With near-impunity and the backing of the Islamist president, Egyptian police have been accused of firing wildly at protesters, beating them and lashing out with deadly force in clashes across much of the country the past week, regaining their Hosni Mubarak-era notoriety as a tool of repression.
In the process, nearly 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured, and the security forces have re-emerged as a significant political player after spending the two years since Mubarak’s ouster on the sidelines, sulking or unwilling to fully take back the streets.
Moreover, President Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood was long oppressed by the security forces, has made it clear that he needs the police on his side to protect his still shaky grip on power. On state media Sunday, he thanked the police for their response to the protests, a day after dozens had been killed in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
Riot police continued to battle rock-throwing protesters in an area near Tahrir Square in central Cairo on Thursday, the seventh day of clashes in the wave of political violence that has engulfed Egypt, though battles elsewhere have eased somewhat.
The police force’s furious response to the protests and riots — some of which targeted their stations and left two police officers dead — uncovered the depth of discontent in the once all-powerful security forces. Since Mubarak’s fall, they have been demoralized and in disarray. But now they are signaling that they want back the status they held under his rule, when no one questioned their use of force and they had unlimited powers of arrest.
“The police saw the protests as an opportunity to show they are strong, capable and ready to crush them,” said rights lawyer Negad Borai. “They knew they had political cover, to which they responded by using a disproportionate amount of force.”
The Interior Ministry, in charge of police, says its forces showed restraint and pointed out that dozens of police were injured in the clashes, along with the two dead. It has also staunchly denied that police fired birdshot at protesters in the street fighting.
Egypt’s police are a militarized force believed to number around 500,000 men. They played a key role in maintaining Mubarak’s grip on power, systematically detaining and torturing Islamists and silencing dissidents. Hated and blamed for massive human rights abuses, the brutality of the police was among the key reasons behind the 2011 revolution.
The police melted away four days into the 18-day revolution following deadly clashes with protesters. They have since returned to duty but have yet to fully take back the streets, even as crime and disorder have increased dramatically.