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Celebrating Police (State) Day in Mubarak’s Egypt

Today Egyptians around the country have off from work and school in recognition of a new national holiday: Police Day. The Mubarak regime, it seems, has a sense of humor after all.

Or maybe it’s not meant to be ironic. Police play a crucial role in this country, which is, for all intents and purposes, a police state. The government wants to celebrate the police for making Egypt the country that it is today.

On Police Day Eve (I’m probably the only person who called it that), the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch spoke at a press conference in Cairo unveiling a report on the state of human rights in the region in 2009. The title was “Egypt and Libya: A Year of Serious Abuses.” Implicated in many of these abuses are the police and other security forces.

While it isn’t the worst in the region–Syria’s Bashar al-Assad rules with a fist so iron that even Facebook can barely squeeze in–the security services have tremendous power in this country. Egypt has been under “emergency law” since President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Among other things, the emergency law permits indefinite detention without trial, preserves the government’s right to try civilians in military courts, and prohibits gatherings of more than five people. Naturally, the state of emergency gives broad powers to the security services.

The main purpose of the police and security forces here in Egypt is to protect the regime. Police arrest the regime’s opponents regularly. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most popular and best organized opposition movement, had over seven hundred of its members in jail as of last March, according to the Human Rights Watch report. Dissidents are often arrested under ridiculous pretenses. Bloggers, in particular, suffer under the yoke of Egypt’s police state. The most notorious case is that of Kareem Amer, a blogger who criticized the government and religious institutions for discrimination against women and inciting sectarianism. Amer has been in jail for four years and is not even allowed visits from his lawyers.

When activists hold political demonstrations, the government responds with an overwhelming show of force. Within minutes hundreds of riot police arrive on the scene, cordon off the area of the protest, and, frequently, beat on protesters. American and European pro-Palestine activists learned this lesson the hard way when they staged demonstrations in Cairo last month. They seemed surprised.

But one doesn’t have to be a dissident or an activist to feel the heavy hand of Hosni Mubarak’s police force. General thuggery abounds. To fill quotas, police will sweep a neighborhood and arrest dozens of young men, hoping that one of them will have his documents out of order or a chunk of hash in his pocket. People disappear for weeks at a time into police stations, where they are beaten or suffer other forms of torture.

This is not a secret. Stories of abuse and torture appear daily in the local independent press. In the past few years there have been several cases of police throwing people from windows. In July 2008, police apprehended a borderline mentally disabled man and, after accusing him of soliciting a prostitute, beat him so severely that he had bleeding in his brain, his shoulder and neck were fractured, and his left arm paralyzed.

Think Giuliani’s New York City times a thousand.

As a foreigner living here, I have very little occasion to deal with the police here. Foreigners are largely off-limits for the security services-unless they do something really bad like talk about Gaza. Even then, the punishment is light by Egyptian standards.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m shielded from it completely. It’s not uncommon to see a police officer grabbing some dude by the collar and screaming at him in the middle of a sidewalk, sometimes going as far as punching him in the face. Occasionally, trucks full of police officers will tear through an open-air market kicking over people’s stalls and stealing goods. A friend of mine told me her landlord informed her that the secret police had been lurking around the apartment building trying to figure out who the foreigner was. Another friend, who volunteers with street children, says that a few weeks ago one of the kids was randomly arrested by the police and hasn’t been heard from since.

Moreover, cops are everywhere in this city. You can’t turn a corner without seeing a police officer. Gigantic boxy trucks packed with cops rumble through the streets day and night. Plainclothes police are ubiquitous.

So what does Egypt do to celebrate Police Day? CNN’s Cairo correspondent suggested on Twitter that “the president will be giving a ‘golden cow prod’ and a ‘silver broomstick’ on police day to Cairo’s best.”

It would be funny if it weren’t so scary.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user 3arabawy.

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