Conflict & Justice

Pushing For Police Reform in Egypt

Egyptian protesters and police clashed for a fifth day on Wednesday. The protesters are attacking the police, trying to reach the Ministry of Interior.

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It all started because of the police's brutality. And that's no surprise, say human rights experts and former policemen. In addition to the removal of Hosni Mubarak, one of the key demands of Egyptian demonstrators ten months ago was the reform of the police.

In one shocking video that has circulated widely online, policemen are seen dragging what looks like a dead body and piling it on the curb alongside garbage.

A police officer who is a member of a small reform-minded group called The Honourable Policemen — and who prefer to remain anonymous — said in a telephone interview that the police view the protesters as their enemies.

"Those who supported the old regime dominate the police force," he said. "They see the revolution as a catastrophe. It's against their interests. Many of them are corrupt and many of them could end up in jail for their human rights abuses."

Over 800 people were killed and 11,000 wounded in the January uprising. Only one low-level policeman has been convicted — in absentia.

Officers accused of killing dozens of people have simply been transferred to new positions. Recently, a policeman on trial for killing protesters showed up in court with armed supporters who clashed with families of the dead victims.

Ghada Shahbander is a human rights activist who has been pushing for police reform.

"High-ranking police officers are responsible for serious crimes, ranging from torture to killing to withdrawal from their positions and the opening of prisons and killing of prisoners," Shahbander said. "No one has been held accountable. Their trials and taking forever and they are still in place."

The police force long functioned as the Mubarak regime's enforcers. It participated in election fraud, spied on and intimidated the regime's political opponents, and tortured citizens. It was also notoriously corrupt.

Observers say low-level policemen are poorly paid, poorly trained and threatened with severe punishment if they disobey orders. Meanwhile, the higher-ups – not just in the police but in the military and government – cling to their impunity.

The Ministry of Interior needs to clean house, says the police officer, and get rid of those who are corrupt and who committed human rights abuses.

"Leaving these people in their positions was the biggest mistake we've made since the revolution," he said. "If they'd been delivered to justice, the people would have felt the police and the government are serious about reform and accountability. The fact that it didn't happen has led to the current explosion."

Weeding out corrupt and abusive cops won't be easy, but it's the only way to regain the public's trust, he said.

But clearly, until now, the ruling military council is reluctant to hold anyone accountable.