It’s been three weeks since Egypt’s police and Central Security Forces (CSF) were defeated and withdrawn from most of Egypt’s cities. Since Mubarak’s departure, the army has been trying to redeploy the Police force back to the streets. However, it is naive to think that they can return just like that! Egypt’s police force needs to be redefined, restructured, rehabilitated and rebranded before they can be effectively redeployed.
The first thing that needs to be done is to acknowledge the reality of the situation today. Egypt’s ruling supreme military council, police force leadership, and the people at large need to understand and acknowledge this reality. The reality is that for the past three decades (five if you want to go beyond Mubarak’s era), the police force has been a tool in the hands of the state to secure the regime and quell any dissent. They dropped their original mission of protecting the people – they even acknowledged this when they changed their motto few years ago. Along with this change in mission, their means were torture, rape, and kidnapping. They were not satisfied with the draconian rules that the emergency laws provide, but rather operated outside the law. The police force also integrated informal militias of thugs (baltageyya) that have become an organized arm of the oppression machine. Their size, numbers and budget were bloated beyond control. Effectively, they turned Egypt into a police state, which is in big part responsible for the state of affairs that we’ve lived through for decades.
Three weeks ago, on the Friday of Wrath, this oppression machine was defeated. The cost in blood was dear – hundreds of brave youth lost their lives, and thousands got injured, many lost their vision or became permanently disabled (we still don’t know the exact numbers, probably much higher than the official count). It is disrespectful for the souls of the martyrs to assume that we can bring this oppression machine back. It is naïve to expect that people will simply forgive and forget and accept them back in the streets. Today’s police force is a legacy of a past that we need to quickly dismantle. The police force that we need for a free and democratic Egypt is different, and we need to start building it today.
How should we go about creating a new police force for a free and democratic Egypt?
First, we need a truth and reconciliation commission. We need to acknowledge what happened and who is responsible. Those who are responsible for crimes against humanities and human rights violations need to be brought to justice. This is not about vindication, but rather bringing justice to those who deserve it. People may choose to forgive, but we can not forget – the truth must be uncovered. South Africa did the same after the fall of the Apartheid regime and it helped the healing process and made it possible to move on beyond the dark past.
Second, we need to redefine the mission of the new police force. We need a police force that understands that its mission is to protect people’s lives and properties, enforce the laws, and provide safety and security for the people — not to protect the regime’s security. This mission needs to be codified in the law in a clear mandate.
Third, we need to restructure the police force to reflect the new mandate. Some organizations like the Central Security Forces or State Security need to be trimmed down significantly. A free democracy does not need a police force numbering more than 1.5 million! Some organizations need to be completely revamped or even eliminated. Police presence needs to be strengthened at the local level, close to the community. They need to work with the citizens in every street and village to gain their respect, protect their properties, and be an integral part of the local community. We should learn from the experience of many of the ex-communist states in Eastern Europe who managed quick and successful democratic transitions.
Forth, we need to institute a clear code of ethics and human rights and to re-train the whole force to understand it and how to apply it. This code needs to be coupled with the legal framework for anti-torture and anti-corruption.
Fifth, we need to institute independent checks and audits on the performance of the police force. We need to be able to inspect police stations, prisons, and other police facilities to ensure that torture is eliminated, laws are respected and due process is applied. These inspection need to be carried out by an independent organization outside the Ministry of Interior. This could be part of an independent human rights organization, or part of the judiciary.
Sixth, we need to re-brand and the police force and re-introduce it to the public AFTER it has been restructured. They need to have a new uniform, a new motto, and a more polite and humane posture. They need to recapture the public trust, and work hard to prove that they deserve their acceptance.
Finally, the redeployment of police should not be done in an incremental way across all locations, but rather in a heavy and visible redeployment in neighborhood by neighborhood, with the proper planning and publicity. For example, a new, retrained and rebranded police force would formally take control of Mohandeseen neighborhood from the army, in cooperation with the community committees, and with a strong and visible presence.
If we try to rebuild the police force to where it was prior to January 25th and incrementally re-introduce it, we would be committing a huge mistake that will come back to haunt us in the near future. The police force will never be able to regain its effectiveness or the people’s trust, and it will delay the transition to a new civil state. There are no short cuts – If the military wants to get out of the streets and back to their barracks, they need to follow the above plan.
Amin El-Masry. 18 February 2011.