The fallacy of an Egyptian police state

Abdullah Kamal
Abdullah Kamal
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I once read the term “the police state” in an interview with the former presidential contender Hamdeen Sabahi and once again in a tweet by liberal politician Amr Hamzawy.

Sabahi said: “If the police state returns, we'll revolt against it.” Hamzawy complained about what he called “a comeback of the police state's voices.”

I think both politicians meant the same thing. I believe that talk about the police state is a glaring bid to avoid the concept of “the military state” or an attempt to shun referring to the so-called “the deep state.”

“The police state” refers to a country where security agencies wield a dominating influence over political decision-making and maintain a tight control over public life. This term was fashionable in the final years of Mubarak's rule, when the clout of his interior minister Habib al-Adli increased. I have an in-depth and lengthy tract about the reasons that led to al-Adli playing a growing role. These reasons will be made public when this tract is published.

I concluded in a recent analysis that the aim of the former interior minister's leverage was to maintain an influential role for the security establishment in the rivalry with the political wing inside Mubarak's party rather than curbing the opposition.

All hands should be joined to put the brakes on “the police state” when it abuses human rights, infringes the rule of law and stifles freedoms. Yet, current talk about “the police state” raises question marks, given that Egypt's police have yet to regain their basic role of re-establishing security in the country. Oddly enough, politicians are engaged in such talk at a transitional stage when security agencies need to play a pivotal role, especially as the major threat facing the country is security-wise.

The issue has two sides. Firstly, when can the influence of the security establishment expand? Secondly, what does Egypt need from revamping this institution?

When a water pipeline bursts out in an Egyptian area, a local resident will call the flying squad, an affiliate to the Interior Ministry, which will in turn take the complaint to the municipality. The latter will have to send the required rescue team to the area. Such a process happens in reaction to a simple incident because the municipality administration lacks proper and direct communication with the public. As a result, citizens have turned to the police to fill this void. Or maybe, the police have opted to fill in this void because being in charge of security, police are concerned that people may get angry and cause trouble because a fractured water pipeline is not fixed.

What is imperative now is to back the security establishment, rather than assail it.

Abdullah Kamal

In a country where the average citizen calls the police “the government,” the police should not be blamed for undertaking a high-profile role. The government may be blameworthy. When certain institutions fail to do their jobs, the police's influence widens.

Similarly, when political parties fail to make their presence strongly felt on the streets, they are replaced by militants (as has happened in the past two years) or gangsters.

Filling the gaps

In other words, political and service-related failings leave behind a vacuum, which cannot be filled by critical remarks about the alleged police state at a time when the police can hardly do their main job. Politicians, rather than the security establishment, should be asked for an explanation about the purported comeback of the police state. Amid a security breakdown that raises public concerns, allegations about the police state's return are unlikely to draw attention from the public, who has repeatedly called on police to be tough enough to restore security.

There is another facet of the issue. It may be a mere coincidence that the barbs being fired at security agencies are the result of a convergence between radical Islamists, resenting the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood followers and their allies after their combined intimidation of the Egyptian public, and activists engaged in a face-off with others whom they believe are being manipulated by the police. Yet, it was not a coincidence that a number of politicians mounted a scathing anti-police campaign in the wake of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak for a multitude of reasons. Many of these reasons were plausible enough to put security agencies on the right track.

It is high time this campaign stopped to help the security establishment regain necessary competence to do its job.
Months before taking power, the Muslim Brotherhood exercised pressure to dismantle the security agencies, mainly the Interior Ministry. The intelligence service, using various tactics, survived the pressure. The Brotherhood, touting the restructuring of the Interior Ministry as a pretext, planned to bring security departments under the authority of provincial governors, scrapping the Police Academy and replacing it with regional institutes designed to the Islamist group's followers only.

Some non-Brotherhood politicians unwittingly backed the group's call for restructuring the Interior Ministry, failing to grasp its ulterior motive of seeking to bring the entire security establishment under the group's grip.

Not so fast

The June 30 revolt derailed this plan. More importantly, the revolt earned the security establishment new public trust that boosted its morale after policemen and their families had participated in the anti-Brotherhood demonstrations. Significantly, the Interior Ministry had refused to guard the Brotherhood offices during the angry street protests, which culminated in ousting Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood.

What is imperative now is to back the security establishment, rather than assail it. There should be a public debate on how to upgrade the security agencies and promote their role in compliance with the rule of law and human rights norms. The government has to provide financial and moral support to these agencies in view of the uphill security challenges facing Egypt.

The police do not need restructuring. They need modernization, human resources development, training enhancement and emphasis on quality rather than quantity in this era of globalization. More importantly, standards of civil defense services, such as firefighting and rescue operations, should be elevated. Politicians pay no heed to these services; instead they are preoccupied with talk about the alleged re-emergence of the police state, which they say will lead to a new revolution.


Abdullah Kamal is an 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)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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