Police in Egypt try to recover from reputation for abuse

Brutalised themselves by their superiors, the security forces in Egypt were brutal to the country's people, through enforced bribes, beatings and false charges. Now, since the overthrow of President Mubarak, they are facing up to a new environment.

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CAIRO // Like many young recruits, Sayed Abdul Hamid, 26, joined the Egyptian police for what he thought would be prestige and a regular paycheque.

The money still comes, $85 (Dh312,2) a month, but instead of respect Mr Hamid's time on the force has been a study in humiliation: first at the hands of commanders who, he says, brutalise new trainees and now by a population angry over years of police abuse and corruption.

After the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, the population's widespread fear of the police has given way to a general disdain for the forces that beat and teargassed demonstrators during recent protests.

"If they would just let me explain that I would never beat them, that they are my brothers," Mr Hamid says of the people who, instead of offering deference, now holler words like "traitor" at him when he is at his post. "I just stand there, and I don't know what to say."

He used to wear his uniform proudly on his three-hour commute to work. Now he stuffs it in his backpack.

More than 330 people were killed during the 18-day uprising in Egypt that brought down Mr Mubarak's regime. The country's riot police and internal security force has borne the brunt of the blame for what were otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

In the past Egyptians rarely challenged police authority, dutifully paying bribes, and helpless against any beatings or false charges levelled by an organisation considered largely unaccountable and loyal to the regime. Rogue police would occasionally be brought to trial for the most horrific cases. But diplomatic cables and human rights reports paint a consistent picture of an institution undertrained in modern police work and almost systemically abusive to the people they were meant to protect.

Of all the institutions Egypt may need to overhaul if it hopes for a true democratic transition, the police and security forces are among the most important. Mr Hamid and many of his colleagues are already trying to re-brand themselves as victims in their own right. They were caught, they said, between the regime and the people, forced to obey sometimes aggressive orders or face punishment.

Mr Hamid, who works a second job at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet, said he wasn't involved in quelling the riots, but knows that the orders to crack down came from high in the organisation.

"These were orders and instructions from above," he said. "Citizens have told me, 'We don't want you here.' I swear I would have protested with the people, but my commanders would have punished me."

The standard, he said, was set during training when commanders kicked or punched new recruits if they saluted too slowly or fell out of step on drills.

"This is how we learned," he said. "When the police are treated unjustly, they treat the people unjustly."

In the same neighbourhood as Mr Hamid, a group of state security police gathered outside a building they guard. Their branch of Egypt's internal security apparatus is particularly feared, its ranks filled with young conscripts paid as little as $30 a month but nonetheless intimidating when massed with their riot shields, black helmets and uniforms, and nightsticks.

A young man who would offer only his first name, Samuel, was back at work for the first day since police attacked protesters in Cairo on January 28. That morning his father tried to lock him in his room, afraid that he would be killed on the job. Five of his friends were injured during demonstrations and he worried that people would take revenge on him for the actions of other police officers.

"Before, people respected us but they didn't like us. Now they don't respect us," he said, laughing nervously. His baby face was framed by a policeman's beret. His colleagues nodded.

"They had the right to feel like this toward us," he said. "But I never did anything to anyone."

The economic grievances shared by most Egyptians also weigh on the low-ranking officers of the police force. They too can barely afford meat, and often shake down citizens to supplement their incomes.

As Mohammed and Samuel chatted with their peers a man walked by and stopped.

"You shot rubber bullets at me and beat me with your batons. You hit me with tear gas, but we took it," said Kareem Omar, 25.

"The tear gas is good for you," said Ahmed, one of the police commanders, and laughed. "We were not out there to hurt you."

"We are blamed now for the bad system, the bad regime," Mohammed said after the man walked off. "Things are getting better now. It just needs time to heal."

* The Washington Post