The January 2011 Protests

By starting the protest on the national Police Day, the Egyptian people clearly expressed their criticism and contempt for the police forces. For many Egyptians, joining in the protest and protesting against the police was as much in opposition of the police and its abuses of civilians as it later became in opposition to the Mubarak regime responsible for police deviance. In particular, people protested against Minister of Interior Habib al-Adli, whose ministry had been responsible for countless citizens’ abuses over fourteen years.25 Thousands participated in the march toward Tahrir Square, encouraged by activists who appealed to all segments of the population.

In districts such as Bulaq al-Dakrur in the poorer Giza governorate where people had suffered for many years from police abuses and heavy unemployment, locals were quickly convinced to join in.26 Egyptians from different backgrounds and classes were so united once they were in Tahrir Square, they outnumbered the police, which desperately attempted, with water cannons and tear gas, to stop the distraught crowd from reaching the parliament building. As Lesch puts it, “A protest seeking limited reforms swiftly transformed into a revolutionary uprising. In three days, people were calling not only to end police brutality and remove the minister of interior, but also for President Hosni Mubarak to leave.”27

During the protest in Tahrir Square, tensions between the police and the people escalated. Following the interior minister’s warning to the demonstrators to cease their protests, a large part of the protesters were violently dispersed overnight by police forces. Yet, protesters gathered again in the square to denounce the government and voice their demands. As the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Hafez Abu Saeda, declared months prior to the protest, “The humiliation of the simple citizen has become so widespread that the people are fed up.”28 If there is but one positive outcome of police abuses, it is that it united many individuals under a unique banner: the removal of Mubarak and his regime of brutality.

The police also became a target. The January protests caused the majority of the police to be gathered in the protest areas, which left police stations with fewer personnel than usual. Residents of districts where abuses of police powers had been particularly harsh over the years took that opportunity to express their discontent. Ismail reports that “in the first days of the uprising, 99 police stations were burned down and many detention cells were opened and detainees let out.”29 These attacks on police stations were met with mixed feelings. On the one hand, many were appalled by the attacks and saw them as added lawlessness, while others viewed the measures as necessary to keep the protests unfettered by police forces.30

Some scholars have also underlined the collaboration of the police and the people. Khadidja El Alaoui describes some situations in which witnesses reported that many officers showed hesitation to follow their official orders during the protest and even attempted to protect the protesters from violence coming from their ranks. She reports, “Officer Naji, [for example,] . . . famously threatened to shoot himself, if his superiors kept the order of non-intervention to defend the unarmed protestors when they were being murdered.”31 She also reminds us of the “ethics of the square: if the enemy is family, he is a son, a father, a cousin and then nonviolence becomes the only acceptable way of dealing with such a violent relative”;32 in other words, some police officers considered themselves Egyptian first and police second. Finally, she highlights that it was not uncommon for the protesters to protect their oppressors by escorting the tired and hungry ones out of the square, with some young people even bringing refreshments to some police officers on duty.33

The militarization of the Egyptian police has been the focus of most scholars interested in the Egyptian case. Scholarly interest peaked as militarization was exacerbated in the aftermath of the January protests. The four decades of Mubarak’s rule had made the police an intrusive and semi-military body allowed to practice paramilitary violence.34 Moreover, under the Emergency Law, civilians were increasingly trialed in front of specialized security courts, and sometimes in front of military courts, even when their accusation amounted to demonstrating for more labor equality.35 Often in these civilian cases, “officers served as judges and there was no judicial appeal process.”36 In the aftermath of the uprising, the situation got worse: twelve thousand civilians were brought before military courts between January 29 and September 1, 2011, more than the total in the previous thirty years of Mubarak’s regime. Joe Stork notes that “the majority . . . were not political, not street protesters, but people accused of ordinary crimes like theft.”37 The police were nursed by the military, which was omnipresent in the everyday duties of police officers: “At street level, a policeman could be seen guiding traffic; beside him a military police man was watching over his work.”38

Thus, historical tensions culminated with the citizens’ revolutionary call for the toppling of police authority, yet it was equated with calls for the collapse of the regime. This led some police officers to refrain from performing their duties throughout the revolutionary period, fearing potentially false accusations. During the revolutionary period, police absenteeism meant safety and security were lost in the streets and police were accused of provoking further violence. An attempt to preserve or defend the need for police authority was often met with further charges that the police were just Mubarak-regime cronies. In addition, the death or injury of hundreds of protesters had a profound impact on the people, who rejected police authority and further demanded the prosecution of police officers on charges of treachery and the abandonment of their line of duty. The situation worsened under the interim government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (scaf), and then deteriorated even further under the Muslim Brotherhood (mb).

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