Egypt: where have all the police gone?

Life in a place where the police don't care

By Magdi Abdelhadi

Good comment, Molly Youssef. It’s now more than one year on since the beginning of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak is on trial, a new parliament has been elected that’s dominated by Islamist parties and the government is being run by military generals.

So what does all this political change mean for daily life? Well, one of the things ordinary people are feeling most keenly is the disappearance of the country’s police force. They seem to have vanished from the streets. Molly, you wanted to find out how Egyptians are coping. So Latitude News called up our reporter in Cairo, Magdi Abdelhadi, to get his views.

Where are the police? That was the question people asked after the soccer riot at Port Said stadium, and there are no police evident afterwards at Ramses metro station in Cairo. (Reuters)


How are Cairenes responding to the crime wave?

“Some try to arm themselves with knives, particularly taxi drivers, or guns, if they can afford to have one. What I’ve noticed recently—which is really a first for Egypt—is that you can buy Tasers or [pepper] sprays, which are illegal, smuggled into the country, on the streets of Cairo. Street vendors sell them for a few dollars. And the fact that they’ve become popular, that there is a market for them, says quite a lot about the perception of crime in Egypt. The people are so worried that they’re prepared to arm themselves.”

Are they forming neighborhood watches, collective groups for protection?

 “Not anymore. They did that at the height of the revolution when the police had completely disappeared. There were no police in Egypt during the eighteen-day uprising and actually for many weeks after that. The people’s neighborhood watches, the peoples’ committees, as they were called, these proved to be very effective during the revolution, and they were the de facto police force during the uprising. There have been repeated calls for reinstating them in order to take command of security in Cairo so people can feel safe again.”

What are the police doing to stop crime?

“The presence of police is very patchy. Some days you find check-points on the way back home in the evening, other days you don’t. You don’t know when they’re out and when they’re not. Particularly in central Cairo—which used to be one of the most policed areas in the capital—there’s hardly any police. It’s total chaos and lawlessness. Frequently you see cars driving on the wrong side of the road, street vendors everywhere. You can hardly walk on the pavement. And that aspect of lawlessness Egyptians are powerless to do anything about. It is only the violent and more scary type of crime that the people are trying to do something about and that is, as I mentioned earlier, by simply arming themselves.”

Drop-a-shops are common in Cairo. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

What has been the government’s response?

“After a wave of unprecedented armed robberies a couple weeks ago the army had to deploy back on the streets of Cairo. And you can still see in central Cairo armored vehicles occupying key positions and squares. Just a couple of minutes from where I live there is an armored vehicle with a soldier sitting with a gun. The army has realized that someone must retake these centers. The fact that the army had to intervene in such a way is an acknowledgment, reluctant as it may be, that the police are incapable of looking after security.”

Where are the police? Are they staying in their stations? Or have they taken off their uniforms and melted back into the civilian population?

“I think that’s a question that most Egyptians are asking themselves. Most people think the police are either afraid of confronting criminals or that they are sulking. [The police] feel that somehow the revolution targeted the police force unfairly while they were simply carrying out orders. They feel—and this has been said believe it or not—that somehow the people should apologize for the burning of police stations during the uprising.

Some police are where the riots are. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

But also there are members of the police force who don’t like the idea of a revolution. They think that this is chaos and that this country can only be ruled by an iron fist and until they restore a system that guarantees they can rule with this iron fist they will not resume police duties. They do not want to have society go back to normal because they are fundamentally opposed to the revolution.

So there’s a lack of trust between the average person in Egypt and a police officer?

“To put it mildly! There is resentment. There is profound dislike and anger at a police force that has never been trained to function in a normal, democratic society where the rule of law applies to everyone, that has operated with total impunity for so many years. Egypt is in a very difficult transition and until there is a new order—and a central plank of that new order will have to be an accountable new police force, and Egypt is still a long way from getting that police force—I think people are going to continue to cope with a pretty chaotic situation [by themselves].”