A new incident involving police brutality takes place in Egypt once more. This time, the venue was Luxor and the victim was Talaat Rashidi, who died in the Luxor police station last Wednesday morning after his arrest. Now, despite how unfortunate and sad this specific incident is, and with all condolences to the family of the deceased, I think it is neither proper nor effective to handle each of the incidents involving police brutality in isolation from other similar ones. It is true that in every single incident there are different causes, different victims and different individuals responsible. However, if we keep justifying each incident as an irresponsible individual act, then we will keep overlooking an inherent structural defect and a recurring painful phenomenon.
Any human rights report issued any time over the course of the past 15 years will tell you the number of violations frequently committed by the Egyptian police. Stories and videos of police violence are a weekly feature on all social media platforms in Egypt. Moreover, literally any Egyptian you will talk to will tell you of personal story that involves a negative encounter with the police, whether this encounter revolved around violence, corruption, nepotism or negligence.
However, I cannot deny that every once in a while you will come across a decent and professional policeman who truly understands and practices the concept of civil service and lawful action. The Egyptian state usually affirms that those who violate laws and rights and exercise brutality are an exception among the majority of police officers. However, the recurring brutality and the track record of Egyptian police clearly suggest the opposite.
The Ministry of Interior’s comments on the incidents in Luxor centred on the affirmation that they will not allow any violation to go unpunished, and that such individual actions would not be allowed to negatively label the institution and its devoted patriotic men. Last June, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi apologised to the nation for human rights violations committed by the police after a police officer beat a lawyer with a shoe.
Four years ago, right after the 25 January Revolution, the minister of interior at the time decided to reinstate the old police logo: “The police serves the people”, instead of the one introduced during Habib Al-Adly’s period in office: “The police and the people serve the nation”. Such cosmetic changes and diplomatic statements are as deep as any attempts of police reform go in Egypt.
The solution to the recurring police brutality is not a statement of assurance, or a presidential apology or an eloquent and sentimental logo; the solution lies in addressing a structural flaw within Egypt’s security institutions. Although all of Egypt’s multiple and diverse security institutions share this problem, I will focus specifically on the police. In any rational democracy, a mechanism of accountability and a concomitant separation of powers is a necessary aspect in state institutions. In Egypt, regardless of how rational its democracy might be, security institutions are monitored by internal dynamics and are held accountable only to their own inner structures.
The Ministry of Interior has an internal monitoring department, and it is the responsibility of this department to investigate the violations committed by police officers. However, who monitors and audits the work of this department, how often investigations of violations occur, and what the steps taken to limit or prevent such violations are, are all questions that are left permanently unanswered in the context of the Egyptian police’s internal mechanism of supervision.
The incident in Luxor is not the first one and will not be the last as long as the executive powers of the Egyptian government continue without a proper mechanism of checks and balances. Perhaps neither the venue nor the space will allow for a detailed discussion of necessary police reforms, but the intensity and frequency of police brutality in Egypt point to an obvious lack of political will to carry out any significant reforms. The absence of external monitoring mechanisms and the lack of a political will to reform further instil a police culture where vulgar display of power supersedes civic lawful action. Effective security is reached when people trust, rather than fear, law enforcement institutions. And surely, empty apologies and statements tailored for media consumption will not establish this trust.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.