Police abuse fuels tensions in Egypt
Cairo - The killing by a policeman of a flower seller on the outskirts of Cairo after the victim refused to give the policeman money was not surprising to many following the conduct of Egypt’s police.
The 25-year-old victim will not likely be the last, those people say, but only one episode in a series of police violence.
As he tries to impose law and order, fix the economy and feed the poor, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi little realises that the most dangerous threat to his regime comes from the people who protect the government, namely police, especially low-ranking officers, whose brutality has sparked angry protests, observers say.
Sisi may be running huge risks if he ignores police abuse.
“This is why I have fears that these violations will be understood as a reflection of the nature of the whole ruling system here,” said Hafez Abu Saeeda, a rights activist. “There is an urgent need for reform before public anger reaches uncontrollable levels.”
The killing of the flower seller was similar to an incident in February when a policeman killed a minivan driver in the poor southern Cairo neighbourhood of Al Darb al-Ahmar after they argued over the fare. Thousands of people soon besieged the nearby Cairo Security Directorate in protest, as family members, friends and sympathisers demanded justice. The officer was sentenced to life in prison on April 2nd by a criminal court.
Khaled Okasha, a retired police lieutenant-general, said he was frightened when he saw televised reports.
“This was especially scary because it coincided with other shows of anger at the malpractices of some policemen in other areas,” Okasha said. “These malpractices can be used by some political groups to stoke up tension.”
Tensions were already high in parts of Cairo, including outside the Medical Syndicate near Tahrir Square, where at least 10,000 doctors protested the beating of a colleague by a policeman at a northern Cairo hospital.
The scenes were similar to demonstrations that preceded the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The anti-Mubarak uprising started as a show of anger against abuses by Mubarak’s police, which was why activists chose to make Police Day, January 25th, the date of their protests. When the protests were met with force by police, they evolved into nationwide anger that resulted in the burning of scores of police stations and attacks against government offices.
Sisi summoned Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar for a meeting on February 19th and, according to media reports, asked him to toughen penalties on officers who commit crimes.
Abdel Ghaffar promised to take action against law-breaking police. No sooner had his comments been made public than a long series of new violations by police, including the beating of a doctor at a hospital in Alexandria and the beating of an actress at a police checkpoint in Cairo, were reported.
The actress, Mirhan Hussein, accused police of beating and groping her and even throwing urine on her when she was taken to a police station. Her account was supported by the head of the Cinema Syndicate, Ashraf Zaki, who said he saw the actress’s clothes soaked in urine.
In late April, a police officer shot, but did not kill, a minivan driver northern Cairo after a scuffle.
Some observers say police are out of control and that Sisi cannot rein them in.
Soon after Abdel Ghaffar promised action against police violations, low-ranking officers staged protests and threatened to escalate their anger and “scandalise” ministry officials.
“Anger is building up at these practices, which should function as a wake-up call for the president and the government,” Abu Saeeda said. “Antagonising one segment of society after another is very dangerous.”