National initiative seeks to reform interior ministry

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Protesters chanted against police outside the Ministry of Interior on June 7 - Sarah Carr

In the past decade, human rights activists in Egypt have joined a chorus of international organizations in calling for investigations into purported widespread police brutality and abuse of detainees.

But it was the case of Khaled Saied, a young Alexandrian who was brutally killed while in police custody, that eventually led to major demonstrations in the country which culminated in the populist revolt that erupted on January 25, the government's official Police Day.

Today, as police continue to be accused of systematic corruption, thuggery, torture and other human rights abuses, public dialogue has centered on the feasibility of a complete revamping of the Ministry of Interior (MoI). This simmering animosity between citizens and the police has chronically manifested itself in protests that left police stations in flames.

"The police officers had the feeling that they were gods, especially those in State Security," Mohamed Abdelrahman, an active duty police colonel, told The Caravan.

Government officials argue that an entire overhaul of the MoI is impractical and likely to create a security vacuum and instead propose internal reform.

Abdelrahman disagrees. He recently cofounded Police for Egyptian People (PEP), a national initiative which proposes a comprehensive, meticulous plan for a radical restructuring of the Ministry, addressing several notable issues including human rights abuses in detention centers, working conditions and job responsibilities of officers.

PEP also seeks the demilitarization of the Central Security Forces (CSF), and the decentralization of the police force.

"This revolution started on Police Day. We cannot ignore the significance of this and the main enemy was and continues to be up until now the collusion of the security sector in Egypt," said Amr Shalakany, a cofounder of the initiative.

Shalakany, who is an associate law professor at the American University in Cairo and member of the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, has been involved with the initiative since its inception in June.

He and the other members of the initiative argue that without a radical reformation of the police, the success of the January 25 uprising is left in jeopardy.

Shalakany says that the police force had served the political role of guarding the Mubarak regime rather than an institution whose purpose is to protect and serve the citizens. For him and others, this long upheld framework is a part of the old regime's system that the revolution aspires to overthrow.

Loyalty to the regime?
One of the underlying issues addressed by the initiative is the function of the police force. The body has effectively served as an investigative arm of the state, which is a role that should be carried out by the Public Prosecution Office.

The police also handle areas of bureaucratic functions, such as the issuing of passports, national IDs, and electricity, among many other public services, creating additional work that the force should not be burdened with.

The proposal presented by PEP would have these functions outsourced to more competent ministries. For example, the iniative suggests that issuing passports would be handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and national IDs by the local councils.

"A security mentality has taken over aspects or functions of the state that have nothing to do with security," added Shalakany. "And at the same time, the Ministry of Interior has used them to expand its powers in a cancerous way."

Among its many recommendations for overhauling the MoI, PEP strongly holds that all police officers currently under investigation for crimes committed during the revolution should be suspended from service.

"The Ministry of Interior claims it does not have the power to suspend them [police officers], there are court hearings happening now and the Ministry will wait till the court hearings arrive at a verdict and then they'll deal with it. That is blatantly a lie," said Shalakany.

The Ministry can legally suspend police officers under investigation, either through precautionary suspension, which has no negative effect on the overall record of the officer, or punitive three-month suspension from duty. However, in previous years, many police officers indicted with violations of human rights had returned to service.

"What we have been watching since February till today is a system that has managed to try to give you an impression of change, while remaining exactly the same," said Shalakany.

Abdelrahman agrees: "It's the same philosophy, the same school and the same people running the show. Nothing has changed," he said.

The problem, he adds, is that the MoI is full of men who are strongly loyal to the previous regime and stand to lose alot from change. According to Abdelrahman, police officers are automatically discharged from the force two years after they are promoted to the rank of colonel unless they prove their loyalty to the ruling regime.

"These people and this system will not change except with purification. There is no hope in reform or painkillers," said Abdelrahman.

PEP realize that serious reform of the MoI is going to require an uphill battle, but they are inspired by a similar approach in a country formerly ruled by dictatorship.

In the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze and his regime, police brutality and corruption were among the new government's top priorities.

A human rights activist, Ekaterine Zguladze, was appointed Deputy Minister of Interior Affairs for Police Reform.

Zguladze, 27 at the time, is largely credited with completely revamping the Georgian police force.

PEP also recommends the appointment of an interior minister with a human rights or legal background.

"She purged the Ministry and discharged 18,000 corrupt officials - this in a country with a population of five million. If we apply this system here then we would need to remove up to 140,000 corrupt officials from the police force," said Abdelrahman.

"We have more corruption so we would need to get rid of more people; the important thing though is for those in charge to have the revolutionary will for change. The problem with the Egyptian revolution is that it is not complete yet and so can't easily enforce its will," he added.

PEP is strongly urging the demilitarization of the interior ministry from a paramilitary fighting force to a civilian services entity.

Particular scrutiny falls on the CSF, which serves as riot police, crowd control as well as security for government sites and foreign embassies.

Members of the CSF are Egyptian military conscripts who have been transferred from the army to the police force.

"These are people who instead of spending the three-year compulsory military draft doing what they should be doing, they are transferred into the police and end up holding guns - not to protect this country from foreign enemies - but to shoot at their fellow citizens. It's ridiculous," said Shalakany.

Working conditions
PEP also emphasize that working conditions be improved, studying a mechanism for more equitable salaries, improving the conditions of work, upgrading police stations themselves, and providing up-to-date investigative tools that the current police force lacks.

Shalakany and Abdelrahman also want to see police contracts revamped so that loyalty to the regime is not a prerequisite for rising in the ranks.

The current structure offers little job security and instead reinforces that officers should be dependent on their superiors and the ruling regime. This creates a paradigm where loyalty to the regime is paramount to upholding the law and serving the citizenry.

Abdelrahman says that the largest challenge facing police reform is how to maintain security in Egypt.

"We need to ensure that during the process of purging and revamping, we don't have a drop in security - we have to draw up contingency plans," he said.

PEP's proposal aims to ensure that getting rid of a large number of police officers will not harm Egypt's security.

"We have been living for nine months without security already. The police are literally doing nothing, so there is no fear of the security condition worsening if we get rid of [a large number of officers]," he said
As elections draw near, Shalakany fears that the ruling military council could use lack of security as the ultimate excuse to suspend further elections and prolong their rule.

He noted that serious reform of the MoI is unlikely under the current cabinet or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), but remains a strong possibility if and when a government is elected by popular mandate.
Abdelrahman, on the other hand, fears the possibility of discharged officers actively resisting reforms and trying to derail the purging process.

The only way to counter this obstacle is to have the Ministry and the country's leadership instilled with the political will to carry out such an initiative.

"We understand that we're not going to get what we want immediately, but we have years and years and years. We're not going to stop now, no."