The Buck Dies Here: Why Egypt’s Interior Ministry Refuses to be Tamed

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Article originally published in The Atlantic Council’s ‘Egypt Source’ (4 April 2013)

Ambushes, kidnappings, torture and murder have come to characterize Egypt’s security sector’s engagement with the Egyptian public in both pre- and post-revolution Egypt. This has left many asking: How did the interior ministry survive its pre-Mubarak incarnation given that one of the revolution’s key demands was police reform?

The issue is more complex than simply looking at how former autocracies were able to reform their police forces during their transition to democracy. The problem arguably starts with how Egypt’s elite – the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and former regime loyalists – relate to the 18 day uprising.

Nabil Abdel-Fattah in his book “Elite and Revolution: State, Political Islam, Nationalism and Liberalism” argues that the elite are still unable to comprehend the gravity of the 2011 events. This view sheds light on why they are unable to generate a national post-revolutionary project, post-democratic movement or an overhaul of the security establishment, simply because a number of them conceive of the 2011 events as a “mere democratic protest movement.”

As Abdel-Fattah notes “The majority have not absorbed the nature of the event and the end of the legitimacy of 23 July 1952 with its generations, ideas and legacy…The conflict is still at its peak , and reveals two speeds running together in Egypt: one attached to the legitimacy of 1952 and another that claims a still unclear revolutionary legitimacy.” In other words Egypt is experiencing an ideational and generational war that has pitted two appeals to historical legitimacy against one another.

This dilemma is compounded by a paradoxical sacred drama not unfamiliar to Egypt’s political trajectory. The security sector was central to the 1952 revolution in that the foundational myths of the Egyptian republic were, in part, born of the deaths of Egyptian police officers, when a police uprising was quashed at the hands of British troops in Ismailia on 25 January 1952. This would set in motion a series of events that resulted in the 23 July Free Officers Coup – transforming the monarchy into a republic.

For the 2011 events, it was partly Khaled Saeed’s death at the hands of police in 2010 that sparked the rapid countdown to the 25 January 2011 uprising, on the anniversary of the very same Police Day chosen to mark the 1952 event. One revolution “fought” for the police, and another against the police. Both play a role in shaping narratives, symbols and myths – and, consequently, their clashes with one another.

Moreover, the security sector, built up immediately from the days when the infant republic saw Gamal Abdel Nasser as its first interior minister, during Muhammad Naguib’s short-lived reign as president, is a lynchpin of this 1952 legitimacy. The 25 January 2011 revolution, with its anti-police culture, is still an unfolding legitimacy that is constantly pushing, at times violently, to dethrone its institutionalized counterpart, while the latter is ruthlessly, if not desperately, hanging on

Yet “institutionalized” may be an understated concept for the security sector.

Over the past 60 years, the interior ministry was greatly expanded to the extent that by 2009, an estimated 1.7 million were on the ministry’s payroll, Central Security Forces served as paramilitary police with an estimated 450,000 troops, and the Security Services Investigation saw 400,000 serving as domestic intelligence. With this much force, it was inevitable that unbridled pockets of power and patronage would develop, manage to survive a public onslaught, and be resistant to reform.

The 2011 revolution disrupted the balance of power and fomented an identity crisis in the interior ministry, caught between a hatred for the revolutionary camp, a lackluster love for the Brotherhood-run government, a public that mistrusts them and a military they perceive as having abandoned them or their patron in the form of Mubarak.

The interior ministry placed the survival of their interests – positions, privileges, immunity from prosecution – at the forefront of mercenary-tinged deals they strike with Egypt’s rotating political actors, that has rarely seen any police officer prosecuted and serves to stave off the inevitable police reforms that would see their interests crumble.

The past two years have illustrated circumstantial evidence of the interior ministry’s goal of protecting its interests by strategically wavering between permissiveness and repression on Egypt’s streets. Lawlessness has become their insurance policy against immediate police reforms, even going as far as abandoning the presidential palace to protestors in November to show the government who calls the shots, forcing President Mohammed Morsi to make a hasty back door exit.

Moreover, the interior ministry’s relationship with the Egyptian public underscores their Mubarak-era zero-sum game mentality: supremacy or bust, security or chaos.

Even when the police appear to have recently won some public sympathy by going on strike, demanding that the Brotherhood not use the police for the government’s political battles, it was quickly squandered by their disturbing demands of wanting to use more lethal force and gain access to deadlier weapons.

Reform attempts are hampered by a “secrecy surrounding its activities [that] evokes the traits of a closed military establishment that is far removed from society and governed with little transparency and accountability” according to Daniel Brumberg and Hesham Sallam in their report The Politics of Security Sector Reform in Egypt.

The elite are unable to end this stalemate partly because they suffer from an imagination crisis – they cannot conceive an Egypt existing in any other way from what they experienced through despotic decades. A brutal police force is integral to their worldview.

The military council views the security establishment as the first line of defense to protect its vast economic empire. Reforms in the security establishment would inevitably make inroads into military reforms – a clear red line for the generals. The Brotherhood’s organization stresses obedience to the ruler and tends to project this onto the wider socio-political landscape of Egypt, as such, a ruthless police force is needed to crush notions of freedom and pluralism. Former regime loyalists littered throughout the state bureaucracy identify closely with the rogue role of the police as it underpinned their privileges and access during the Mubarak era, and still does to a certain extent.

Even the opposition figures indirectly contribute to the security Frankenstein given they suffered at the hands of police for years and find it difficult to build relations with the security establishment or mount a consensus on police reform.

This is not to say there is no talk of security reform at an elite level.There certainly is and they are aware that the current model is not sustainable even if it coalesces with their agendas, albeit at a costly price. Yet it remains just that; talks, reshuffles, retirements and cosmetic changes.

The notion that stability is needed before security reforms take place will not happen due to the fact that security forces are contributing to the prolonged instability. True, socio-economic ills are at the root of Egypt’s constant strikes and civil disobedience, but police brutality has enflamed those grievances in which the outcome is that every solution is securitized and stripped of a possible political dimension.

Many years ago I met a retired Singaporean police officer, serving when Singapore seceded from Malaysia in 1965. He recalled, the vision of Lee Kuan Yew, the first Singaporean Prime Minister, is that if he was to build a strong and viable Singapore, he needed to first start with the police force. He retired or transferred the entire corrupt police force to other jobs and brought in a new generation of college graduates to fill the police ranks.

Singapore may not be the best example given it is, by all measures, an autocratic state, but the retired officer made a point when he noted “Lee Kuan Yew knew that a clean and non-corrupt state starts and ends with the police force.”

Egypt’s security sector and legacy is much more complex than that of Singapore, but the priorities of political actors should clearly indicate that this sector needs to be reformed first and foremost.

Taming the Egyptian security tiger will be a long term struggle. In the absence of a decisive success by a singular political force to author a hegemonic and democratic order, it will take the consensus of the elite, formation of a broad political coalition, engagement of civil society initiatives like the National Initiative for Rebuilding the Police (Also known as Police for Egypt), reshaping the parameters of the security debate and, importantly, to write the post-January 25 narrative in a way that rehabilitates the role of the police forces and aids them in making the transition from twentieth to twentieth-first century Egypt.

Many Egyptians are fond of saying “the Revolution continues” with the eternal demands of bread, freedom and dignity. The security forces are seasoned in crushing the last two and therefore inadvertently contribute to the “revolution continues” phenomenon. The only difference between now and the Mubarak days is that the security forces are dealing with a public that no longer fears them.

There is no security solution to this deadlock except human security.

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