Egyptian police try to recover from reputation for brutality

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 9:12 PM

CAIRO - Like many young recruits, Sayed Abdul Hamid, 26, joined the Egyptian police for what he thought would be prestige and a regular paycheck.

The money still comes, $85 a month, but instead of respect Hamid's time on the force has been a study in humiliation - first at the hands of commanders who he says brutalize new trainees, and now by a population angry over years of police abuse and corruption.

After the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the population's widespread fear of the police has given way to a general disdain for the forces that beat and teargassed demonstrators during recent protests.

"If they would just let me explain that I would never beat them, that they are my brothers," Hamid says of the people who, instead of offering deference, now holler words like "traitor" at him when he is at his post. "I just stand there, and I don't know what to say."

He used to proudly wear his uniform on his three-hour commute to work. Now he stuffs it in his backpack.

More than 330 people were killed during the 18-day uprising in Egypt that brought down Mubarak's regime. The country's riot police and internal security force has borne the brunt of the blame for what were otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

In the past Egyptians rarely challenged police authority, dutifully paying bribes, and helpless against any beatings or false charges leveled by an organization considered largely unaccountable and loyal to the regime. Rogue police would occasionally be brought to trial for the most horrific cases. But diplomatic cables and human rights reports paint a consistent picture of an institution undertrained in modern police work and almost systemically abusive to the people they were meant to protect.

Of all the institutions Egypt may need to overhaul if it hopes for a true democratic transition, the police and security forces are among the most important - and Hamid and many of his colleagues are already trying to re-brand themselves as victims in their own right. They were caught, they said, between the regime and the people, forced to obey sometimes aggressive orders or face punishment.

Hamid, who works a second job at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet, said he wasn't involved in quelling the riots, but knows that the orders to crack down came from high in the organization.

"These were orders and instructions from above," he said. "Citizens have told me, 'We don't want you here.' I swear I would have protested with the people, but my commanders would have punished me."

The standard, he said, was set during training when commanders kicked or punched new recruits if they saluted too slowly or fell out of step on drills.

"This is how we learned," he said. "When the police are treated unjustly, they treat the people unjustly."

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