Foreign Policy Blogs

What's Wrong With Egyptian Security?

This is a piece by Robert Lattin of FPA Blogs, who covers Israel. His full profile can be viewed here

With every passing day, security is becoming a greater concern for the average Egyptian.  There have been several reports of attacks on the country’s Coptic population, which constitutes over 10 million people and random acts of violence such as the mobbing of an Algerian soccer team.  While Egypt and the rest of the world would love to continue basking in the splendor of the January Egyptian uprising, the time for celebration is over and the need for urgent reform is here, starting with security.

The police force was widely viewed as the pawns of former President Hosni Mubarak.  The general public abhorred their use of force during the demonstrations and on January 28th, after the military took control, they were removed from the streets.  Egyptians praised the move, as they have an understandable, deep-seeded mistrust of the police.  They were mostly known for their corruption, ruthlessness, and unnecessary use of force.  Nonetheless, what most Egyptians don’t realize is how crucial a working police force is to a prosperous, democratic future, regardless of past brutalities.  Having a strong albeit moderate, stable, and cohesive police force is a fundamental institution necessary for successful state building.

According to various reports about the recent violence, there has been one major trend that accompanies all the incidents; and that is lack of police involvement in either preventing or mediating the situations.  Based on a recent David Kirkpatrick article in the New York Times, it seems as though part of the problem is merely a lack of sufficient training.  Before the uprising, the police force was able to rely on good old bashing heads and intimidation tactics, with no worry of any kind about public response.  That style of security doesn’t require too much experience or training.  But now that the game has changed there is a growing need for the police force to alter their play, which means they need proper training.  If it’s not already a top priority, it needs to be.

The lack of training exacerbates their already developed hesitance to get involved with any kind of public controversy or violence.  They know that the public doesn’t trust them and if the instincts they learned to use under the Mubarak regime take over in high pressure situations they know the consequences will not be good.  I’m sure the recent death sentence issued to an Alexandrian officer for the murder of a protestor doesn’t exactly motivate them to get involved in any way with the outbreak of violence.  There have also been several other officers brought to trial for their role in repressing the uprising.  Laying low and staying employed are the only things currently on their minds.

The combined dearth of know-how and fear of reprisal has paralyzed the police force.  They need to be rejuvenated in order for the government to ensure the long-term success of current and future reforms, as well as merely keep the peace.  The government should contract some foreign military/special forces officers to come in and train them–quickly.  While it’s definitely going to be viewed by many as allowing too much foreign intervention, it is a necessary evil.  It will also give the current transitional government/newly elected government a great opportunity to strengthen relations with a previously distant country, say one of the Scandinavian countries or South Korea.  The natural pick would be the United States based on the aid it provides Egypt, but that might cause too much of a stir.  One of its lower key allies will suffice.

In 2005 the U.S. established the U.S. Security Coordinator to provide training and non-lethal equipment for Fatah in the West Bank with the intention of building and maintaining a ten-battalion security force.  They are trained at the Jordan International Police Training Center near Amman.  Since the Fatah security training program’s inception the West Bank has been largely quiet.  Crime and violence has gone down exponentially and the force was particularly successful in dealing with the demonstrations following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.  While it has its critics, they mainly focus on the complications created by the unique situation of the Israel-Palestine dilemma.  The Egyptians need a training program like this and should look to the experience undergone by Fatah’s security force as a starting point.

If you have been following the Egypt situation you are probably pondering the same question I was before I wrote this article….where is the Egyptian military in all of this?   The Egyptian military is running the show right now in Egypt, so it would be natural to think that they would provide security and train the police force.  But, this isn’t the case.  Eric Trager, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, where he’s writing his dissertation on Egyptian opposition parties, flatly stated that he doesn’t understand why the Egyptian people love the military so much.  “They are in essence the same as the police force, an extension of Mubarak’s regime.  The police simply did the unpopular dirty work.”  However, with its surprisingly strong public support, Trager says “the army is hesitant to get involved with security issues or with the police in general.  They don’t want to risk tarnishing their image by associating with anyone not in the public’s good graces.  They want a new government to form quickly so they can lay low and return to their prosperous positions of old.”  This should be troubling to anyone who hopes to see actual change in Egypt.  It is also bad news for Egypt’s non-Muslim population, who are the most significant victims of the evolving lawlessness.

It’s a complicated situation for the Egyptian police force and Egyptian security in general.  A previously over-invasive interior ministry created a paranoid and distrusting public.  Now that there is a real need for security the public finds itself unable to support the police.  Those in power are playing a deception game and as a result won’t do what is necessary to protect all of its citizens.  How far will this go?  It’s hard to say.  But if it doesn’t get handled soon, Egypt might not turn out the way the world is hoping.