CAIRO — The record of police violations is extensive, ranging from murder to extortion and illegal bribes. While some claim these are individual incidents and that the situation should not be generalized, tedious accounts of numerous violations reveal the dysfunctional role of police in daily Egyptian life.
Within the old structures of authority under former President Hosni Mubarak, police were at the forefront of domination and social subjugation. In the 1990s, the Ministry of Interior relied extensively on police and informants for three reasons: the sudden population increase and rampant rise in informal housing, the war on terrorism, and the weak presence of institutional police forces in different parts of the city.
Police officer usually come from a different social background than the bourgeois, or tribal, higher-ranking officers. This allows them a better understanding of lower-class neighborhoods, including the nature of relationships. It also gives them the advantage of mastering the language and rhetoric in these areas.
But, why do people in society acquiesce to police authority?
First, police and their individual practices embody the authority of the institution. As an individual, he personifies the whole. This autocratic institution assumes an omnipotent disposition. Legitimacy is not the defining framework for its actions; it is the other way around. This explains the high rate of unlawful killings, as officers and their subordinates perceive themselves to be above the law.
There is also a widespread fear of physical assault when it comes to dealing with police. Assault and abuse have been common features of the Egyptian police code. Indeed, a large section of society perceives physical abuse necessary to keep the lower classes in their place.
The detainee "needs a few slaps, so he can come to his senses and realize where he’s going. This is not the Sheraton," as one police officer puts it. This unbridled authority to use physical force, and the lack of accountability in most cases, gives security forces the chance to humiliate citizens without restraint. As a result, society has developed a fear of dealing with the police and a collective conviction that legal punishment should be evaded at all costs.
Egyptians have also been living under the Emergency Law for several decades, and today, the war or terrorism provides an excuse for further police crackdown.
A large part of economic activity in Egypt happens in the informal sector, reaching over 30% of GDP. Police often use this lack of legality as a basis for threatening these sectors. Craftsmen and street sellers are constantly harassed and extorted by officers and informants who impose illegal levies.
Taking mutual advantage
Moreover, society and authority figures have a mutual agreement to provide a quick service, even if this has detrimental effects. For example, there is a web of exploitive relationships between craftsmen and restaurant owners on one side, and policemen and informants on the other. Sometimes these take an amiable form, with services, products or meals provided to security forces at reduced rates. This is not always enforced, but is rather a means of social solidarity, given the wealth of security forces.
Another pattern, which has existed for a long time, can be seen in the mutually beneficial relationship between policemen and shop and cart owners in many areas. Free meals are served daily in return for services and the facilitation of licenses when needed.
This heavy police presence in every aspect of formal and informal life can lead to identification with or submission to policemen. They provide various services in return for public support in their districts. Thus, in many cases, members of society are partially responsible for police corruption.
Finally, there is a fear of police ability to obstruct services. For example, one policeman says, "You may not win if you're on my side, but you won't lose much. Go against me and you may lose your time, money and business. You'll be hurt badly. I'll make it tough for you." This is how such symbiotic relationships are formed, with interchangeable corruption.
These factors have widened the scope of police in a way that did not exist before Mubarak. The police officer is no longer the same as the informant, as was the case in the time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, or under previous regimes. The police officer does not spy on society anymore, and he is not just a representative of law and order. He has been promoted to manage every day operations. He now represents the institutional and the non-institutional, and has gained control of extensive social spheres.
Upon realizing the importance of their role, not only within the institution, but also in wider governance, police officers have managed to form expansive webs among themselves, which go beyond their work districts. They have gained more power through solidarity with each other, as was seen during several recent police strikes.
Police have not been widely held accountable for violations and social tyranny. They use their clout at police stations and during investigations, and assert control over medical institutions, like morgues, where they can occasionally tamper with reports. Additionally, they enjoy protection from the Ministry of Interior, which is aware of their importance, and which also despises most sectors of society, considering human rights violations and tyranny a small price to pay for security and domination.
Still, such structures have been subject to change. The fear barrier has been largely broken, and a large sector of the population has declared that it is no longer willing to comply with the status quo, and will defy the state using violence if necessary. It is also becoming more difficult for police violations to go unnoticed, given that human rights organizations are becoming a source of pressure on the Ministry of Interior.
But the system is robust and has been heavily normalized. It is attempting to regain its sovereignty, sometimes through revenge and retaliation, a battle that will quite possibly intensify in the near future.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
- Arab-Israeli Rapprochement: Is Saudi Arabia Next? - Worldcrunch ›
- Why Iran Is Actively Backing The Taliban For The First Time ... ›
- Iran-Azerbaijan Tensions: How Khamenei Overplayed Islamic Ties ... ›