Police Officers Caught In The Middle Go On Strike In Egypt

There is a growing strike by police officers in Egypt. Long accused of brutality before and after the fall of the Mubarak regime, police commanders say they are ill-equipped to handle the ongoing protests, many of them violent, in Port Said and other cities. They are demanding the ouster of the new Interior Minister, appointed by President Mohammed Morsi. The strike comes amid fears of more violence on Saturday when a court in Cairo is scheduled to hand down a second group of verdicts and sentences in connection with a soccer riot that left 70 dead last year.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Now to Egypt, where police officers are on strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

BLOCK: Down with the interior minister, is one cry heard from protesting police, as they refuse to work in more than 60 precincts across the country. The strikes come just one day before a court ruling that many fear will provoke new violence in the country. The court in Cairo is scheduled to issue verdicts and sentences for some of the men, including police officers, who were allegedly involved in a deadly soccer riot in the city of Port Said.

NPR's Leila Fadel joins us from Cairo to explain what's going on. And Leila, why don't you start by telling us why the police are striking in the first place.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, there's a groundswell of frustration among the young police officers who are on the street. They feel they're being put in an impossible situation between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood and the president and the people themselves. They feel that they're being used as tools of the government, they're being attacked by the people and there's no good answer for them. They want the minister of interior to be fired. They don't want to be put in this position. And they also want to be better armed, they say, to deal with these protests.

BLOCK: Now, what does all this mean for the Morsi government and how are they going to - if they're going to - try to meet these demands from the police?

FADEL: Well, I think this is pretty significant in the sense that we're seeing further and further isolation of the president and his Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that really controls most of the state right now. The police and the minister of interior clearly don't stand behind the president. And they're making that clear in the ranking file through this, really, a mutiny against him. Without the police can they control the state?

Already we're seeing signs where they're trying to appease the population. They fired the head of the central security forces, which is essentially the riot police. But still, these policemen are on strike and saying, we won't be the tool of this government.

BLOCK: And as we mentioned, Leila, a lot of fears about what could happen tomorrow, when you're expecting the court verdict stemming from a soccer riot last year. Why is that so controversial? What are the fears?

FADEL: Well, really, it's indicative of how little faith there is in state institutions. People feel that the courts are being unjust. So in Port Said, when 21 men were sentenced to death in January, the entire city erupted trying to raid prisons. And it's continued that way since then. It's still unstable. And tomorrow, there are 52 new verdicts coming. And if it's an extremely harsh sentence, the way it was the last time, that city will again erupt. And people are saying they expect a massacre.

If it's not an extremely harsh sentence, you have other people who say justice is not served and Cairo may erupt. So it's a really difficult position and whatever the verdict comes out, people will protest. But really, the larger issue is that it's symbolic of how little faith there is in the justice system, in the police, in the government.

BLOCK: And if police aren't on the streets tomorrow, what are the expectations for what could happen?

FADEL: Well, this is an extremely concerning situation of possible security vacuum. Already you're hearing Gamaa Islamiya, extremely fundamentalist group saying, we'll take control of security in the City of Assiut. In Minya, police haven't been on the streets for over a month and the Muslim Brotherhood has been securing the streets. So this is a huge concern. With no police on the streets there is a possible security vacuum.

BLOCK: I mean, I guess the other side of that is that the protesters see the police as part of the problem. There are lots of complaints about police brutality.

FADEL: Right. More than two years ago, when this revolution began, one of the main demands was reform among the security forces. They were seen as brutal tools of oppression. And, really, none of that has changed when you speak to human rights groups. And in fact, under this minister, the fifth minister of interior since the transition started more than two years ago, people are saying the brutality is even worse.

And so, in many ways, when the police aren't there things are less violent, so we'll see what happens tomorrow. But it is a huge concern when you have no way to secure your cities at a time when things are so unstable.

BLOCK: It's NPR's Leila Fadel speaking with us from Cairo. Leila, thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

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