The Police Force – Forgive But Not Forget

February 14, 2011

On January 25th, 1952, the police forces in Ismaliyya stood up against the British order to withdraw and fifty policemen lost their lives defending this country and its people. On January 25th, 2011, the police forces stood up against the people’s demand for change, freedom and social equality. Shortly afterwards, on Friday 28th, they acquiesced to a ministerial order to unlock prisons, unleash chaos…and withdraw. In the span of those 59 years, the cherished and indispensable police institution has been transformed from a dear friend to a dark foe.

The harsh irony is hard to ignore. It cannot and should not be ignored.

***

After former president Mubarak stepped down on Friday February 11th, demonstrations broke out across various sectors – lawyers, bankers, judges, workers, teachers etc. Among them were the Police demonstrations. The police went out to the streets demanding better pay and better treatment. More poignantly, they defended themselves against the accusations incriminating them during this revolution. We all understand the gravity of a situation of mutual distrust between people and police. And yet, many cannot help but grimace or shudder in revulsion when they see a cop on the street, myself included. Which is why when the police started chanting slogans akin to those of the Tahririans (al shorta wal sha’b 2eed wa7da!” or “The police and the people are one hand!”), many people rejected the implicit plea for pardon and attacked them. Police morale is dangerously low and the consequences can be grave for all.

Efforts are thus being directed to restoring trust between the police and the public. The reforms suggested included the symbolic and the substantial. Among the symbolic reforms that have already been enacted was the reversion of their slogan back to “The Police Serve the People”.  This slogan was first introduced by Minister of Interior Sha’rawy Gom’a in the 1960s. Minister Hasan al Alfy changed it to “The Police Serve the Law” in the early 1990s, a period when violent Islamic groups were rampant and the government responded (naturally) by giving its muscle more power and a looser leash. The reaction is natural insofar as any entity under attack naturally goes into defense mode. But since that defense mode was meant to protect the government rather than the people, stressing the need to adhere to the law, which was code for the Emergency Law statute, the effect included, inter alia,  the police’s  right to arrest suspects and potential suspects and barge into people’s homes without a warrant. Finally the hateful Habib el Adly came into power in 1997 and introduced the atrocious change “The Police and The People Serve the Country”. A dreadful revision of priorities that reflected a new reality where all state entities were to serve the government. The reversion back to the original slogan is thus seen as a sign of good will, appreciated and well received by the public.

Nevertheless, that slogan was applied in the 1960s, a period of notorious police violations and brutality. We should read the change in slogan as a genuine gesture on behalf of the Ministry of Interior, but we should not forget to oversee that it translates into real life.

The police demonstrations crying out for their unjust incrimination were one of the ways that have so far been semi-successful in penetrating people’s consciousness and consciences. They at least succeeded in humanizing the police force. They are seen less as a demonic villain, an instrument of the former regime, an evil entity outside of the citizenship spirit that united Egyptians during the revolution, and more as citizens with their own set of grievances.

To that end, newspaper reports have started creating analogies between the police force’s morale now and the army’s morale after 1967. Both have become the butt of so many jokes and both were looked down upon with disappointment and distrust.  Remembering a time when our glorious army had messed up gives perspective and allows us to see the ebb and flow of the citizens’ relationships with the different state entities.

***

We the Egyptian people are a kind and forgiving people. A right word or a good gesture is enough to soften the most intransigent of dissenters. The policemen will be forgiven. The same people who were capable of forgiving Mubarak for all his misgivings are capable of forgiving the policemen. If anything, we are too kind and forgiving for our own good. We are now perfectly contented and proud of our army and perfectly infuriated and ashamed of our police force. Forgetting that Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser were all army officers and all had their misgivings and forgetting that the police force had its own valiant moments, the 25th for example. I am not saying we should doubt everyone and trust no one. I am not saying we should not forgive. We should, nay must, forgive. But not forget. We must not Forget. We will not be able to monitor and oversee the state institutions, including the police force and the army, if we forgive. We will not be able to hold those who made promises and signs of goodwill accountable if we forget.

The harsh irony of the revolution’s timing is hard to ignore. It cannot and should not be ignored. More importantly, it should not be forgotten.

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