Egyptian police officers demonstrate in front of the Interior Ministry.… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
CAIRO — The young policeman with scuffed boots and sleepless eyes sat on a motorcycle in a neighborhood that no longer feared or respected him.
Khaled Sayed wore the colors of his trade: a black beret adorned with a silver eagle. An officer for three years, Sayed patrols streets where guns flow and jobless youths roam with knives and rage. Uniformed men with badges and battered side arms once held sway here, but their swagger has been clipped by a new and dangerous order.
Egypt's police and central security forces, for decades the thuggish protectors of Hosni Mubarak's repressive state, now safeguard a new government run by Islamist elements they once persecuted. The 2011 turnaround has sparked an identity crisis. Some officers have sided with protesters while others have been blamed for systematic torture, including sexual humiliation and electric shock.
The atmosphere threatens the nation's tenuous stability and jeopardizes tourism and foreign investment at a time of growing pressure from the West for wider civil rights protections.
"The revolution has changed the system. We're confused about who we are now," said Sayed, watching over a tangle of alleys where schoolboys tilt under the weight of book bags and the clang of holding cells echoes from a jail. "President [Mohamed] Morsi doesn't know what he wants from us. Does he want the police to fight thugs and criminals, or crush the street protests against him?"
Their faces blurry behind riot shields, their misdeeds bright in headlines, the police are tormentor one day, victim the next. Street cops and central security conscripts often appear adrift in a discomfiting netherworld, looking for cover and feeling abandoned by their commanders while carrying out the duties of a president from the Muslim Brotherhood that many of them despise.
Opposition parties blame the police for torturing and killing activists and protesters. Human rights groups have criticized Morsi for not reforming the Interior Ministry, which often adheres to Mubarak-era brutality, including the recent televised beating of a man who was stripped naked and dragged by police through the street.
"The police are acting badly," said Ramadan Eissa, a pensioner in Sayed's Imbaba neighborhood. "They beat someone. Why? Why risk further ruining their reputation? They have always been this way. They are making better pay nowadays. They should stop their behavior. But they're conceited and too proud of themselves."
Police say they are scapegoats for government failures to stem economic and social turmoil that has given rise to an angry and brazen public. Police stations have been attacked and officers killed, including five in Port Said, where more than 50 people have died since January in clashes between armed mobs and security forces after a court verdict against soccer fans accused of murder.
Morsi backed the police after the Port Said violence and "gave the green light for business as usual to continue abusive practices," said Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt. "Not dealing with the question of police brutality is a ticking time bomb."
Low-ranking police officers, however, staged a nationwide strike last month, calling for the removal of new Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and accusing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of using them as shock troops to suppress public dissent. Officers rebuked the Brotherhood for attempting to exert influence over their ranks. Some police withdrew from protests at the presidential palace in December rather than confront demonstrators — a surreal scene that never would have happened under Mubarak.
The Interior Ministry calmed the strike by promising to buy 100,000 new 9-millimeter automatic pistols for police, who are increasingly outgunned by criminal gangs. Human rights groups worry the new weapons will give officers loyal to Ibrahim, who is perceived as a Morsi ally, more lethal firepower against protesters.
"We want peace in the streets and respect," said Naqeeb Awel Mohamed, a cop in Imbaba for 13 years. "I can't have citizens raising weapons in my face. That's unacceptable. There are too many guns and too much chaos. The people are furious over inflation and unemployment. This comes out toward the police, but in reality we are the same as the people."
He added: "I made 500 pounds [about $75] a month under Mubarak. I now earn 1,500 pounds. I live two hours away in the countryside. I have only a high school diploma. What else can I do? There is nothing else."
Imbaba, a community once known for camel markets and Islamist radicalism, rises in shambles along the Nile. Home to nearly 2 million people, the neighborhood is a gritty tapestry of mechanics, metal grinders, junkmen and laborers whose ranks expanded as poor farmers from the north and herders from the south arrived in search of better lives. Guns are easy to find, bribes are common and fights ignite quickly.