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Egypt police struggle to regain pride on still-skimpy salaries

Few lives in Egypt have been upended by the revolution as dramatically as those of police officers who tumbled from the street-level symbol of a cruel power to confused and bitter men.

November 23, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • A police officer walks past a graffiti depicting former Interior Minister Habib Adli in downtown Cairo.
A police officer walks past a graffiti depicting former Interior Minister… (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — The plainclothes cop stares over a street that stinks of things dying. Black shoes, black pants, green shirt, ball cap covering a bald spot. Ragab Eweid could be a mechanic or a guy with a truckload of cabbage. He tries to blend in but it's hard to know where he fits anymore.

The country is all turned around and he's just as desperate as the burglars and petty thieves he chases days and nights through the warehouses and market stalls on his beat. He often feels adrift out here on the city's ever-expanding outskirts, a civil servant with a wife and a daughter and a diabetic son. How do you pay for that on a salary of $89.66 a month?

No wonder so many cops were on the take, even if everyone despised them for it.

"Before the revolution, I used to tell people I worked in private security," he says. "I rarely admitted to being a cop. People looked at us with such disgust and fear."

Toward the end of Hosni Mubarak's reign, the police mirrored the impurity and failings of the collapsing state. From undercover detectives to patrolmen in their hated white uniforms and dark berets, they held sway, collecting bribes, falsely accusing people, making them disappear, their torture rooms of sodomies and beatings filmed on surreptitious cellphones.

Few lives in Egypt have been upended as dramatically as those of police officers who tumbled from the street-level symbol of a cruel power to confused and bitter men.

"The revolution humiliated the police," Eweid says. "Our superiors want to make us feel hunger again. It's like raising a wild dog. That's why they won't pay us more. They want us to go back into the streets to intimidate and beat and, in a strange way, to regain the pride of the police. They want to put fear back into the people."

That strategy is playing out today in the streets of Cairo as thousands of protesters demanding an end to military rule clash with riot police. The air in Tahrir Square stings with tear gas and echoes with the crack of gunfire and the whoosh of batons; the wounded carried away, draped in the arms of friends. Human rights groups have accused police of excessive force in the deaths of at least 27 protesters since Saturday.

Eweid says he has never tortured a man or taken a payoff. But he's felt the itch. He unfolds medical papers from three hospitals explaining that their beds were full and they couldn't admit his son, Mohammed, who slipped into a diabetic coma last month. Eweid carried his boy home and the next day appeared at one of the hospitals, begging until they admitted Mohammed, allowing him to share a bed with another patient.

It was embarrassing, but a cop gets no special treatment these days. The revolution shattered the people's terror of the state and today hundreds of thousands of patrolmen, captains and detectives are caught in an unsettling new order.

"I had to absorb the people's fury," is how Eweid puts it.

Some of the once untouchable are in jeopardy. Former Interior Minister Habib Adli, who commanded the nation's police, is on trial in the deaths of more than 800 protesters last winter. Hundreds of top police commanders have been removed from their posts in a series of purges.

In Egypt's unfinished revolution, people find themselves squeezed between the military council, a sinister Interior Ministry and a brazen generation of criminals who have traded in knives for Kalashnikovs. Even if many still loathe the police, they increasingly need their protection. But patrolmen, angry over low pay and fearing retribution, have not returned to many neighborhoods in cities and towns across the nation that are plagued by lawlessness, clan feuds and vigilantes.

Yasser Haddad sells vegetables in a warehouse on Eweid's beat. Most wholesalers here are fierce competitors who migrated from southern Egypt. Guns are hidden beneath tunics as crates of onions, eggplants and carrots clatter across the loading docks. There is a boldness among them now that keeps policemen at the edges, even when fights erupt involving hundreds of men.

"The traders here are more powerful and better connected than any cop," says Haddad, who works in a business his grandfather started decades ago. "The police don't come close. They know they are too weak after the revolution.... They don't do anything these days. It's not good. We need law and order in the market."

Another vendor, Hamada Saad, a university graduate forced into the family trade when he couldn't find a teaching job, says, "This police station in this neighborhood is just a formality."

Eweid steps past the scrape of a girl's broom in a dirt alley.

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