CAIRO — A recent spate of police violence has highlighted what many Egyptians say is the unchanged nature of their country’s security forces two years after a popular uprising carried with it hopes for sweeping reform.
Long a pillar of Hosni Mubarak’s abusive regime, Egypt’s Interior Ministry, with its black-clad riot police, has increasingly become a sign of renewed repression under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, activists and rights groups say.
A series of clashes between anti-Islamist protesters and police that began on the second anniversary of Egypt’s revolt has snowballed into a much broader tide of anger toward the police force. Opposition leaders and rights groups say police used excessive force over 10 days of clashes that left more than 60 people dead across the country.
Two recent incidents have fanned the flames of popular dissent. And rights groups and analysts warn that if police reform does not come soon, the force’s brutal tactics are likely to spur more clashes in a cycle that could prove deeply destabilizing as Egypt struggles to regain its pre-revolution calm.
The death on Sunday of Mohammed el-Gindy, a member of the opposition Popular Current party, has driven some of that rage. Gindy’s colleagues said the 28-year-old was tortured to death in police custody after disappearing from a protest Jan. 27.
Sayed Shafiq, the head of investigations at the Interior Ministry, said that Gindy was hit by a car and that his body was found “far away from the area of the clashes,” citing hospital sources.
But Gindy’s ribs and skull had been smashed, and his back and tongue bore the burns of electrical shocks, a party spokesperson said Monday, citing Gindy’s autopsy report. His case follows three deaths by torture since Morsi came to power in June, according to a report on police abuse released last month by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a Cairo-based watchdog group.
Gindy’s death came two days after Egyptian satellite television channels broadcast the live beating of a naked protester by police during clashes outside the presidential palace, sparking a public outcry.
Morsi called the episode “shocking,” and the Interior Ministry vowed to investigate, saying in a statement Saturday that it “regrets” the incident but that “what took place was carried out by individuals that do not, in any way, represent the doctrine of all policemen.”
Morsi, who served time in jail under Mubarak as a member of the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood, vowed during his presidential campaign to reform the security forces and seek justice for those who suffered at their hands, including about 800 people who died in the 18-day uprising in 2011.
“Human dignity was one of the main things that caused the revolution,” said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a liberal member of parliament and vocal opposition lawmaker. “People will always find something to eat in Egypt. And social justice will eventually come. But human dignity is what all Egyptians were longing for.”
But Morsi’s failure to follow through has underscored the obstacles to turning a new page after decades of authoritarian policing. Egypt’s Interior Ministry encompasses forces ranging from riot police and state security officers to traffic cops and plainclothes detectives, and is estimated to employ hundreds of thousands of people, most in need of extensive training.
Reforming the police would be a daunting task, one that Gehad al-Haddad, a top Muslim Brotherhood official, said would require the support and collaboration of Egypt’s many political forces, which Morsi does not have.
But Morsi’s slowness may also indicate a shrinking political will as he faces a rising tide of popular opposition to his rule, analysts said.
“He may think he can’t afford to reform the police right now because he needs them,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Cairo. Morayef and other rights activists said Morsi’s declaration of a state of emergency across three of Egypt’s most violent cities last week only expanded the security forces’ power, authorizing them to detain people without charge at a time when a commitment to reforms would have been more likely to quell the anger.
“You have to reform the police, otherwise you’re going to get the same cycle of violence in Tahrir and elsewhere,” Morayef said.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim offered a rare apology Saturday for the televised police beating of Hamada Saber the night before. But the ministry also painted the incident as isolated, reflecting a culture that has become increasingly defensive in the face of public criticism.
Shafiq said that incidents such as Saber’s “get blown out of proportion and are presented to look like systematic mistakes, which is not true.” For the most part, he said, the police force has acted with restraint in recent weeks, even as many rank-and-file police officers complain that the tear gas they carry is no match for better-armed protesters.
Shafiq blamed the media for spreading a negative image of the Egyptian police, and he and other ministry officials said their forces have changed dramatically since the uprising. High-ranking officers say a curriculum of human rights has been introduced in police academies, and Shafiq said a U.S.-facilitated “community policing” program has been started “to create interactions between the police and community.”
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo said Tuesday that it provides training to Interior Ministry forces, including instruction in community policing, forensics and border security.
But rights groups say the changes have been little more than window dressing on a ministry that requires a broad structural overhaul and a commitment by Egypt’s judiciary to hold police and other security personnel accountable.
In its report, the EIPR said that the police have continued to behave “like a street gang,” often administering “vigilante justice on those who wrong them.”
In December, the killing of a police officer during a family feud in the southern town of Minya prompted the local force to retaliate through arbitrary beatings, shooting and vandalism, the watchdog group said. Torture inside police stations is also rampant, and police regularly respond to protests with live ammunition and birdshot, despite routine denials by the Interior Ministry, the report said.
But most dangerous for the country’s long-term stability, analysts say, is the lack of accountability. Only two of about 160 security personnel charged with using violence against protesters during Egypt’s 18-day uprising and in the two years since have been put behind bars.
Many opposition members and activists say they’re just as pessimistic now about the prospect of sentences for police officers who took part in the latest wave of clashes.
“The Interior Ministry hasn’t changed,” said Mohamed Shahin, a doctor and a friend of Gindy’s who joined dozens in a funeral march in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Monday. “There was only an attempt to beautify it, to hold press conferences, to hire a spokesperson.”
But the video evidence of Saber’s beating, coupled with his testimony to the prosecutor and local television stations, has amplified the public discourse surrounding police abuse, raising the optimism of some activists that police officers might go to jail in his case.
Shafiq, who reiterated the ministry’s apology, appeared doubtful. “If it’s proved that they dealt harshly with the citizen, then they’ll be tried,” he said.
He said that the video suggests police hit Saber because he resisted being moved to a police van and that it may have been protesters, not police, who stripped him naked. “The investigation will prove who undressed the man, because in the video we don’t see who undressed him,” Shafiq said.
Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report