A member of Egypt's police special forces stands guard next to an armored vehicle on July 3, protecting a bridge between Cairo's Tahrir Square and Cairo University where Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered.
A member of Egypt's police special forces stands guard next to an armored vehicle on July 3, protecting a bridge between Cairo's Tahrir Square and Cairo University where Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered. Manu Brabo/AP
Egypt has undergone profound change over the past 10 days. The military has overthrown an elected Islamist president and is back in control of the country amid deadly clashes between Islamists and the state security forces.
There's been another change as well: Egypt's police, long reviled by much of the population, have become unlikely heroes for opponents of the now-ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
During Egypt's 2011 uprising, revolutionaries fought pitched street battles with the police force, the protector of the autocratic regime.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
In January 2011, riot police forced anti-government protesters back across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge as they attempted to get into Tahrir Square.
In January 2011, riot police forced anti-government protesters back across the Kasr Al Nile Bridge as they attempted to get into Tahrir Square. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
In those volatile days, police did battle with protesters on a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in central Cairo. The protesters' demands for a democratic state were met with tear gas, birdshot and sometimes live ammunition.
The police were viewed as the backbone of a corrupt and abusive state, accused of torturing and killing Egyptian citizens.
But in a dynamic Egypt, what a difference a year can make. Many of the same protesters who battled the police have now redirected their anger at the deposed Islamist president and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. The police haven't been reformed, but frustration with the ousted Islamist president trumps public anger at the police. In a strange turn of events, for many Egyptians, the police are now the good guys.
Finally, Good Faith In The Police
On that same bridge where so much blood was spilled between protesters and police, police officer Mohammed Samir now struts proudly among the celebrating crowds.
He says the people finally have good faith in the police force.
Around him people cheer as military aircraft fly through the sky, leaving streaks of smoke in the colors of the Egyptian flag.
Protester Hesham Sabra smiles as he points toward others who are celebrating with policemen. "You see the people, they are waving to them, kissing them, dancing and so on," Sabra says.
Prior to June 30 when millions of people turned out against Morsi, Sabra says, he was angry at the police and the military for their treatment of protesters. But bad leadership by the Islamist government, he says, changed all that.
"The people, the military, the army, the police, the judicial system, we are all one hand. We want to save Egypt."
Uneasy Alliance With Unreconstructed Force
Not everyone is convinced the security apparatus is to be trusted again so quickly. Just Monday, at least 55 people were killed after the police and soldiers opened fire on crowds of Morsi supporters. Muslim Brotherhood leaders called it a massacre. But there was little outrage from opponents of the ousted president.
"This is an unreconstructed police force whose culture remains one that is rampant with torture, and abuse," says Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. Hanna calls the newfound kinship between some anti-Morsi protesters and the police an uneasy alliance, stemming from a yearning for stability and a broad backlash against the Islamist leadership. Instead of reforming the security forces, he says, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to co-opt them for similar practices seen under former President Hosni Mubarak.
But for the moment, the decades of abusive practices have been forgotten and the police are enjoying a clean slate, at least temporarily, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.
But those with longer memories are worried about what this reconciliation could mean for Egypt's long-term transition to democracy, he says.
"This does not bode well for civilian control of the military," Shehata says. "It also potentially does not bode well for reform of the Interior Ministry, and of course the police were despised under Mubarak."
Shehata adds that cleaning up the police force is an essential part of any kind of democratic reform in Egypt.