Egypt’s Interior Ministry building set on fire during police protest

March 22, 2011

The Egyptian Interior Ministry, long a symbol of heavy-handed repression, was set ablaze Tuesday during a protest by police officers demanding more pay and better working conditions from the military-run government.

The fire, which largely gutted one wing of the seven-story building and scorched another, underscored an abiding concern among many Egyptians that the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 has weakened law enforcement and raised the risk of violent crime. It also was a reminder that beneath the uplifting promises of a new democratic era, many Egyptians have accounts to settle from years of military dictatorship under Mubarak and those before him.

The Nile-side headquarters building of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was burned by angry crowds during the Tahrir Square demonstrations in January, for instance, and this month protesters stormed the dreaded State Security Agency and rifled through offices in search of thousands of surveillance files accumulated by an army of undercover officers over the years.

Officials speaking anonymously told reporters that Tuesday’s Interior Ministry fire, which sent bulbous clouds of black smoke over central Cairo, apparently was set by police protesters. But witnesses in the street outside said they had seen no evidence that demonstrators entered the heavily guarded building.

“How can they set a fire from the top when they are in the street?” asked Ahmed Ashraf, 18, a high school student who was watching the protesters when the fire erupted.

As flames licked out of upper-story windows, knots of youths could be seen on the roof, some carrying buckets of water and others taking in the spectacle. After about two hours, the blaze was doused by hook-and-ladder trucks that sent heavy sprays of water toward the burning upper stories.

Fears of insecurity persist weeks after Mubarak’s departure, even as Egypt sees an increasing return to normalcy. The concerns seem particularly high among those associated with Mubarak’s often-corrupt government.

But officials have published no statistics indicating a particularly sharp deterioration in law and order.

Seeking to meet the concerns and show authority, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has maintained Mubarak’s widely detested emergency laws and resorted to military tribunals to mete out expedited judgment on prisoners ranging from violent protesters to common thieves. Between 2,000 and 5,000 people have been convicted in the past few weeks by military tribunals operating on army bases with often inadequate representation for the accused, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

One of the demands voiced by the estimated 1,500 police officers demonstrating at the Interior Ministry was an end to the military tribunals and an accelerated return of most cases to civil courts. The officers also called for the resignation of Interior Minister Mansour al-Eissawy and his replacement by his predecessor, Mahmoud Wagdy.

Cairo police, under the authority of then-interior minister Habib al-Adli, were accused of some of the worst abuses in cracking down on protesters gathered for weeks on the square. After the military intervened to protect the demonstrations, many police units disbanded, however, and some police officers ended up protesting alongside those they had previously roughed up.

Since then, police have been demonstrating off and on for weeks against plans to reorganize the Interior Ministry, possibly cutting the number of police. In addition, some officers have expressed fears they may be brought before the military tribunals in connection with abuses during the Tahrir Square protests.

The tribunals themselves have come under fire from human rights activists, who accuse the military of imposing unduly harsh penalties and refusing to allow defendants to choose their own attorneys. All the accused are represented by military-appointed civilian lawyers who do not consult with their clients before the tribunal sits, activists said, and family members are unable to attend or even learn the fate of their loved ones until publication of bare-bones trial results.

A laconic communique relayed Tuesday by the government-funded al-Ahram newspaper, for instance, reported that a military tribunal had sentenced four men to life for armed robbery, resisting arrest and “thuggery,” while five others were sentenced to five years for similar crimes.

Six people were arrested at a police demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry on Monday, and “we still don’t know where they went,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“There is no justification for this,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher here for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “These cases could easily be taken to the normal courts.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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