By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 8:10 PM
CAIRO - Responding to public alarm over escalating lawlessness and sectarian violence, Egyptian political leaders urged police Thursday to return to the streets as soon as possible, saying their absence threatens to undermine the country's fledgling democracy.
Often associated with corruption and abuse, the police force - with the exception of traffic police - has been largely out of sight since late January. Some officers have voiced fears of public retaliation for the killings of hundreds of demonstrators during Egypt's recent uprising. Others are being prosecuted, and others are simply staying home.
The security vacuum in this city of 18 million has brought a rise in kidnappings, thefts, looting and armed attacks, especially in recent days. While citizens say they welcome a redeployment of beat cops and detectives - some of whom began reporting back to the job Thursday - the stickier issue is the fate of the multi-layered internal security apparatus that ousted president Hosni Mubarak used to subdue social unrest and maintain his rule.
On Thursday the new interior minister, Mansour el-Essawy, vowed to rehabilitate and restructure the much-despised domestic intelligence agency that many Egyptians associate with torture and killing of citizens. "I have spoken of the need to shrink the role of the state security apparatus, so that it is only focused on fighting terrorism," news reports quoted him as saying. He described the nation's entire internal security and intelligence service as being "on vacation."
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf took to the government's Facebook page late Wednesday to announce that his cabinet is drafting legislation to speed the return of the police force, although any such action must be approved by the ruling military council.
The civilian government recognized "the importance of the national role that the police play in providing safety, security and stability," the statement said, and "has decided to hurry the return of the police in its full force to conduct its national duties of protecting the nation and its citizens. The cabinet also beseeches all citizens to cooperate with police agencies.'' and to support them as they conduct their duties."
In an interview, Nabil Louka Bebawi, a former police major general who teaches at the police academy, said the force is frustrated over its reputation and must regain public trust. "The police's role is to stop the former practices, including humiliating people," he said. "Yes, there are those inside the apparatus who went astray. They can be tried, but it is not fair to deal with the whole apparatus as deviant."
Meanwhile, some politicians blamed elements of Mubarak's former government for fomenting the Muslim-Christian clashes that killed 13 people this week. Officials also moved to stiffen penalties for criminals, whom many see as pro-Mubarak agitators.
At a news conference Thursday, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who is running for president here, suggested a hidden hand was behind the religious riots. "Attempts to revive sectarianism after unity witnessed among Muslims and [Christian] Copts during the revolution raises doubts towards dubious agencies that aim at thwarting the revolution," Moussa said, according to local media reports.
In an interview, Essam el-Eryan, a Muslim Brotherhood official, cast direct blame for the disturbances on "those loyal to the intelligence services," alleging that thugs financed by Mubarak's political party promoted attacks on Coptic Christians on Tuesday night and early Wednesday.
"They are working against the revolution," Eryan said. The once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, now seeking greater political stature, distances itself from the harder-line Islamists involved in the riots, known as Salafis.
"The Salafis are a tool directed by the intelligence service and the police to foment religious divides and make chaos," Eryan said. "It is well known."
Amr Abdel Motaal, a 59-year-old Cairo lawyer, said such theories are plausible. "You have subversive elements who have a vested interest in the old regime. They use the old bogeyman: that you can have security or you will have chaos. And they are using fear."
Special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.