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For Now At Least, Egypt's Police Are Seen As The Good Guys

Jul 9, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 7:15 pm

Egypt has undergone profound change over the past 10 days. The military has overthrown an elected Islamist president and is back in control of the country amid deadly clashes between Islamists and the state security forces.

There's been another change as well: Egypt's police, long reviled by much of the population, have become unlikely heroes for opponents of the now-ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

During Egypt's 2011 uprising, revolutionaries fought pitched street battles with the police force, the protector of the autocratic regime.

In those volatile days, police did battle with protesters on a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in central Cairo. The protesters' demands for a democratic state were met with tear gas, birdshot and sometimes live ammunition.

The police were viewed as the backbone of a corrupt and abusive state, accused of torturing and killing Egyptian citizens.

But in a dynamic Egypt, what a difference a year can make. Many of the same protesters who battled the police have now redirected their anger at the deposed Islamist president and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. The police haven't been reformed, but frustration with the ousted Islamist president trumps public anger at the police. In a strange turn of events, for many Egyptians, the police are now the good guys.

Finally, Good Faith In The Police

On that same bridge where so much blood was spilled between protesters and police, police officer Mohammed Samir now struts proudly among the celebrating crowds.

He says the people finally have good faith in the police force.

Around him people cheer as military aircraft fly through the sky, leaving streaks of smoke in the colors of the Egyptian flag.

Protester Hesham Sabra smiles as he points toward others who are celebrating with policemen. "You see the people, they are waving to them, kissing them, dancing and so on," Sabra says.

Prior to June 30 when millions of people turned out against Morsi, Sabra says, he was angry at the police and the military for their treatment of protesters. But bad leadership by the Islamist government, he says, changed all that.

"The people, the military, the army, the police, the judicial system, we are all one hand. We want to save Egypt."

Uneasy Alliance With Unreconstructed Force

Not everyone is convinced the security apparatus is to be trusted again so quickly. Just Monday, at least 55 people were killed after the police and soldiers opened fire on crowds of Morsi supporters. Muslim Brotherhood leaders called it a massacre. But there was little outrage from opponents of the ousted president.

"This is an unreconstructed police force whose culture remains one that is rampant with torture, and abuse," says Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. Hanna calls the newfound kinship between some anti-Morsi protesters and the police an uneasy alliance, stemming from a yearning for stability and a broad backlash against the Islamist leadership. Instead of reforming the security forces, he says, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to co-opt them for similar practices seen under former President Hosni Mubarak.

But for the moment, the decades of abusive practices have been forgotten and the police are enjoying a clean slate, at least temporarily, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.

But those with longer memories are worried about what this reconciliation could mean for Egypt's long-term transition to democracy, he says.

"This does not bode well for civilian control of the military," Shehata says. "It also potentially does not bode well for reform of the Interior Ministry, and of course the police were despised under Mubarak."

Shehata adds that cleaning up the police force is an essential part of any kind of democratic reform in Egypt.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. We begin the hour in Egypt where profound changes are still rapidly unfolding following last week's coup. Today, a new prime minister was named, Hazem El-Beblawi. He's a former Egyptian finance minister. Meantime, supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi are reeling from a clash with state security forces yesterday that killed more than 50 people.

But for those who oppose Morsi, Egypt's long reviled police force has now become a hero. We begin our coverage with NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: During the 2011 uprising here, revolutionaries fought pitched street battles with Egypt's police force, the protector of the autocratic regime. In a video from those volatile days, police are doing battle with protesters on a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in central Cairo. The protesters' demands for a democratic state were met with tear gas, birdshot and sometimes live ammunition.

The police were viewed as the backbone of a corrupt and abusive state, accused of torturing and killing Egyptian citizens. But in a dynamic Egypt, what a difference a year can make. Many of the same protesters who battled the police have now redirected their anger at the deposed Islamist president and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The police haven't been reformed but frustration with the ousted Islamist president trumps public anger at the police. In a strange turn of events, the police are now the good guys for many Egyptians. On that same bridge where so much blood was spilled between protesters and police, Officer Mohammed Samir(ph) now struts proudly among the celebrating crowds.

MOHAMMED SAMIR: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: The people finally have good faith in the police force, Samir says. Around him, people cheer as military aircraft fly through the sky, leaving streaks of smoke behind them in the colors of the Egyptian flag. Protester Heshem Sabra(ph) smiles as he points towards others celebrating with policemen.

HESHEM SABRA: You see the people. They are waving to them, kissing them, dancing and so on.

FADEL: Prior to June 30th, when millions of people turned out against Morsi, Sabra says he was angry at the police and the military for their treatment of protesters. But bad leadership by the Islamist government, he says, changed all that.

SABRA: The people, the military, the army, the police, the judicial system, we are all one hand. We want to save Egypt.

FADEL: Not everyone is convinced the security apparatus is to be trusted again so quickly. Just yesterday, at least 55 people were killed after the police and soldiers opened fire on crowds of Morsi supporters. Muslim Brotherhood leaders called it a massacre. But there was little outrage from opponents of the ousted president. Michael Wahid Hanna is an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: This is an unreconstructed police force whose culture remains one that is rampant with torture and abuse.

FADEL: He calls the partnership between anti-Morsi protesters and the police an uneasy alliance, stemming from a yearning for stability and a broad backlash against the Islamist leadership. Instead of reforming the security forces, he says, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to co-opt them for similar practices seen under Mubarak.

But for the moment, the decades of abusive practices have been forgotten and the police are enjoying a clean slate, at least temporarily, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. But those with longer memories are worried about what this reconciliation could mean for Egypt's long-term transition to democracy, he says.

SAMER SHEHATA: This does not bode well for civilian control of the military. It also potentially does not bode well for reform of the interior ministry. And, of course, the police were despised under Mubarak.

FADEL: Shehata adds that cleaning up the police force is an essential part of any kind of democratic transition in Egypt. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.