Egypt’s new ‘societal police:’ Better security or more repression?
Analysed By: Sonia Farid
On Oct. 18, the legislation committee at the Egyptian State Council approved the establishment of the “societal police.” According to the ruling, members of this force will be non-police civilians who will be given police powers, the power of arrest being the most significant. The new law lists shooting, martial arts, and dealing with riots among the skills members will be taught during their 18 months of training.
The societal police will be chosen according to certain criteria to be determined by the Interior Ministry, which this force will answer to. Since its inception, the law has been the subject of heated debate, with proponents considering it a step toward stability, and detractors foreseeing negative impacts on personal and political freedoms.
Fouad Allam, former deputy head of state security, considers the law a practical solution to the years-long security vacuum, and an efficient way to make citizens feel safer, especially in neighborhoods with a limited security presence.
“The presence of societal police, whose members will be regularly patrolling their respective areas, will lead to a remarkable drop in the crime rate, with criminals and terrorists finding it more difficult to melt into the crowds,” he said. Allam downplayed concerns about lack of training: “The new police will get the proper training so they’ll be able to handle all necessary situations while of course respecting citizens.”
Security expert Gamal Abu Zikri said establishing societal police “will offer a large number of job opportunities to Egyptian youths,” lauding the idea as “innovative.”
For journalist Ahmed Marei, societal police will complement regular police, especially when dealing with issues “that cannot be tackled with security measures only.” The law, he adds, will establish a close relationship between the people and security forces, with the latter including regular citizens. This will alleviate long-standing tensions between “society and state institutions.”
Societal police, Marei said, would “take the role of the citizen in the community to a much higher level,” and “raise security awareness among Egyptians in general.” Being part of the general public, they will also be better able to deal with post-crime situations in their areas: “They will, for example, offer support and advice for victims of domestic violence, and will play a major part in their rehabilitation and integration in society.”
The April 6 Youth Movement is vehemently opposed to the law. “The Interior Ministry is in charge of maintaining security and should assume full responsibility for that and solve the problems it has internally instead of resorting to external solutions,” said movement coordinator Amr Ali. The ministry needs to start a restructuring process that eliminates corruption and promotes citizenship principles, he added.
“Policemen need to know that their duty is to protect the people and to apply the law to everyone including their own people,” he said. In response to official statements about the existence of societal police in other countries, Ali said: “Each country has its own circumstances.”
Rights researcher Mina Thabet said establishing societal police is another step toward recruiting citizens for security apparatuses. “The Interior Ministry is making citizens work for it,” he said. “This started with encouraging students to write reports about their colleagues, then turning media outlets into propaganda machines, and now having detectives in every neighborhood and every street.”
The Justice Organization for Development and Human Rights said the ministry has ulterior motives beyond having citizens spy on each other. “The ministry is creating this new force to get away with the crimes it commits especially before international courts,” the organization said, adding that attributing violations to societal police is an ideal exit for regular police.
The Independent Judiciary Front, which considers the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi a military coup, called the new law a “legalization of thuggery,” in reference to the Interior Ministry’s recruitment of thugs to clamp down on activists during the era of President Hosni Mubarak.
“There has always been a shady, undeclared relationship between the ministry and thugs,” the front said. “This law will create legalized militias that crush opposition as instructed by the regime.”
Yousry Hammad, deputy head of the Watan Party, said societal police will be the Egyptian version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, “which works for the regime and its cliques.”
For Mokhtar Ghubashi, head of the Arab Center for Political and Strategic Studies, giving societal police the right of arrest is alarming, especially since “the law doesn’t provide a detailed job description for the new police, or how they’re going to deal with crimes or political unrest.”
Legal expert Mohamed Abdel Fattah said regardless of the pros and cons of the law, a decision of that sort should have been postponed until a parliament is elected. “In fact, the State Council might retract the decision, or at least postpone its implementation, until there’s a parliament,” he said. The law is to be ratified by the president, who currently has legislative power until parliament is elected.
Ahmed Fawzi, secretary general of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says the law not only ignores the necessity of parliamentary approval, but also overlooks civil society organizations. “This decision shouldn’t have been made without establishing societal dialogue.”
Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org