Hey, I’m about the last guy in the world to rain on Egypt’s parade. I love the place – I used to live there. Its people are kind, smart, funny, hospitable and caring. The country has enormous potential. What that nonviolent army of mostly young people achieved in Tahrir Square and elsewhere was straight out of the movies. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in real life.
But happen it did. Which means that after a couple of days of whatever wild brand of euphoria they choose, the brave folks who dumped Hosni Mubarak and his entire entourage have a nation to build. And huge problems to solve.
Even seen from 30,000 feet, those problems look daunting enough. Forty percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. University graduates are driving taxis and many haven’t ever had a job – or even a job interview – using the skill sets they acquired at university.v Many smart young people who have the airfare have fled to Europe and the US.
Government-sponsored children’s education is a travesty. Schools without books. Underpaid, underqualified teachers. Public health care underfunded and understaffed for years. Unemployment officially at nine percent and change; unofficially, closer to 50 percent.
The concentration of wealth in Egypt is mind-boggling: The wealthiest five percent of Egyptians control an overwhelming part of the nation’s wealth. Forty percent of the rest of the country lives below the poverty line. The divide between the superrich and the superpoor is a gaping chasm. Corruption – both petty corruption and big ticket corruption – is ubiquitous. It prices ordinary people out of normal living and makes Egyptian businesses embarrassingly uncompetitive with the rest of the world.
Issue by issue, Egypt’s new government, when it appears, is going to have to tackle all these problems in some kind of priority order. But even before that happens, there is a problem that needs to be – and can be – tackled, beginning right now. That is not to say it’s an easy problem to solve, because solving it is going to require a change in behavior, a change in culture – and cultural changes are the most difficult to effect and take the longest amount of time to bear fruit.
The problem is police brutality and the state-sanctioned impunity that accompanies it. It shows its ugly face at many levels of “law enforcement.” It is counterproductive. It puts Egypt’s most sadistic, misanthropic and mentally ill people in positions of power, where they can exercise their life-threatening skills with total impunity.
During the 17-day occupation of Tahrir Square, some 300 protesters lost their lives. A few were hit with rocks or petrol bombs, but most of those who died were picked up by the police and thrown in jail. There, they were beaten and tortured. Many of them never made it out.
Next time we hear of the great respect the protesters have for the Egyptian military, it would be useful to remember that the abusers and torturers and murderers who caused these deaths in detention were military police – the cops of the Egyptian army. Exactly the same group that used to be Mubarak’s army. Chances are, we’ll never know for sure who gave these guys their marching orders.
Now, every military organization has military police and a criminal investigation division, however named. But there is no need for these units to become medieval murder machines. I know; I used to be a military cop.
What I learned is that these torture machines don’t happen by spontaneous combustion. Sometimes, it starts with one misanthropic sadist, who manages to get others to follow his lead. Sometimes, it’s someone at or near the top who plans the torture machine, manages it and encourages the torturers. Whichever its cause, the system doesn’t take shape by accident.
The important thing to remember is that today, days after the people’s amazing revolution, the military police are still in place, presumably doing what they’ve been trained to do.
If you’re not squeamish, you can read the chilling account of one man’s torture by the army’s military police in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.
Police brutality intrudes at many levels. The record of the secret security police is better known and arguably even more bloodcurdling than that of the military police. The 30-year-old emergency laws provide cover for the most bestial enemies of the state as they continue to arrest, abuse and torture people.
Reigning in the dreaded police working for the incredibly cruel and unbelievably corrupt Ministry of Interior is another dangerous aspect of the military’s mission. For the moment, we have to take it on faith that the military has reached or will soon reach some agreement with the police that will result in the tamping down of their more barbarian instincts.
Police brutality in Egypt is “routine and pervasive,” and the use of torture so widespread that the Egyptian government has stopped denying it exists, according to leaked cables released by WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks presents a batch of US embassy cables that paint a depressing picture of a police force and security service wholly out of control in Egypt. The cables suggest torture is routinely used against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers.
According to one of the cables: “The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the time of the pharaohs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone.”
Under Mubarak’s presidency, there had been “no serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution,” it said. The police’s ubiquitous use of force had pervaded Egyptian culture to such an extent that one popular television soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beat up suspects to collect evidence.
Fortunately, the pro-democracy forces won’t have to deal with Mubarak, nor will it find Mubarak’s consigliere, Omar Suleiman, hanging around waiting for work.
Suleiman – Mubarak’s point man for the US rendition program – left with this encouraging parting shot: “The culture of democracy is still far away.” He added that the continued demonstrations in Cairo and across the nation were “disrespectful” of Mubarak and warned of “the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people.”
It would seem that Suleiman, and his boss, were just a tad out of touch with the mood of the ebullient warriors in Tahrir Square.
Putting an even finer point on it, former CIA official Robert Baer summed up his view of prisoner interrogation in the Middle East. Baer said, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
But it’s critical that the nation-builders of Tahrir Square keep in mind that the only real changes made thus far have been to the cast of characters at the top: the president, the vice president, the prime minister and the cabinet.
But the institutions are still where they were on January 24. The procedures haven’t changed. The infrastructure hasn’t changed. No laws have been changed, including the so-called emergency laws. The police haven’t changed. Their qualifications haven’t changed. How they view their mission hasn’t changed.
These remaining challenges, and many more issues, are going to have to be addressed as the nation-building task goes forward. Police brutality – whether military or civilian – won’t stop by itself.
So, step one is getting someone in authority to simply say stop, and then monitoring the situation to see if instructions are being observed.
Step two would be charging a team of law enforcement professionals with the task of taking a rigorous look at the criminal justice system, starting with arrest and detention.
Step three has to be the development of a long-term strategic plan whose goal is to professionalize the performance of Egypt’s law enforcement apparatus and to provide incentives for interrogators to refrain from morphing into murderers.
And step four is going to be designing and implementing a system of oversight and accountability.
In the euphoria of postrevolutionary Egypt, it would be tempting to forget police brutality. But that would be like leaving a giant chunk of Mubarak behind.