-Sheikh on Friday. He “ordered some legislative amendments and new laws that regulate security performance and hold all who unjustly violate the rights of citizens accountable, advising that legislative amendments be discussed by parliament within 15 days,” Alaa Youssef, the official spokesperson for the presidency said.
Sisi asked the minister of interior to carry out a thorough and urgent investigation into recent events, especially after the death of a driver by a police officer in Darb al-Ahmar last week, security sources told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
A police sergeant shot a driver in a dispute last Thursday in Darb al-Ahmar, killing him immediately. A large crowd gathered in front of Cairo Security Directorate in the aftermath, chanting against the government and the police. They gathered again during the funeral of the driver on Friday. On Sunday, the South Cairo prosecution referred the policeman to criminal court for murder.
This incident and resultant public anger come amid a series of protest actions by doctors nationwide over police violence. One of the sparks of this action was the assault of doctors at Matareya hospital by policemen after a physician refused to fabricate medical records in their favor. The Doctors Syndicate issued a statement demanding the minister of interior take disciplinary action against the policemen involved.
The prosecution accordingly summoned nine police sergeants for interrogation, in a move many saw as an attempt to appease medical staff before a Doctors Syndicate meeting, which was attended by over 10,000 doctors. The prosecution released the nine police sergeants hours before the meeting, during which doctors raised banners and chanted against the Interior Ministry.
Successive governments have struggled to deal with anger from factions within the police, especially after a large protest movement began following the 2011 revolution. The day after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, sergeants in various governorates staged a strike against their superiors’ treatment of them, demanding accountability for the Friday of Anger and attack on demonstrators, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported.
In October the same year, a number of police sergeants staged a sit-in at the Ministry of Interior, demanding better working conditions, wage increases and promotions. The protest ended after their superiors promised to submit amendments to the law and meet their demands.
In April 2012, a large number of police sergeants staged a sit-in that ended with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi amending the police law and referring it to parliament for approval.
A number of police sergeants also broke into the Sharqiya Security Directorate last August, demanding a raise in wages and pensions, in a move that was widely supported by many of their colleagues.
The strength of the protest movement within the police against the Interior Ministry was evident last November, when a number of police sergeants and personnel at Zagazig police station in Sharqiya went on strike over drug testing proceedures at the station. The security director transfered a number of police officers to another premesis to contain rising anger.
There have been at least 12 significant police strikes since the January 2011 revolution, according to a report published by the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper last August. Most have been to demand better working conditions, services and benefits.
A coalition of sergeants and police personnel in various governorates often coordinate or lead these protests. It is highly probable that this coalition is “the banned group” the prosecution referred to when arresting the seven sergeants.
The coalition of police sergeants and personnel is one of the strongest political movments today, Aly al-Reggal, researcher in security affairs, argues, highlighting its coordination and wide reach.
Sergeants make up a significant proportion of Egypt’s police force — 100,000 out of a total 380,000 police personnel in the Interior Ministry — according to head of the coalition Ahmed Mostafa’s interview with Masr al-Arabeya website.
The structure of the Interior Ministry allows police sergeants to play a crucial role in running their daily work. “The sergeants are the ones who do criminal research, they are the ones who follow the work of the forensics department and are in charge of the evidence and seizures,” he says, adding that this is why the ministry is unable to manage confrontations with police sergeants and personnel. After all, he says, “How can you break the arm that you use to swim?”
Reggal explains that the collective movement of the sergeants and personnel makes them a formidable force, which intimidates even the Interior Ministry.
In a clear indication of the delicate way in which superiors are attempting to deal with this threat, the interior minister said during a press conference on Monday that, “99 percent of police sergeants are honorable.”
Yet police sergeants feel slighted by the ministry, Reggal says. They claim the Interior Ministry “allowed a large gathering of physicians and the huge general assembly meeting to spite them.”
Hassan Shendy, one of the leaders of the coalition of police sergeants and personnel, says they’re concerned Sisi’s new legislation will restrict their rights. But, the assistant minister of interior reportedly assured him the new legislation would deter breaches committed by the sergeants without affecting their rights.
Shendy accuses the media of using the sergeants movement to trap them. “They know our strength and want to weaken us,” as a way to “settle accounts with the Ministry of Interior who is scapegoating us.” Although he refutes that the ministry itself is behind this.
Mistakes by sergeants are individual errors committed by irresponsible individuals, Shendy maintains. He rejects calls for military trials for police sergeants and personnel, pointing to a ruling by the Constitutional Court that prevents them.
In November 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled the hearing of police violations before military courts unconstitutional. In December 2014, an administrative court ordered the Interior Ministry to retry police officers previously convicted by military courts before civilian courts.
The ministry on Monday confirmed there would be no return to military trials for police, asserting that the proposed legislative amendments include the entire police force, not just the sergeants.
Shendy says this doesn’t mean sergeants are above the law. An alternative to military trials is disciplinary committees that can determine any punitive measures necessary, including dismissal from service. He adds that more than once they have demanded training workshops on human rights and psychology, explaining that such introductions would assist the rights of citizens.
Reggal says the relationship between police sergeants and personnel and officers is complicated, with sergeants being an important source of information on cases that are often highly complex and sometimes corrupt.
Shendy agrees, saying, “Whoever believes he is fighting police sergeants must understand that the defeat of the sergeants is a defeat of the state as a whole.”