CAIRO: Egypt’s long-despised police force, which deserted the streets during an uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, is being urged to come back to deal with rising crime.
But the question of what to do about the police has put the country’s new military rulers in an awkward position as they struggle to restore confidence in a force accused of torture and repression under Mubarak.
A series of high-profile sackings of senior officers and the dissolution of the feared secret police — the State Security Investigations — have managed to quell some of the anger.
And officials are urging people to be tolerant, calling on them to welcome the new reformed police force back to the streets.
But four months after Mubarak’s fall, the recent death of a driver after an altercation with a policeman in Cairo has seen old hostilities resurface.
The interior ministry said the driver had pulled out a knife and was killed by a crowd trying to protect the policeman. Rights groups said the driver died after being beaten up in a police station.
Mubarak’s police force disappeared from the streets during the mass nationwide protests that overthrew the strongman, and the army was forced to step in to handle security.
With insecurity rife and political and religious clashes erupting around the country, police have made a timid and gradual return with the help of the military police — seen as more in control and commanding more respect.
But the force has faced criticism for not being able to strike the right balance — it is either seen as too passive in the face of crimes, or when it does act, it resorts to Mubarak era methods.
Author and political commentator Alaa Al-Aswany —who wrote the acclaimed novel the “Yacoubian Building” — slammed the situation with an article entitled "Who can save the Egyptian people from the police?"
"The thugs and criminals who were released from prison (during the uprising) are attacking the people and the police just watch as if to say ‘you wanted a revolution against police repression, well forget the police and defend yourselves’," Al-Aswany wrote in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, outlined the challenge of rebuilding after inheriting a police force in need of reform, in an article in the independent daily Al-Shorouk.
"We must not minimize police crimes" but "we must deal with the problem without undermining the rule of law and democratic society," Bahgat wrote.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has also called on Egypt to engage in reforms "to make sure (the interior ministry) does not repeat past abuses by security services under its jurisdiction."
"To prevent torture, government officials should establish civilian oversight of the police force, permit independent monitoring by civil society groups of detention sites and create an internal unit to investigate torture complaints transparently," HRW said.
Minister of Interior Mansour El-Essawy has vowed to work to rebuild confidence in the police.
In a recent radio interview, he pledged to "take firm measures against policemen who do not do their work" and promised hundreds of new cars and better salaries as an incentive to those who do.