The resurgence of police government in Egypt

By Salwa Ismail, SOAS, University of London

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.

The mass mobilization in Tahrir Square and other public squares in Egypt was only one facet of the revolutionary uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011. Another facet was the clashes with the police around Tahrir, but also in the popular neighborhoods of large cities throughout the country. In the first few days of mass protests, popular confrontation with the police culminated in the burning down of 99 police stations. As targets of popular anger and opposition to the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak, police officers withdrew from the streets. In the aftermath of Tahrir, while revolutionary activists and citizens pressed for political and social rights, a host of actors, including the police, coalesced to counter the revolutionary movements and their demands. The reassertion of the police was a key part of the counter-revolutionary mobilization that paved the road for former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s assumption of the presidential office.

Under the rule of President Mubarak (deposed in 2011), the police emerged as an apparatus of government. Police government in Egypt rested on the articulation of security politics with neo-liberal government. The resurgence of the police following Mubarak’s fall confirms that this articulation of the politics of security with economic liberalization has survived the spectacular mobilizations of the last four years. However, it is not that the revolution has failed, but that the dynamics of mobilization and counter-mobilization have unfolded as an ongoing struggle between competing social forces over social, political and economic rights. Against this struggle, dominant social and political forces have coalesced to protect their interests through a particular mode of government – police government.

As an apparatus of government, the police’s remit extends far beyond matters of law-and-order and civic and national security. The security and intelligence services are only one component of a large and powerful apparatus of government, which has presence in the everyday life of Egyptian citizens. Police government is a form of everyday government which is intrusive and extensive. Police departments have power to oversee a wide range of mundane activities. In addition to the security and intelligence services, there are other specialized police forces such as the municipality police, utilities police, electricity police, transport police and public morality police. The scope and reach of these specialized units mean that the police apparatus has virtual control of public space and maintains oversight of social, economic and cultural activities.

Prior to January 2011, everyday encounters with the police were formative of citizens’ political subjectivities. These encounters were marked by humiliation, and often involved the use of force and violence. The encounters took place on the streets, in residential neighborhoods, in outdoor markets, in public transport, among many other spaces. The increased power of the police was partly due to the role that they assumed in countering Islamist movements. In the 1980s and 90s, police engagement in the pursuit of Islamist activists was associated with their investment with greater powers of investigation and arrest under the emergency laws and with the use of administrative detention and similar repressive measures. With Islamists operating out of informal neighborhoods, the police sought to have greater presence in these spaces through surveillance activities, which entailed the recruitment of a large number of informants.

The security operations coincided with intensifying campaigns of public order by various police departments such as the municipalities and utilities police. Police carried out sustained campaigns on outdoor markets to manage the use of public space, as well as monitor the use of electricity and other public utilities. The intensification of policing of the social was linked with the expansion of neo-liberal economic policies, which brought about the privatization of public sector companies, and the retrenchment of state provision of social services. A concomitant development was the growth of the informal economy, in particular in the service sector. In turn, the activities in this economy were regularly found to be in contravention of some public regulation. It is in relation to this socio-economic context that police intervention in the government of the social intensified.

The experience of encounters with the police thus became formative of political subjectivities. It was integral to being a subject of government in Egypt and it elicited understandings and feelings about government. These feelings and understandings informed the opposition to government that was manifested in the 2011 Revolution. Repertoires of action from earlier encounters with the police were played out in Tahrir, in its backstreets and in popular and informal neighborhoods where police stations were burned down.

The other facet of police government is the security services, which work in tandem with various police units for the purposes of political containment and stifling dissent. Intelligence and security services, in line with the Ministry of Interior’s role in protecting the Mubarak regime, devoted their work to surveillance of activists, gathering information on dissidents and political opponents, and rounding them up and falsifying charges against them. Detention centers held thousands of political activists alongside anyone who questioned police power. The use of torture in these centers, as in police stations, was widespread. Thus, while, ordinary citizens attacked and burned down police stations, following the removal of Mubarak, activists stormed the State Security Investigation Headquarters and seized thousands of files that documented the security services’ violations of human rights.

In the euphoria of the early days of the revolution, activists and political opposition put forward demands for police restructuring. Restructuring proposals included recommendations for the removal of top police leadership, investigation into wrongful police practices, as well as the abolition of the Central Security Forces and police departments dealing with mundane civil matters, such as the electricity police and the supply and trade police. In the same vein, restructuring plans favored the removal of police oversight of the media, and over travel. Further, and most importantly, demands centered on the need for an overhaul of policing practices to end torture and falsification of charges. Restructuring plans pushed for appointing a civilian from outside the police force as minister of interior and proposed establishing a civilian audit body to conduct an overview of the police.

These demands were taken up by the short-lived Isam Sharaf government, which was initially viewed as representing the revolutionary forces. Successive governments, including government of Hazem al-Beblawi in 2013, paid lip service to the demands. However, these proposals for police reform do not seem to have advanced far under these interim governments or under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. In 2012, Karim Ennarah pointed out how the now ousted President Morsi endeavored to reach an accommodation with the police. To this end, Morsi refrained from bringing about any change to the procedures of selecting the police leadership – normally drawn from the Security Services – and he showed no intention of reforming the institution.

Yet, concerted action on the part of the police to undermine Morsi’s presidency started early. Various police units throughout the country went on strike against what they called the politicization of the police, referring to the use of police to break up demonstrations, primarily those supporting the president and the Muslim Brotherhood. They also voiced objections to akhwanat al-shurta, or the takeover of the police by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some police units, in Asyut for example, demanded the removal of Minister of Interior Mohammed Ibrahim, thought of at the time as a Muslim Brotherhood appointee. Notably, the Central Security Forces went on strike against the alleged Brotherhood plot and called for the instatement of “a new leadership that is allied to the ordinary citizen.” There were also demonstrations for better pay and working conditions and more “appropriate” arming. The police strikers demanded that a law be passed for the protection of police personnel. This was pursued by the Ministry of Interior as soon as emergency rule was lifted in 2012.

In the analysis of the counter-revolutionary forces that mobilized to undermine efforts for radical social and political transformation, the police have been seen as part of the so-called deep state in Egypt, that is, an entrenched apparatus of rule with high-stakes in existing power structures and arrangements. While the use of the concept of “the deep state” in the Egyptian context needs further consideration, it does help to point to the existence of deep interests in the reassertion of the police. Yet, to understand this reassertion, it is more helpful to look at the coalescence of a number of factors. First, there is the set of political economy factors that have to do with the protection of existing economic arrangements that privilege a small segment of the population. As a popular movement for social transformation, the revolution continued with wide-scale mobilization for social and economic rights. This mobilization did not only consist of demonstrations and the occupation of Tahrir, but took diverse forms including the expansion of squatting on public and private land, and the appropriation of commercial streets by informal vendors in central Cairo and in many city neighborhoods. Further, communities took initiatives to improve living conditions, which encroached on the purview of public authorities, such as the building of exit ramps on highways to allow access to their neighborhoods.

Although these facets of popular mobilization persisted for four years, they were countered by the redeployment of the police to reassert “the awe of state” or “haybat al dawla.” Illustrative of this strategy were the campaigns against informal vendors. Regular police attempts to regain the awe of state have been conceived in terms of regaining control over the streets and removing the vendors. In turn, the environment of mobilization has facilitated greater resistance on the part of the vendors in defense of better opportunities for making a living. In some instances, these latter took up arms to resist police efforts to remove them by force. Police use of armored cars in these campaigns and having high-ranking officers in command are indicative of the high-value of the stakes, above all the control of space.

The emergence of divisions between politically-oriented activism, on one hand, and forms of popular mobilization focused on economic rights, on the other, were manifested in differentiated positioning in relation to the police. For example, informal vendors did not necessarily cooperate with activists in clashes with the police, and protesters for social and economic rights did not approve of their protests being taken over by political activists. These paradoxes of mobilization should be taken into account.

Though the police reduced their street visibility for an extended period between 2011 and 2012, their use of violence eventually returned to the same level as prior to the revolution. A report by al-Nadim Centre for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of the Victims of Torture on the first one hundred days of Morsi’s presidency reveals the extent of violence perpetrated in police stations. Much of this violence was aimed at ordinary citizens and related to contests over social and economic rights. The report documented 11 deaths while in police custody and 30 cases of torture in the early months of Morsi’s presidency, providing evidence that the police practices of violence that were routine in the pre-revolution period persisted under the elected president. Among the more known and prominent examples are the campaigns in the Cairo neighborhood of Ramlet Bulaq, which took place on the heel of a shooting incident that resulted in the death of one of its residents. In response to the inhabitants’ demonstrations, the police conducted a number of raids on the neighborhood and arrested over 50 young men. The residents viewed police action as an attempt to empty the area of its youth ­– especially those considered to be most challenging to the police. The Ramlet Bulaq case is illustrative of the conjunction of the objectives of enforcing a particular vision of public order and the protection of the economic interests of privileged segments of the population.

The police’s implication in episodes of violence such as the February 2012 massacre of the Ultra supporters of the Ahli club at a football match in Port Said is also understood as linked to their efforts to reassert control and power. In this case, the police appeared to be pursuing a vendetta against the Ultras football supporters, in particular the Ahli Ultras who were at the forefront of the revolutionary confrontations and whose challenge of the police at the symbolic level was very effective. For example, Ultras songs effected a leveling of the police, as with the song “ya ghurab yam’ashish guwa bitna”(O’ crow that is nested in our home).

The restructuring of the Ministry of Interior was one of the declared goals of revolutionary activists and popular forces that participated in the revolution. Countering the struggle to reform policing, the ministry undertook to restore its grip over the population, and, in doing so, it followed a similar route to that taken under Mubarak. In the 1990s, the ministry sought the normalization of the state of emergency through the law, enshrining emergency rule in the legal system. Laws, such as the Baltaga law of 1998, extended police powers of arrest. The Baltaga law was particularly aimed at young men from popular neighborhoods who were thought of as recalcitrant subjects.

With the end of emergency law in 2012, the ministry prepared a raft of laws to reinstate the state of emergency. These included the law on the Protection of Society from Dangerous Persons, the amendment to the law on the Protection of Places of Work that was introduced in 2011 and intended to limit strikes and demonstrations, the amendments to the law on the Protection of Places of Worship, and the amendments to the Penal Code which would give impunity to the police. The reintroduction of emergency rule under new labels was to facilitate the return of unconstrained powers that the police had under Mubarak-era emergency rule – powers of arrest, detention, and impunity from prosecution for the use of torture and violence.

The intransigence of the police and their resistance to the calls for restructuring was more recently confirmed in the statement made by a top aid to the minister of interior. In May 2014, General Ashraf Abdallah, first assistant to the minister and head of the Central Security Forces asserted in an interview on an Egyptian television program that the term “restructuring the police apparatus” is “an impolite term.” Abdallah’s articulation of such unequivocal rejection to the reform of the institution whose practices united Egyptians in opposition to the Mubarak regime can be partly understood against the background of the counter-revolution narratives of plots and conspiracies that highlight threats to national security led by the Muslim Brothers. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Abdallah acted as mediator in the Central Security Forces’ strike under Morsi, viewing it sympathetically as a message against the politicization of the police at that time, and that today he leads the Central Security Forces’ efforts to stifle protest by university students including the use of live bullets. Additionally, he oversaw the consolidation of the forces with the appointment of 600 lieutenants trained in “the dispersal of demonstrations according to international standards” and “educated in the ethical and legal conduct of the police” as reported in Egyptian media.

The reassertion of the police apparatus in its pre-revolution form is undoubtedly part of the counter-revolutionary mobilization. Shored-up by a media discourse on chaos, violence and insecurity, and social breakdown, and working in conjunction with dominant economic interests, the police have been able to gradually reassert their control. In this, they have been aided by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, by the Morsi government, and again by the former Field Marshal who is now in power. It would be simplistic to argue that the reassertion of the police translates into a return to pre-revolution Egypt. Rather, it indicates that the structural conditions and the affective aspects of relations with government that motivated popular action in the early revolutionary period persist as grounds for oppositional action.

Salwa Ismail is Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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