One of the key moments in the build-up to the 25 January uprising and the overthrow of Egypt’s former President Mubarak was the alleged beating to death of a young man, Khaled Said, by police in Alexandria - an event which galvanized Egyptians around the issue of police brutality.
Amid allegations of ongoing police brutality, security sector reform, which is vital for the country’s economic and social stability, is becoming an increasingly vociferous demand of protesters and civil society representatives.
Former policeman Ihab Youssef, now campaigning for better relations between the police and public but who is often met with distrust and scepticism on the street, told IRIN: “The gap between policemen and ordinary citizens continues to grow day after day and if this gap is not bridged, Egypt will be in danger… Concerted efforts must be made for the relationship between police and citizens to get back on track.”
During Mubarak’s 30-year rule, attitudes towards the police hardened, and hatred seemed to have taken the place of respect, contributing to a serious security vacuum in the aftermath of the 25 January uprising.
“It is important that the government take steps sooner rather than later to strengthen the relationship between the police and the citizenry,” James Rawley, the UN resident coordinator in Egypt, told IRIN.
Perhaps by choosing 25 January, Police Day, as the starting point for their revolt, the protesters meant to signal to the police that they should treat political opponents of Mubarak fairly and correctly (Arabic).
“Ordinary citizens do not trust policemen,” said political activist Ashraf Al Baroudy. “They do not even think that these policemen are sincere in trying to protect their security.”
According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, a local NGO, most low-ranking policemen - especially those of the Central Security Agency sent out with sticks and clubs to face protesters - are poor and uneducated.
Ex-policeman Youssef has founded an NGO called People & Police for Egypt, with the aim of creating understanding between the two sides.
He listens to ordinary citizens’ demands and draws up strategies for the reform of the Interior Ministry. He once took a group of ordinary citizens to a police station and held a round-table meeting between them and the officers inside in a bid to promote better understanding.
When he started his group in 2006, Youssef was mostly ignored, but during the uprising when the police became a focus for public anger, his organization seemed to acquire more relevance. Youssef and his colleagues have since held meetings between hundreds of citizens, policemen, and security officials.
“The public have a bad mental image about policemen and this image has formed in part because of what people hear about the violations of policemen,” Youssef said. “This is why we have recommended a complete upgrade of the Interior Ministry, the creation of appropriate channels of communication between citizens and policemen, and also a reconsideration of the type of curricula future policemen will study at the Police Academy.”
|It is important that the government take steps sooner rather than later to strengthen the relationship between the police and the citizenry|
To achieve his ends, Youssef also suggests the creation of community policing units - made up of policemen and ordinary citizens.
He keeps sending suggestions to the Interior Ministry, but in the current political turmoil, engagement has been difficult. So far, the Interior Ministry has not announced any plans for reform.
In a separate effort, some policemen have set up a “Coalition of Policemen” (Arabic) which aims to improve communication with citizens. The small number of policewomen generally adopt a low profile.
“The former regime used policemen to silence the opposition and humiliate ordinary people,” said Yasser Abulmagd, a police officer who founded the coalition. “Some policemen also committed violations against citizens, adding insult to injury. This is why it was important for people like me to take some action.”
New interior minister
Newly-appointed Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has been out and about, meeting people on the street to encourage them to cooperate with police; he also pays surprise visits to police stations to make sure the police are providing a good service, and has promised a change of culture within the ministry.
Since his appointment as part of a new “national salvation” government, uniformed police have been more in evidence on the streets and drivers say they have been better treated. Egyptians who go to the Traffic Department to renew their driving licenses say they no longer have to pay bribes to get things done.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Ibrahim’s gestures will have any impact on the way people perceive the police.
Some do not expect relations between the police and citizens to improve until the Interior Ministry releases the thousands of people it has detained without charge since the start of the year.
Activist Nasser Amin, a member of the state-run National Council for Human Rights, estimates the number of such people in jail at 6,000. “These people are in prison only because policemen suspected them,” he said.