RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Egypt, the police force was the underpinning of President Hosni Mubarak's iron-fisted regime. And it quickly became the enemy of Egypt's revolution. Yet since Mubarak was toppled in 2011, there's been little to no reform of the police force.
Human rights groups say the police have begun to act like armed gangs, dolling out collective punishment in restive areas across the country. The police say they are the victims, under constant attack by anti-government protesters.
NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On February 16, a young policeman named Hesham Taema was shot and killed as he responded to an armed dispute in Beni Sueif, a city of more than 200,000 people in the Nile Valley south of Cairo. But the man accused of killing the police officer was not arrested.
Instead, Hossam Abol Regal was punished brutally and publicly.
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FADEL: Mourners from the policeman's funeral grabbed Hossam off the street. A mix of gun-toting policemen and relatives of the victim beat Hossam unconscious, stripped him and put him on top of a truck.
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FADEL: Bloodied, beaten and unconscious, he was driven through the main streets of Beni Suef as a warning - a warning against cop killers.
All of it was caught on tape. All of it happened in front of top officials in the province, witnesses said, and not one tried to stop it.
Later, Hossam's family and friends stormed the hospital where he was being treated and took him away. The police were all-powerful under Mubarak and their widespread brutalities provided fuel for the uprising. But two years after the revolt there's been no reform, and in fact the abuse has only worsened, says Karim Medhat Ennarah from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
KARIM MEDHAT ENNARAH: The police is very obviously acting like- it's not acting as a law enforcement agency. Not that it's ever been a professional law enforcement agency, but it's acting like an armed gang or militia with their own interests that they're trying to protect.
FADEL: Ennarah has documenting police abuse since the revolution. In just the past few months, he says, more than 60 people have been killed in clashes with the police.
ENNARAH: It's very clear to me that they are - they believe that they're in conflict with the population. And they just want to be armed to the teeth and have less regulation over how they can use force and firearms.
FADEL: But the most disturbing development, he says, is the collective punishment police are raining down on neighborhoods across the country.
In December, after a policeman was killed in the city of Minya, police terrorized a whole neighborhood and killed a nine-year-old girl, Ennarah says. All of it is documented on video.
When a policeman was killed in Suez, police responded by firing indiscriminately, killing nine people. And in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, where clashes with police have been the most violent, more than 40 people were killed, five policemen were among the victims and the violence there continues.
Instead of enforcing rule of law, Ennarah says, the police are taking revenge.
AHMED HELMY: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: But the police see things differently. Deputy Minister of Interior Ahmed Helmy says his officers have become the favored target of protesters who torch government buildings, attack cops and goad them to fight. Chain-smoking in his spacious Cairo office, Helmy denies any wrongdoing. He rejects accusation after accusation. A young man who disappeared during a protest and was later found dead with bruises on his body and strangulation marks on his neck? He was hit by a car, says Helmy. A man who was beaten and stripped by police on live television - the police didn't strip him nor beat him, Helmy says. Excessive force in Port Said that left dozens dead? What would you do, he asks, if citizens were trying to break into a prison with weapons?
HELMY: (Through translator) Implementing human rights and protecting human rights has become a main foundation, the main belief, of all those working in security bodies. Those rumors about us are because of political conflicts. And there is no proof.
FADEL: But then he adds this...
HELMY: (Through translator) Do not expect us to protect the human rights of a criminal. I will not consider human rights for a criminal when he does not consider the human rights of citizens on the street.
FADEL: Helmy is angry, angry that the police have become a buffer between the government and protesters. Young police conscripts work 24 hours a day, sometimes for 20 days straight. They are being hit with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Some are even being shot at.
HELMY: (Through translator) Where is the red line? Protesters in the U.S. or in Europe stand with a poster that says down with Obama or I want to work, right? But they do not carry weapons, they don't fire bird shot. They don't attack with Molotov cocktails. They don't throw rocks at the police.
FADEL: The police can only take so much, Helmy says. Already, policemen are protesting - demanding more weapons, higher wages and protective gear to deal with protests against President Mohammed Morsi's Islamist leadership.
HELMY: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: If protests continue like this, says Helmy, the police force may collapse. Our goals are simple, he says, justice and security.
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FADEL: Back in Beni Suef, in the alleged cop killer's neighborhood, residents say the police neither brought justice nor security.
A young man named Ahmed Mohammed unlocks the gate of an apartment building and beckons us to follow.
AHMED MOHAMMED: Broken, the door.
FADEL: They kicked the door in?
MOHAMMED: Yeah. One apartment after another is ransacked. The doors are splintered from being kicked in. On the floor, smashed china, a broken portrait of a young girl, a toilet bowl pulled up from the floor. One's the home of a newly married couple, another a family of four. There are about 30 apartments in all that have been destroyed here. Those who lived here are staying with friends and family, unable to pay for the repairs to make their own homes livable again.
(Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: They are taking revenge, Ahmed says. We don't matter to them. When the police come, they say what the officer's brother said when he was killed: No one will sleep in a bed in this neighborhood when my brother is sleeping in the dust. As we walk out of the building, a woman lunges towards us.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: She is Hassan's aunt, the man accused of killing the policeman. We follow her to the street outside her home. She goes to a table set up on the unpaved road for all to see. She picks up her son's bloody clothes and shows them to us. A young girl, also a relative, shows us her black eye where she says the police hit her. Hassan's father and uncle have been taken by police but Hassan is no longer in Beni Suef, the family says. He's being treated somewhere safe.
MAHMOUD HAROUN: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: Mahmoud Haroun, who runs the emergency room at Beni Suef Hospital, tells us what's happening here is the breakdown of the state.
HAROUN: There is no rules.
FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
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