Egypt police in new protests demanding more rights

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Dozens of Egyptian police officers disobeyed orders and stormed a superior’s office in the capital, shut down a security directorate in the north and went on strike in the south in a new round of protests Sunday that threaten to unhinge the country’s already weakened security force.

It was the year’s third wave of strikes by police, who demand incentives to work, like better wages, greater firepower and more benefits.

The police force has not recovered from the days of the 2011 uprising that deposed longtime President Hosni Mubarak. His police were a symbol of the regime’s unchecked powers and abuses, and they were forced from the streets in the early stages of the revolt by angry protesters.

After losing much of their power, now police are demanding more rights. Last month thousands of police stopped working for several days. In some cases, citizens found police stations closed.

In an effort to show support, President Mohammed Mursi addressed riot police and attended traditional Islamic Friday prayers with them shortly after their strike ended. He praised the police for protecting security but warned them against divisions.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees police in Egypt, relies on low-ranking police to protect government buildings. Hundreds of policemen have been wounded this year and several have been killed in anti-government protests.

Many officers say they are fed up with promises of reform. Thousands of low-ranking officers have refused orders to guard courts during heated trials and protests.

On Sunday, dozens of low-ranking officers stormed the office of the deputy interior minister in charge of health care for police. His office is inside the main police hospital in Cairo’s Nileside neighborhood of Agouza. They said promises of better health care have gone unfulfilled.

In the south, police at two stations in the province of Assuit went on strike, charging that the government did not fulfill any of their demands.

In the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh, police locked the gate to the security division with chains, according to security officials and state media reports.

Some of the police force is also calling for the dismissal of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, appointed by Mursi in a limited Cabinet shuffle in January. Five different interior ministers have headed the force in the past two years, and none has been able to exercise full control over the unsettled ranks.

Some policemen are also protesting alleged attempts by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood to try to control the force, a charge the Islamist group denies. For decades, Egypt’s police aggressively targeted the Brotherhood, and Mursi himself was imprisoned under Mubarak.

Rights activists accuse the police force of continuing its brutal tactics under Mursi.

Around 100 protesters have been killed in confrontations with police this year. There are concerns that a recent decision to purchase 100,000 new 9mm pistols for police could lead to an even greater use of excessive force against unarmed protesters and civilians.

Officer Mohammed Mustafa was among those who stormed the deputy minister’s office in Cairo on Sunday. He told The Associated Press that the group ended its sit-in after superiors vowed to look into their demands, which include purchasing bullet-proof vests and enacting stronger laws to protect them.

Policemen say they are being arrested and put on trial for using lethal force to protect themselves against well-armed criminal gangs that are smuggling weapons, drugs and antiquities. He said they do not have enough protection to go after suspects.

They also demand the same benefits available to their superior officers.

Mustafa said neither he nor his family can be treated at the police hospital where the sit-in took place. He said he has to take his four children to rundown public hospitals, and he is allowed treatment at the police hospital only if he is injured on the job.

Many police complain that their wages are too low.

Though his salary has increased by almost three-fold following the uprising, Mustafa said he still earns only $185 a month. After 15 years on the job, low-ranking officers receive just $2,000 in compensation when they retire.

“Mursi, before he was president, promised that he would solve the problems of the police force,” he said. “We want action, not words.”

Also Sunday, several thousand students from state universities marched through Cairo, taking their demands to Cabinet headquarters. They called for the dismissal of the Minister of Higher Education Mustafa Mosaad, accusing him of allowing violence on campuses against student protests. They also want improvements in the education system.

Muslim Brotherhood students did not join the protest.