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Inside the Egyptian Police Force

According to the Police Corps Act, the police are a “civilian disciplinary authority . . . composed of various officers and agents as well as police officers.”8 There are two main categories of officers: the first are officers with higher levels of education; second are police warrant officers, agents, privates, and patrolmen, as well as staff officers and policemen. This latter is the largest category in Egypt’s MoI, and often the hardest to control; they are—in the opinion of one of the authors, who worked in the Mol—notorious for being the most corrupt group in the police force. The members are recruited from the wider community, usually from vulnerable socioeconomic groups and communities that have been repeatedly victimized by the Egyptian regime. The corruption of this police force is manifested in the case of Khaled Said, who, now an icon of the Egyptian revolution, was beaten to death by two warrant officers, Mahmoud Salah and Awad Suleiman.

The police force is part of the Mol. The most important criterion for the selection of ministry leaders is loyalty. Consequently, blind obedience to ministry orders, regardless of conformity to laws, morals, or customs, has been paramount. Under Mubarak, the ministry spent lavishly on officials who filled top positions, be they security managers, department heads, or chiefs of administrations. Managers usually earned salaries more than five times the salaries of their peers of the same rank, not to mention material privileges that often involved assigned cars, drivers, and recruits. These privileges are vital to understanding excesses perpetrated by MoI leaders.

Article 47 of the Police Corps Act stipulates that “any officer who violates the duties stipulated in this law or in decisions issued by the Minister of Interior, or transgresses proprieties in a job or behaves or appears in a manner that dishonors the job is disciplinarily punished.” The article is so flexible that it gave a free hand to the Mol regarding the punishment of accused suspects. Moreover, to protect the state regime, many senior police promotions, transfers, rewards, and penalties have been highly politicized. Thus, police corruption cannot be understood outside the broader institutional context of Egypt’s security state and the leadership at the helm of this institution.

The desire of police leaders to keep their positions and privileges has negatively affected the performance of the Mol at large, and has been largely responsible for the internal corruption that has plagued the ministry. Police frustrations with the system and resulting feelings of disloyalty to the badge drove some officers to perform only a minimum amount of work. This phenomenon—described as “working only to the extent of warding off blame”—has been markedly detrimental to the ministry’s performance and internal morale. David Carter identified the factors that cause police corruption and induce greed. These include personal motivation (such as ego, sex, or the lust for power), cultural intolerance, socialization from peers or the organization, poor selection of officers, inadequate supervision and monitoring of behavior, a lack of clear accountability for police officers’ behavior, and the lack of a real threat of discipline or sanctions for transgressions.9 In Egypt, location placements that indirectly offer material privileges are distributed on the basis of cronyism or favoritism. In turn, internal police corruption has contributed to a state of frustration and indifference among officers, who have witnessed little justice or retribution for internal corruption.

Moreover, a prevailing feeling among Egyptian citizens is that no interaction with the police can happen without bribery or cronyism. In the case of Egypt, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has reported, “When asked whether any government official, for instance a customs officer, police officer, traffic officer, court official, pensions officer or building inspector, had either asked for or expected to be paid a bribe for his/her services, 17.7 per cent of the survey respondents answered yes. Such requests for bribes most frequently involved police officers (31 per cent of cases) and municipal/local government officials (23 per cent).”10

The same reports highlights that while 71.4 percent of car thefts are brought to the attention of the police, only 1.3 percent of corruption cases are reported to the police, showing that the police is trusted with recovering stolen cars but not with solving corruption issues. Police misbehavior toward people is manifested in two ways: corruption and excessive use of force. Police corruption is often found in nine specific areas: meals and services, commissions, accidental theft, preplanned theft, blackmailing, offering a cover-up for criminal activities, manipulation of evidence in the interest of the suspect, providing private security services, and cronyism. The wide-ranging legal powers granted to police officers leave open the door for opportunities to engage in corruption.

In this regard, three main theories explain the persistence of police corruption: the society-at-large theory, the structural-affiliation theory, and the rotten apple theory.11 The first of the three proposes that corruption occurs among officers within the larger framework of their relationship with citizens, especially relationships involving the acceptance of gifts or the overlooking of minor offenses like traffic violations in return for pay. According to this theory, the whole community bears the brunt for corruption on the part of the police, since police corruption is the result of community corruption. The structural-affiliation theory is an extension of the general community theory: corruption starts when the officer believes that criminal behavior is not limited to criminals, but can also be committed by citizens or by officers in their own departments. Finally, the rotten apple theory posits that corruption arises among a few deviant officers who spread criminal activity among the rest of the officers. It would be fair to point out that corruption has prevailed in all state departments, not just among the police. Too often, Egyptians offer bribes to public officials or draw on personal connections and networks to receive public goods and services. Finally, although police corruption in Egypt has had destructive consequences for the wider community, the real problem lies in the normalization and legalization of corruption, grounded in the idea that police misconduct is justified because, in an inherently corrupt system, it achieves a public good.

Hence, it has been the general view among the wider Egyptian public that justice is selectively administered. This has undermined the relationship between the people and the police, and further undermined the rule of law, its enforcement, and just prosecutions. For example, taxi drivers often bear the brunt of the selective law enforcement policies conducted by the police. Unlike army officers, parliament members, and athletes, who are granted special treatment for traffic violations, taxi drivers are selectively chosen for punishment, to enforce common and widespread traffic violations. These inequities have fed feelings of oppression and escalated enmity toward police authority.12 It should also be noted that the large degree of the state’s dependence on the police to carry out security functions and enforce laws negatively reflects on the regime’s legitimacy. Likewise, the more that corruption erodes the regime’s legitimacy and, by extension, its ability to quell protests and anger directed at the political system, the more the police lose their capacity to enforce law and order. This has perpetrated a persistent cycle of poor governance and the erosion of legitimacy.

The omnipresence and extended jurisdiction of the Egyptian police, combined with abuses of citizens, have led to fierce civilian discontent. The Egyptian police’s omnipresence in people’s everyday lives was justified by the need to conduct surveillance of public spaces. However, abuses of police authority and humiliation of the citizenry eventually became the institution’s modus ope- randi. Encounters between the police and citizens were thus frequently marked by verbal threats and physical violence, eventually leading to public spectacles of humiliation.13 Ann Lesch emphasizes that due to Egyptians’ desire to avoid constant police harassment in the streets, officers receive bribes from shop owners and free food from street vendors, who see this as the cost of business in their anxiety to contain the risk of being brought to the police station.14

Furthermore, the police have felt immune to prosecution because of the Mubarak government’s heavy reliance on the police force as a governance mechanism. Indeed, police jurisdiction under Mubarak included (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) surveillance of markets, transport, roads, food supply, public utilities, public morality, taxation, public security, national security, surveillance of political activists, and the rigging of elections.15 In turn, police impunity negatively impacted citizens’ ability to file official complaints against abuses by police officials. Relying on the police as the sole source of evidence in complaint cases made citizen reports nearly impossible. Human Rights Watch (hrw) reported the conflict of interest arising from “placing the responsibility to monitor detention facilities, order forensic exams, and investigate and prosecute abuses by law enforcement officials within the same office that is responsible for ordering arrests, obtaining confessions, and prosecuting criminal suspects.”16

Moreover, the interior minister was permitted under the Police Law to act at his or her discretion in placing offending officers back in their previous positions after serving their sentences.17 This obviously has disastrous consequences for the Egyptian people’s trust in the government’s ability to punish offenses fairly and perpetuates police officers’ “unconcerned”18 attitude toward the potential consequences of their abuses. hrw also reported that according to the Egyptian government’s statistics, “Egyptian criminal courts convicted and issued final sentences to only six officers between 2006 and 2009.”19 This statistic clearly reveals the extent of the lack of accountability and broader impunity of the Egyptian police under Mubarak’s regime.

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