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Reform of Egypt's police hits a wall: The police

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 6:00 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, SEPT. 19, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 14, 2011 file photo, Egyptian police officers ride camels in front of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. In the wake of the anti-Mubarak revolt, many in Egypt's police force are trying to keep the pervasive power they held under his nearly 30-year regime.

Emilio Morenatti, File, Associated Press

CAIRO — A gang that broke out of prison during the revolution was killing people and robbing merchants in the town of Abu Teeg. So the chief of detectives gave his officers their orders: Do nothing.

"The revolution let them out, so let the people have a taste of their revolution," he said, according to two of the seven officers at the meeting, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals.

For the next four months, residents in the southern Egyptian town say, they appealed repeatedly for help, but were rebuffed by a police force still bitter about its humiliation in the uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak's rule. The gang went on to kill at least seven people, officials and residents believe.

The Egyptian police force has long been hated for its corruption and use of torture, and many Egyptians saw the downfall of the police state as a critical goal of their 18-day uprising.

But current and former officers say some members of the force are thwarting any attempt at change, and in many cases are avenging their fall from power by refusing to do their jobs.

These alleged sanctions are blamed for a surge in crime. According to Interior Ministry figures, there were 36 armed robberies nationwide in January but the figure rose sharply to 420 in July; murders went from 44 to 166, kidnappings from three to 42.

Midlevel officers have "an attitude that borders on mutiny," says Lt. Col. Mohammed Mahfouz, who left the force in late 2009 and now advocates reform.

Their attitude, he told The Associated Press, is that "Egyptians must be taught a lesson before the police come back to the streets. They want people to suffer without effective policing so they realize the prestige of the state is a red line that must not be crossed again."

As far back as the 1952 coup that put the military in power, the police force, now one million-strong, has been a sworn enemy of reform and its advocates.

From street cops to agents of the daunting State Security Agency, policemen were untouchable and intimidation kept order on the streets. Talking back to a policeman could earn a slap on the head or worse. In 2006, in an incident that was filmed and posted on YouTube, a Cairo minibus driver who annoyed an officer was dragged to a station and sodomized with a wooden pole.

Torture was a basic investigative tool. If a car was stolen, police would often round up suspects and beat them until someone confessed. Bribery was common. Rarely was a policeman investigated, much less prosecuted.

And then there was the State Security Agency, an arm of the police that operated at the political level but was seen by the public as just another instrument of police oppression.

The agency was involved in election-rigging to keep the ruling party's in power. It weighed in on the running of universities, trade unions, the media, and even had the final word on appointments of Cabinet ministers, governors and ambassadors.

It also suppressed and spied on the opposition. After Kareem el-Behery, a 27-year-old blogger, helped organize a protest against corruption in April 2008, he was arrested, taken to a basement in a State Security compound and tortured through the night, he said.

It was the casualness of the scene that stunned him, he said. He recalled how his tormenter listened to recordings of recitations from the Quran, Islam's holy book, even as he inflicted electric shocks, then took a prayer break.

"How can you do this to me while listening to the Quran, and then just go and pray?" el-Behery says he asked the officer.

"I'll go and give God what I owe him, then I'll come back and give you what you deserve," the officer replied. "You think I'm an infidel like you?"

The anti-Mubarak uprising shattered the fear barrier.

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