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.