The Egyptian police has continued to torture and beat people under President Mohammed Morsi. Human rights activists now doubt that he has any interest in reforming the police.
It is well-known that Egyptian security forces do not wear kid-gloves when it comes to dealing with regime critics. But even by Egyptian standards, the number of reports of torture, humiliation, and other types of police violence has been worryingly high in the past few weeks.
Egyptian police methods have barely changed in the two years since the end of the Mubarak regime. "That means that torture still happens in police stations, that excessive violence is still used against demonstrators, and that everything is decided according to a security mentality," said Farida Makar of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Hamada Saber found out what that means in practise, when he was brutally beaten during an anti-Morsi demonstration in front of the presidential palace. The 48-year-old was stripped beforehand, and subsequently dragged naked across asphalt and bundled into a police van - and the entire scene was broadcast live on TV. Makar says such incidents are not unusual. "Stripping and beating someone and then dragging them into the next room was standard police interrogation procedure under Mubarak," she said.
Terrifying suspects into submission
The only thing that was unique in Hamada Saber's case was that the abuse did not take place in a police station, but was visible to anyone on the street. The episode became horrifyingly absurd when the victim then appeared on TV to justify the police's attack on him, absolving them of all blame. Makar has no doubt that the authorities forced or bribed him into making the statement.
Makar added that victims of police violence who sue the authorities are often pressured by police. "Normally they just threaten to put you or your children in jail, or to invent something - for example, that they will find drugs in your car," she said. "They know how to scare someone so much that they give up."
But Hamada Saber is no isolated case. According to a report from Egyptian human rights activists, some 200 demonstrators have been arrested since January 25, 2013. Some of them were minors, but subjected to the same beatings and torture as adults. In fact, poor, orphaned young people are often most vulnerable to police abuse. One 14-year-old boy named Mahmud Abel, a bone cancer sufferer, was denied chemotherapy while in prison, and was only released once his case came to the media's attention.
The 26-year-old Ibrahim also became a torture victim a year ago. He has his own theory why the Egyptian police continually abuses human rights - the violence originates in police training, where new recruits are brutally beaten and humiliated by the higher ranks, and blind obedience to superiors is the rule. This, according to Ibrahim, means that violence becomes legitimate and normal. "When I was arrested, the man who tortured me had verses from the Koran as ringtones on his cell phone," he said. "He did not feel that he is doing anything wrong. They see it as part of their job."
That is why reforming the police system and the Interior Ministry itself is so important, he said - the police must be re-positioned as the protectors of the people. But up until now, the police has regarded itself merely as the strong hand of the ruling president. Though that is only true to an extent in Morsi's case, as the police has spent the last few decades violently suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood from which he emerged. Many senior Interior Ministry officials therefore still oppose Morsi.
Will to reform?
But even if the Muslim Brotherhood is able to get the Interior Ministry completely under its control, Makar is under no illusion that they intend to reform it for the good of the people.
Morsi's policies so far have convinced her that the Muslim Brothers are not interested in democracy. In November, he released a decree giving himself dictatorial powers, while the constitution he drove through parliament curtails many civil freedoms. Meanwhile, the new draft assembly law limits the freedom to demonstrate, and the new bill for non-governmental organizations is even more restrictive than under Mubarak. "I can't look at these developments and then say, 'yes, but maybe they will reform the police so that it will better protect the people.'"
Makar is convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood is only interested in gaining control of the police to use as an instrument with which to consolidate its own power.
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