Egypt's destiny hinges on police again

Egypt changed on January 28, 2011 when the then interior minister Habib al-Adly called president Hosni Mubarak to tell him that the police could not hold out any longer against swarms of protesters. At that point, Mubarak tasked the army with street security. After 18-day mass protests, Mubarak stepped down.

Two years later, the police find themselves in a similar situation. Since January 26, the army has taken over security in the Suez Canal cities, mainly the flashpoint Port Said that has been observing civil disobedience for the third week in a row.

Police reforms

Reforming police was one of the issues raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent talks in Cairo with President Mohammed Mursi, according to a statement from the top US diplomat at the end of his trip to Egypt. Kerry's plane departure from Cairo was held up by anti-government protesters who blocked the road to the airport.

On the same day, the police failed to restore their hold on Tahrir Square, the latest unsuccessful bid to remove protesters from the square. Although the police had reached an agreement with some protesters to end the sit-in that started in Tahrir more than three months ago, the evacuation bid crumbled with three cars, including a police vehicle, set on fire.

The police are locked in almost-daily confrontations in three key areas: Port Said where the Security Headquarters were torched, the Delta city of Mansura and central Cairo. Occasional tensions, meanwhile, erupt in other cities such as al-Mahla, Tanta, Suez and Alexandria, prompting police's intervention.

Still, the present scene is different from that of January 2011. Two years ago, the police collapsed when the situation required them to restrain unexpectedly mass protests. At the time, the riot police had been kept on duty on the streets for four successive days.

In February and March 2013, the police have been exposed to massive, prolonged attrition worsened by media hype amid reports from human rights organizations accusing security agencies of committing new abuses and torture.

Over the past two years, the Interior Ministry has axed 800 police officers, including at least 100 from the much-hated State Security Service. Hundred others have been reposted. Yet, an anti-police campaign, which started in the final years of Mubarak's rule, has picked pace, along with unceased, mysterious demands for revamping security agencies. Of all Egypt's ministries, the Interior Ministry has seen five ministers replaced in a space of two years, a matter that has deepened the security establishment's confusion.

Public confidence

In late 2012, the police regained some public confidence particularly when they refused to disperse mass protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo. At the time, offices of the ruling Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, were attacked by protesters in different provinces. The incidents were enough reasons to sack the then interior minister Ahmed Jamal Eddin and replace him with Mohammed Ibrahim, who has public support from the Brotherhood. The replacement has eroded confidence in the police.

Likewise, the close cooperation forged between police and the army under the sacked interior minister gave way to accusations leveled against the police that they act at the Brotherhood's behest.

Unlike other Egyptian institutions, the police face the prospect of a wide-ranging dissent. In late January-- at the peak of the Port Said violence, police officers assailed the interior minister and prevented from attending a funeral of a slain colleague. The minister had to sign a 19-point agreement in a bid to head off mutiny among non-commissioned police officers. He agreed, among other things, to scale back training courses necessary for their promotion and to arm them with 100,000 pistols.

Moreover, the Interior Ministry is facing a legal challenge after a court recently ruled that around 30 police officers, earlier suspended for sporting beards, be reinstated.

With mounting protests against Mursi's rule, the notorious riot police or the Central Security Forces are put to a psychological test. A prevalent feeling among them is that they should not allow a collapse similar to the one that occurred on January 28, 2011.

Still, this psychological resilience prompts them to act so violently that they come under criticisms of politicians, the media and rights groups. While these forces undertake the full task of handling the daily protests triggered by the nation's political crisis, criminal police investigators' performance is diminished under a wave of a quasi-organized crime.

Days ago, the interior minister cancelled an earlier decision to evacuate the ministry's centralCairo offices after threats that hardcore soccer fans known as the Ahly Ultras may attack them. The cancellation does not rule out the possibility of violent clashes on March 9 when a court passes final verdicts on the February 2012 soccer rioting in Port Said where 74 Ahly supporters were killed. The court is expected to sentence 21 Port Said defendants to death, a ruling that will reignite turmoil in the city.

The Ahly Ultras await the court to toughly punish the policemen charged in the case. They have threatened revenge if they find the rulings lenient.

The police are unlikely to cope with these intense pressures in terms of locations, time, politics and administration. Unless they collapse suddenly, the police may decide not to continue to bear the burden on their own.

The critical question

A crucial question for Egypt's destiny in the short term is: What will happen then? There are two possibilities.

First, President Mursi will do his best to avoid calling the army to fill in the security vacuum. Instead he will count on the Brotherhood cadres to bring chaos under control. But this possibility has its risks. It will give other political powers an excuse to engage in a street struggle with the Brotherhood. If so, Egypt will enter a different stage.

The second possibility is that Mursi will recall the army or that the army itself-- or in response to the public's demands- redeploys on the streets. Days ago, military sources quoted Defence Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi as telling Kerry in Cairo: "The Armed Forces determine their moves according to development of situations. Their mission is to protect vital installations, citizens' safety and the national security. While unconcerned with politics, the Armed Forces will not sit in the spectators' seats." If so, Egypt will enter a different stage too.

Abdullah Kamal (@abkamal) – Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011)

Last Update: Thursday, 07 March 2013 KSA 09:37 - GMT 06:37
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.