The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What has changed in the five years since Egypt’s police sparked a revolution — and what hasn’t

Riot police guard the site of an explosion near the house of Egypt’s interior minister at Cairo’s Nasr City district September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt’s Jan. 25, 2011, uprising was largely inspired by brutal police practices. Citizens mobilized against the Hosni Mubarak regime’s repressive Interior Ministry and its police force en masse, and movements like “We Are All Khaled Said” — inspired by the abuse of an Alexandrian activist — became key symbols of the uprising. Five years later, the relationship between citizens and the police remains uneasy. Despite some early attempts at reform, abusive practices have returned and the state’s institution of law and order is shaky. The regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi hopes that its current war on terror against an evolving Islamist insurgency will restore a positive image for the police. But will this be enough to restore public confidence?

Since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the Interior Ministry has exerted significant effort to restore public order and bolster the regime’s legitimacy. Police patrols are more visible on the streets, units to combat sexual harassment and domestic violence against women have been established and deployed, and most importantly, some officers are being tried for abusing the power of their badge. The visible, yet limited, trials aim to convey a sense of accountability in an institution that for many years was above the law. This development is a marked change from practices under Mubarak.

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These sentences by criminal courts do not reflect change in the judicial system as much as change in the ministry’s investigative authorities, which are now more willing to disclose evidence in some torture and corruption cases. However, cases of indicted officers can’t keep up with new incidents of police impunity. National newspapers are replete with stories about abuse of authority in police stations, on the streets and even in hospitals. Airing with greater frequency over the past year, such stories reflect the low professionalization of junior officers not only when dealing with criminal or political suspects but also in their everyday practices as citizens.

The ministry’s security record is further complicated by political policing. Domestic and international rights groups are calling attention to the disappearance of citizens showing dissent, or even suspected of expressing it. During Mubarak’s rule, “emergency laws” were used to legalize the police’s extensive arresting powers but were lifted in June 2012 by the then-governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces only days prior to transferring power to civilian authorities. In the absence of these laws, political kidnappings have become a means to detain unwanted voices that cannot be readily tied to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Complaints about forced disappearances date to early 2014, and family members of the missing persons have criticized the ministry for its lack of cooperation in disclosing information. The ministry’s initial response was complete denial. Later, the official line claimed that some of the disappeared have fled the country to join the more militant groups in the Syrian conflict. However, a sustained public campaign from pro-democracy activists, some pro-Sissi media hosts and the state’s human rights organization eventually led to the ministry’s disclosure of the status of some missing persons. Out of 191 names about which the National Council for Human Rights inquired, the ministry disclosed the whereabouts of 118, noting that they have been detained for investigation.

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Daily interactions between citizens and officers in public offices show that little has changed in the way the police serve the people. The Interior Ministry continues to oversee the processing of important personal and work documents such as national identification papers, passports, driving licenses and some work permits. As it was under Mubarak, processing or renewing such documents still entails the payment of hidden fees collected by low-level officials dealing directly with the public. Known as the “open drawer,” such practices demonstrate the type of corruption that the higher administration of the ministry has failed to eradicate.

But not all challenges facing the ministry come from the public’s disillusionment; law and order is also suffering from some major intra-institutional problems. Some non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are growing increasingly militant,defying orders of their superiors. Although there have been a few incidents of internal rebellion since 2011, the past year witnessed a qualitative turn as some of the NCOs threatened the physical safety of senior police generals. In one incident, police officers in the delta province of Sharqiya held hostage the provincial head of security and called for the resignation of the minister of interior. Lasting for days, the volatile situation threatened to escalate as NCOs in other provinces showed support to their colleagues. This bureaucratic insurgency centered on demands for financial and medical benefits. The standoff was finally resolved as the administration promised to provide the NCOs some benefits and continue negotiations over their demands.

Amid all these challenges, the war on terror seems like the most promising venue for the ministry to re-create the image of policemen as heroes. With the ouster of Morsi and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, some splintered factions from the Brotherhood have used violence against police and other state officials. Other militant groups with ties to the Islamic State have targeted officers of different ranks as well as conscripts serving with the ministry in Sinai and other areas of the country. In a TV interview, the daughter of a slain senior officer suggested that Police Day be changed to Police Martyrs Day in an attempt to glorify the sacrifices of police keeping the country safe.

The campaign to rebrand police as heroes in the fight against terrorism has rallied religious figures, pro-government journalists and TV show hosts, and even opposition leaders from secular and religious factions to acknowledge police efforts.

Borrowing from similar media dedications to the military, the campaign attempts to present police as agents of state independence and liberation, recalling the historical narrative of police struggle against British colonialism. During the 2016 Police Day celebrations, the public was reminded of how Egyptian police refused British demands to hand over weapons and evacuate the Ismailia Police Station on Jan. 25, 1952. The celebrations highlight the narrative of police sacrifice and draw a parallel to the present steadfastness displayed in the course of fighting the insurgency.

However, while the war on terror presents an opportunity to redefine the national role of the police, it carries its own set of challenges. As more officers have been involved in the war on terror, the ministry’s incompetence has come to the fore. In a speech during the 2016 celebrations of Police Day, Sissi publicly criticized the ministry’s administration for falling behind on providing appropriate health care for its officers injured while serving in the state’s anti-terrorism campaigns. Sissi’s rebuke came in response to complaints from incapacitated police officers that had reached his office. The ministry’s mishandling of post-combat care contrasts with the military’s strong record of providing for its members.

As Egypt commemorates the fifth anniversary of its Jan. 25, 2011, uprising, the Interior Ministry still has a long way to go to gain public trust. While citizens may recognize the sacrifices of fallen police officers, they won’t turn a blind eye to the ministry’s everyday mistreatment of Egyptians. Notions of martyrdom may temporarily boost sympathy, but public support requires good service and constant cultivation of trust.

Dina Rashed is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes, armed actors and civil-military relations.

This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.