Report thy neighbour: policing Sisi’s Egypt

By Maha Abdelrahman, February 23, 2015

Cairo street scene

Cairo street scene

A regime bereft of legitimacy, save for its promise to guarantee national security, turns citizens into active players in a new culture of surveillance and reporting.

During his recent visit to Cairo in November 2014, Alain Gresh, former editor- in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, met with a couple of Egyptian acquaintances (a journalist and a student) in a downtown Cairo café. During their chat, which unsurprisingly involved Egyptian politics, a middle-class Egyptian woman at the next table became highly alarmed by the exchange. Her anxiety did not stop at shouting at the journalists, accusing them of conspiring to destroy Egypt, but extended to actually calling upon the security personnel guarding the nearby British Embassy to investigate the said conspiracy. The sad saga, which lasted for a few hours, ended with embarrassment for the Egyptian authorities and an apology to the French journalist.

Despite the Kafkaesque tone of the event, the ‘concerned citizen’ had actually behaved in the only logical way expected of her after a relentless, year-long campaign by the regime and dominant pro-regime media to create a state of mass hysteria regarding Egypt’s security. Since the military takeover of 2013, a public discourse has evolved churning out incessant accounts in which enemies of the Egyptian state and its people, external and internal, known and unknown, human and otherwise, are constantly conspiring to plot against the country and target its security as well as the health of its national economy. Against a rich tapestry of intrigue and terrorist discourse, the security apparatus has emerged, in this narrative, as the only national saviour capable of protecting the country from complete chaos. In fact, the legitimacy of the Sisi regime continues to derive largely from his promise to rid the country of terrorists and to restore security and order. In this regard, he makes grateful use of actual violent attacks against military and other targets especially in Sinai.

However, restoring a sense of trust in the police after the 2011 uprising remains unimaginable for the time being. After all, the 25 January uprising was in many ways a revolt against police brutality and the role of security institutions in reproducing Mubarak’s authoritarian neoliberal order and protecting its elite.

Contrary to mainstream accounts of the 25 January uprising as a peaceful episode led by middle-class, technology-savvy youth, the 18 days uprising saw heavy violence by protesters directed mainly against police targets. During the first days of the uprising, almost 100 police stations were set on fire, many detention cells opened to release detainees and police cars torched. To revamp the image of the police and its tarnished standing for the majority of citizens, an atmosphere of panic in which the police is presented as the only guarantor against total chaos is employed as a strategy. All the same, succeeding in this strategy has been no  small feat especially against the backdrop of a shocking series of acquittals of all police officers of any charges of killing thousands of protesters since the January uprising. The regime’s objective of elevating the police image to that of national protector has required the spinning of a web of laws, of deepening  layers of surveillance into areas of the everyday lives of citizens and, more importantly, enlisting citizens as participants in an omnipresent police regime.

Criminalising the everyday

During 2014, and in the absence of a functioning Parliament, two consecutive presidents, Adly Mansour and Sisi, decreed 140 new laws between them. The laws either criminalised new areas or made the penalties for already defined criminal activities more severe. This legal arsenal has resulted in criminalising many everyday activities and turning the mundane into the subversive in the public’s mind. The 140 new laws cover areas as varied as civil society organisations receiving foreign funding, practising politics inside university campuses and insulting the national flag. The last instance, embodied in the presidential law 41 of 2014, criminalised any form of insult to the national flag or national anthem which is punishable by a prison sentence of no more than one year and a 30,000 EGP fine. In a bid to comply with the law, the Ministry of Education decided that the same punishment will apply to school pupils whose behaviour in morning assembly could be perceived as ‘insulting’ the Egyptian flag. This could simply be the act of moving or passing in front of the flag while it is being saluted in morning assembly. The responsibility for surveillance and reporting of miscreant pupils is left to fellow-pupils, teachers and school management.

Turning citizens against each other and fuelling existing tensions between competing groups in order to create a ‘culture of informing against fellow citizens’ reached high levels in 2014. One example stands out. After repeated failures to clear Cairo’s city centre of street vendors, despite the use of violence, increased fines and prison sentences, especially since 2012, the Cairo governorate issued a shrewd decree. The decree went beyond pursuing street vendors to targeting fellow citizens who could now be punished for not reporting the offending vendors. The decree punishes, by closure and licence confiscation, any shop owner who allows street vendors to set up their stalls in the immediate vicinity of their shop. Sure enough, the new decree led to a wave of clashes between street vendors and shop owners who had long resented their presence and regarded them as unwanted competition. Many shop owners were only too happy to report the vendors, especially when egged on by the fear of losing their licences.

In a similar spirit of this informing against other, the Ministry of Transport has recently launched the campaign ‘Long live Egypt-Security is our collective responsibility’, encouraging conscientious citizens to report any suspicious behaviour of fellow commuters through a number of hotlines. The reward for reporting is an annual free transport subscription.

Layers of policing

Implementing the myriad new laws and providing surveillance for new areas of criminality has inevitably required an increase in the police force, its budget and its mandate. Already under Mubarak, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) employed 1.7 million individuals in 2009, including 850,000 police personnel and administrative staff, 450,000 Central Security Forces (CFS) personnel, and 400,000 individuals as part of the State Security Investigation Services (SSIS). In addition to formal forces and in order to support the needs of an ever-expanding regime of terror, the MOI started to ‘outsource’ its most ‘dirty’ business to baltagya (thugs). Baltagya are criminals, known to the police, usually with a record of violence, who are paid to carry out duties of ‘disciplining’ members of the public in return for the police turning a blind eye to their criminal activities.

The baltagya’s job description expanded to include voter intimidation, beating up, raping and sexually abusing criminal suspects and political activists, breaking up demonstrations and workers’ strikes, forcibly removing farmers from their land and much more. With the increasing dispossession and impoverishment of more groups in society due to intensive marketisation, Mubarak’s regime became heavily reliant on the police. Since the 1990s, therefore, the MOI budget has consistently increased its share of general expenditure, exceeding those of education and health combined. Since the 25 January uprising, the trend has continued and the budget of the MOI has increased further.

To meet the growing demand for personnel, Egypt’s Police Academy admitted 1850 students for the new academic year in July 2014. The successful candidates, accepted on the basis of lower academic achievements compared to previous years, constituted the largest class intake in the history of the academy. In a press conference held by MOI to mark the occasion, Ahmad Gad, assistant to the minister, quoted the inspiring role of the police force during the June 30th ‘revolution’ to a new generation of youth as the main factor for the rush of young people to join the academy. On the same occasion, it was also announced that new screening procedures had been put in place to exclude from admission any students who belonged to the banned Muslim Brothers (MB) organisation.  Around the same time, 75 existing students were being investigated, and facing the prospect of expulsion, in an effort to purge the academy and the police force of any MB elements.

A larger, more tightly-vetted group of police graduates will come in handy to serve the proliferation of new police units.  In July 2014, the MOI also reintroduced the traditional system of darak, which was abolished in 1952 in favour of more modern forms of policing. The traditional darak consisted of a single, low-ranking police officer who would patrol the streets to provide surveillance. The reinstated system will now consist of mobile units of three security officers working together. These include one officer armed with a pistol and two conscripts armed with batons. The role of the darak is one of surveillance and reporting. The unit will patrol the streets and report any suspicious behaviour to the closest police station, thus creating a better network of informing and surveillance. The plan is for this new system to be introduced in the two middle-class areas of Zamalek and Qasr El Nil (downtown Cairo) as a first step in a wider national plan.

The MOI has also been recruiting beyond graduates of the academy. In October 2014, the legislative section of the state council approved a draft law establishing community police, a new branch envisaged to involve a larger section of citizens in policing society. This new branch will hire both men and women in the age group between 18 and 22 who hold the minimum qualification of a middle school degree. They will be granted the power of arrest. The new community police units will work on ‘aiding the police in facing crime, enhancing a sense of security among citizens and [more importantly]… creating a culture of security’.

An inflated police force is not unique to Egypt. With the rise of neoliberal capitalism and its strategies of ‘accumulation by dispossession’, many regimes, including those in the ‘democratic’ west, have increased investment in policing and surveillance, especially targeting particular localities and populations; namely the poor, the unemployed, migrants and blacks  Different policies such as the infamous ‘stop and search’, the ‘Injunctions for the Prevention of Nuisance and Annoyance’ in the UK and the ‘Prohibited Behaviour Order’ in the State of Western Australia have created a ‘culture of reporting’ and often given increasing discretionary powers to the police.

However, what is peculiar to Egypt is the total sense of impunity that the police has long enjoyed.  This impunity, along with the increasing resources and extended mandate discussed above, is set to continue into the foreseeable future as the police serves the current regime in one crucial way. A regime bereft of any source of legitimacy, save for its promise of guaranteeing security to the nation, stops at nothing to inflate a discourse of national security around which to rally an otherwise disgruntled citizenry. Central to cementing this security discourse is the enlisting of large sectors of the population into becoming active players in the surveillance and reporting of society. Perhaps the recent call by the Chairman of the Journalists Syndicate on journalists to report any colleagues ‘proven to have incited against the army and police’ is a taste of what is yet to come.

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Maha Abdelrahman is a lecturer in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Civil Society Exposed: The Politics of NGOs in Egypt (2004) and Egypt’s Long Revolution: Protests and Uprisings (Routledge, 2014)

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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