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How will Egypt police its police force?

Police assaults on civilians have put the Interior Ministry in the hot seat as the public demands action to curb police violence.

A recent string of cases involving police abuse against citizens has stirred an uproar in Egypt against the Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for police and security matters. Calls for reform most recently re-emerged after the May 1 police raid on the Press Syndicate in Cairo.

A review of other abuses perpetrated in the past few months reveals that most of those cases were personally motivated and not related to official law enforcement. One widely covered incident occurred April 19, when a dispute erupted between a policeman and a drink vendor over the price of a cup of tea. The policeman opened fire on three vendors, killing one and wounding the other two in the east Cairo residential neighborhood of Rehab City.

Concern about abuse by police has caught the media's attention. On the evening of April 27, Egyptian news websites reported that, during a dispute, a policeman allegedly shot a bus driver in the El-Nozha area of east Cairo. Investigations by the prosecutor general later determined that the aggressor was not an ordinary policeman but a captain in the Directorate General for Information and Documentation.

According to Al-Youm Al-Sabeh newspaper, an eyewitness testified to investigators that “fear about a repeat of the Rehab incident … led them to intervene and disarm the police officer after he shot the bus driver in the thigh.” That police officer was released May 9 after he made peace with the family involved. He had been charged with attempted murder, but said he never intended to shoot the driver.

Both of those cases came soon after a policeman was sentenced April 2 to life in prison for shooting and killing a taxi driver in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar in February.

Parliament has discussed the issue of curbing police violence by debating a Police Authority Act, but hasn't adopted it yet.

“My initial reading of the draft law did not reveal any practical solutions for police oversteps, despite the existence of legal provisions barring police officers from carrying their weapons when off-duty," said parliament member Haitham al-Hariri, who is affiliated with the opposition.

"Most cases of assault perpetrated by policemen against citizens occurred while they were on duty," as was the case with the Rehab incident. "On April 20, I submitted an urgent request to the speaker of parliament, asking that Minister of Interior Maj. Gen. Magdi Abdel Ghaffar be summoned to appear before lawmakers, but my request went unheeded," Hariri told Al-Monitor.

“The perpetrator of the latest incident, in El-Nozha, was Capt. Ahmed Sameer Nassar, who was on duty as well,” Hariri said, adding that he also submitted an urgent request to the speaker of parliament asking for that incident to be investigated, but he hasn't received a definitive answer yet.

In that incident, the officer arrived at the taxi stand and asked the victim to drive him to a certain area for a specific fare that the driver rejected. An argument ensued, leading to a physical altercation and the officer ultimately shooting the driver.

Hariri said that while security agencies are supported and respected, that will not keep lawmakers from holding the Ministry of Interior accountable when police violate the constitution and the law by killing in cold blood and by indiscriminately arresting citizens.

Some have argued that subjecting the police force to scrutiny would affect anti-terror efforts, something Col. Hatem Abdel Fattah Saber of the Nasser Military Academy disagrees with. He told Al-Monitor that the proposed law would help regulate police performance and would not impede the security services’ fight against terror groups.

Saber also added that a smaller number of police officers could effectively carry out the force’s duties. He based his opinion on statements made by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the inauguration of a new Ministry of Interior building in late April, when he said 1,000 officers weren't necessary to secure the building, as Ghaffar had proposed. 

Saber told Al-Monitor that at 12,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,350) per officer, training security personnel is very costly to the state, which has led to a greater reliance on security cameras and remote sensors.

A number of Egyptian politicians also support a reduced police force, arguing that such a solution could eliminate abuses. But Maj. Gen. Magdi Bassiouni, a former deputy interior minister and current member of the Police Academy faculty, told Al-Monitor he rejects any reduction in the number of police, and that the proposed Police Authority Act would set standards to evaluate regular police officers annually, the way ranking police officers are now. He said that under the proposed law, anyone who violates moral norms or is convicted of moral turpitude will be dismissed or referred to a disciplinary committee.

He also alluded to the possibility for offenders who are regular police to be relegated to reserve status, as occurs with ranking police officers, who spend two years on probation and are returned to active duty only if they prove to have been rehabilitated.

Disciplinary committees are viewed as issuing rulings that are less severe than those from courts-martial rulings, which could not be appealed. Courts-martial for police were abolished after the January 25 Revolution.

In the wake of the latest chain of events, some lawmakers are calling for courts-martial to be reinstated under the proposed Police Authority Act, including Homat Al-Watan (Guards of the Homeland) Party member Ahmed Abdel Wahed, who is known for his close ties with authorities.

Bassiouni asserted that parliament member Samir Ghattas' proposal in February to close down the Police Academy was driven by the steady increase in the number of graduates, which reached 350,000 regular police, compared with 35,000 ranking officers. Bassiouni went on to explain that the lectures he supervises and the efforts of the Ministry of Interior’s training department aim to rehabilitate police and improve the manner in which they deal with the public.

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