Saturday, June 18, 2011

On police and security

Over the past few months, there has been a lot written about security and safety in Cairo after the revolution, mostly as a result of the disappearance of the police (or their reduced numbers or their decreased effectiveness for a range of complicated reasons). Even the New York Times got into it about a month or two ago, and people feel insecure, mostly with good reason. In these situations, it is hard to distinguish fact from impression (people’s fear of crime, and the state’s response often has very little direct relationship to the actual crime rate), but things have changed here in a way that legitimately make many people feel unsafe. In our well-to-do neighborhood, the concerns are different than those in other, often more vulnerable, areas, but there are extremely legitimate concerns.

Very basically, under Mubarak, there was a corrupt and brutal police force. During the revolution, the police disappeared completely (and in many cases instigated violence and looting and other destabilizing things) and then gradually returned, in fits and starts. During the revolution, neighborhoods took it upon themselves to set up patrols and provide security, essentially civilians providing a necessary service that the state neglected to provide. This was all remarkably well organized, especially considering how rapidly communities were forced to organize (literally over the course of couple hours). Often civilians also took up traffic posts during rush hour.

Today, the police are not present at their previous level, and, for those who are on the streets, the kind of attitude that dominates many police departments is gone. It is no longer clear that they can behave with impunity, or are even the ones in control. For me, all of this came to the forefront in something that happened in New Maadi, near where we live, about two weeks after the end of the revolution, as police were slowly beginning to return to the streets.

In Algiers Square, a microbus driver was stopped by a police officer who was known in that area for harassing drivers. (At this point, I should add that my understanding of what happened is not very authoritative—it is compiled from what I remember reading in several newspapers at the time and online since, and from talking to people, so my understanding of the facts is limited.) One driver stood up to him, in a way that seems like it would not have happened before the revolution, and in an ensuing scuffle the cop shot the driver. Then, the crowd came to the driver’s aid and attacked the cop, beating him up pretty badly. The initial reports were that both were killed, though I don’t think that either one was. The crowd, led by other microbus drivers, burnt a few police vehicles in the area and even ran up on the cop’s home though they did not do anything (which I initially took as evidence of how this cop was familiar to people though I think they may have found his id card). This cop, it was also either known or learned, was the son of a well-known high-ranking officer. Eventually the military came into to rescue the police, who stayed away from all of Maadi for at least a week afterwards as I recall, which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the public school week (or delayed its resumption at least). With the police gone, the youth directed traffic. Lots of ramifications in the short term.

In the long term, this seems to be one incident among many, but it looks like part of a very messy, and occasionally violent, transition from a system where the police act with impunity to a system where they are held accountable. Part of what is described throughout the city are examples of police becoming increasingly passive, unwilling to get involved as they do not know if they will have appropriate support, or if the people will turn against them. So they are much less effective. Yet, despite the chaos of what happened in New Maadi, it does seem to suggest the possibility of an alternate order that does have accountability built into it. And ultimately I think that is what people want and what people deserve—security with accountability. My sense is that the overwhelming majority of Cairenes want an increased effective police presence, without a return to the old regime. Accountability has to involve meaningful legal and other processes. (What about democratic elections of police officers by the communities they serve?) I also think the combination that emerged—citizen security, other private measures, a moderated police force—can achieve a certain kind of effective balance. Something that allows us to imagine a system other than one where all security is handled by the government. I certainly hope so.

In events like this one, a new dynamic is being formulated. The re-formation of security apparatus can result in its reformation, as everyone learns and understands the new roles that are expected of them. While I am not sure my optimism is warranted, I do believe that an effective system of accountable policing is being formulated (inevitably perhaps, through events like Algiers Square) and hopefully will take hold.

No comments: