Egyptian revolutionaries and pro-democracy activists have stressed the need to purge the upper ranks of the Ministry of Interior and its State Security wing and reform them with a non-corrupt outsider leadership. But I haven’t noticed much discussion of a less tangible factor in the (dis)continuation of the security state: the professional education of ALL police. The institution’s cult of security, which places tactical force and paranoid data-collection before either strategic investigation or civil rights in its disastrous relationship with the public, is due for a deeper critique.
This subject has been on my mind since I turned up an old Police College textbook at Dar el-Kutub last month, “Military Training for The Police” (1944) by Ali Hilmi Bey. As so many other departments of the Egyptian government, the police force was modeled on the French Gendarmerie, a paramilitary police. In the monarchic period, there were no separate Central Security riot police or State Security snoops. Police forces in urban areas handled all these tasks and answered directly to the Interior Ministry. Rural ghuffars (guards) were subordinated to local authorities (but who were all ultimately also in the Interior hierarchy). It was not uncommon for career soldiers (like Ali Bey himself) to finish their tenure in the police. All of these factors may explain why the police tend to view the public as their enemy rather than citizens requiring service and protection. But precedents set during World War II and nationalist ideology in a context of colonial empire also contributed to this evolution.
The Ministry of Interior, which had been one of the last holdouts against British control when it fell in 1894, was nationalized in 1936 as part of a treaty in which Egypt promised its cooperation in (the coming) war. Although a few British commanders of the Cairo Police hung on to their jobs until 1946 by special arrangement, the force had been recruiting more and more Egyptian recruits even since “independence” in 1923. Increasing the Egyptian officer corps demanded an Arabic-language curriculum.
When the first edition of Ali Bey’s book came out in 1927 it mainly contained instructions and diagrams like the following:
That’s right: how to salute to the front. Also included: how to salute to the side; how to stand in a row; how to march in a row… how to march in THREE rows. Certainly drills had their importance for day-to-day police operations, but the book was not overly concerned with security in an abstract sense.
The second printing in 1944 was a big departure. Not only was it three times as long, it covered training for much more explosive situations:
Well, that explains the giant wall around the Interior Ministry in downtown Cairo. In all seriousness, 5,000 Egyptians died and thousands more were wounded in Italian and German air raids on Alexandria from Libya and Greece between 1940 and 1942, and Ali Bey committed an entire chapter to the police’s role in civil defense. However, the centerpiece of the expanded section provides more general instructions of the role of police during war than just for defusing bombs or filling sandbags. I thought it would be worth giving a rough translation of salient points:
“Field Operations that Require Police Action –”
“The importance of the police in time of war to facilitate war operations and maintain the material power of the country.”
“The police are not called upon to fight the enemies of the nation in the field of battle, but rather to protect the infrastructure of everyday life and vital public institutions and to preserve the material foundation of the country through facilitating army operations in time of war. This infrastructure is virtually the ‘spine’ of the fighting army, since the means of war have developed to the point that the enemy first tries to weaken the material spirit of a country before the attack by using any possible means, like air rads, misleading and discouraging rumors and inciting fifth column activities. So victory is secured on the home front before the battle front, and this confirms the importance of the police forces in fighting moral and material terrorism that the enemy promotes and in preventing revolutions and conflicts especially during times of war when social stress is heightened.”
“Types of enemy actions:
1. Direct attacks by enemy agents or paratroopers on civilian targets.
2. Air attacks that drop bombs or propaganda.
3. Attacks by armed or unarmed criminals (lit. أشقياء, ashqiyaʾ or “wretches”) for loot and plunder, especially during times of chaos like air raids.
4. Statements or publications that doubt the strength of the armed forces or leadership of the government.
5. Revolutions and strife mounted by elements or classes at the incitement of the enemy with the pretext of a demand for independence or regime change.”
Police tactics and the legal regime in which the police act are not independent factors. Egypt did not declare war on the Axis, but rather a state of siege defining legally that the state and nation are under constant threat whether that threat is always manifest or not. The state of siege was important tool for enforcing Egypt’s contributions to the Allied cause: an ’empty’ space for battle in the western desert (El-Alamein was one of two turning points in the war), a docile workforce to build tanks, produce ammunition and perform menial labor for a half-million garrisoned troops, and a granary to guarantee the nutrition and economic stability of the entire Middle East. It was the police who enforced military orders keeping civilians out of expansive military zones, intimidating striking workers and forcing peasants to turn over their crops to the state.
Fulfilling these etatist/authoritarian treaty obligations to Britain ironically became a defining part of state sovereignty to the Wafd party, which governed for half the war. Even though Nasser and the Free Officers ended the Wafd’s agrarian oligarchy and British neocolonialism, the subsequent experience of on-and-off war with Israel and unstable Cold-War alliances helped to perpetuate a deep insecurity in Egyptian nationalism. This cemented those state security practices, enshrined in the transformation of the state of siege to the STILL-standing Emergency Law.
But the state isn’t just in bureaucracy, law and revenue: it is also in the life-long inertia of thought and behavior on the part of both state employees and private citizens. The police officers who learned from this textbook taught the generation of senior commanders in the Mubarak regime. And their methods were finally demonstrated as not only inhumane but fundamentally dysfunctional this January. But will just one revolution be enough to change 70 years and more of habit?
I’ll finish here with another citation from the 1944 second printing on how to engage crowds of outlaw “wretches” when they are looting or fomenting revolution.
“1. Preparing the line for attack.
The police should not enter the area in one large force, but rather disperse quickly in smaller units to all streets surrounding the area to prevent the outlaws from gathering. No more than two scouts from each group should advance beond the starting point to get information about the fortified houses and barricades.”
“2. The Attack.
The attacking squad should stay in front of a squad that is giving covering fire that compels the first squad forward to its acts of heroism. The squads should proceed alternately between defense and advancing. It is extremely important that the rank and file understand that any entrances or exits to the place (under attack) are sites of danger and the best attack is to seize these areas with the greatest speed. A good leader should command his troops to investigate all enclosed areas to clear them out and prevent surprises.
The best weapon in these situations is the baton or pistols; rifles are not appropriate.”
In those areas where the investigation and purging of the outlaws is complete, a force of policemen should be left behind to defend it and maintain security in it lest it be occupied again…
The sudden arrival of the outlaws should never be far from one’s mind, and it is necessary to choose a safe zone where to maintain the base of command, which commands the broadest view of the locality. This is the best way to hold any quarter or village from sudden re-attack.”
Today police cadets train at a hypermodern campus at the intersection of the Ring Road and the Cairo-Suez road, which until February had an enormous “Hollywood” style white-letter sign easily visible by anyone flying into the nearby airport that read: MUBARAK POLICE ACADEMY.
I haven’t driven by there since the revolution to check, but a quick trip to the academy’s website (http://www.moiegypt.gov.eg/english/departments%20sites/mubarakacademy/) will reveal that, while the webmaster hasn’t bothered yet to change the URL, the institution’s official name is now “Police Academy”. I will forgo any 1980s movie jokes for my wife Valentine’s observation that we should all be glad they didn’t rename it “Martyrs” Police Academy.
Skimming the curriculum, it appears the fundamentals have not changed (sic punctuation):
“Basic subjects distributed over the four years of study:
- Military disciplinary training “Infantry “.
- General fitness “Physical Fitness “
- Police operations “Field Skills, Riot Dispersal, Vital Installation Protection and Practical Police Combat Skills”.