CAIRO (Reuters) - One day at dawn last summer, police stormed into the central Cairo slum of Ramlet Bulaq, broke open the doors of its mud-brick houses, beat women and children, stole money and phones and arrested many working age men.
“They didn’t leave anything,” said Karima Ahmed, a mother of six whose husband was shot in the leg by a police officer a few days before the raid. Police detained their 14-year-old son and broke his teeth at a local station, she said.
A protest over Egypt’s ineffective and heavy-handed police force two years ago started the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and inspired revolts throughout the Arab world.
But reformers say President Mohamed Mursi, and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement that helped propel him to power in June, have not changed the way Egypt’s security forces are governed and legislated. The police may even have got more aggressive, they say.
“I‘m not going to shy away from saying that nothing has happened,” said Karim Ennarah, police reform campaigner at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“It’s getting worse. And that’s evident in the numbers and new patterns of violence we’re seeing, where police essentially act like an armed gang.”
Poor Egyptians, who suffer the brunt of police brutality, have begun to lose hope that the Interior Ministry, the institution in charge of the police, will be reformed.
This puts the Brotherhood in a quandary: a movement long oppressed by the police itself, the Islamist group now stands accused of acquiescence in abuses that provide ammunition to critics challenging Mursi’s legitimacy.
The Interior Ministry says it has reformed and that it is being blamed for a crisis created by politicians.
Incidents like the one in Ramlet Bulaq - which witnesses and activists said started after security forces cracked down on protests over the shooting death of a local man by a police officer - have played out across the country over the last two years, Ennarah said.
Late last year police burned cars and fired random shots in a neighborhood in the southern city of Minya after an officer was killed in a crossfire between feuding families, Ennarah said. A few months earlier, police tortured a man to death inside a station in the Nile Delta town of Mit Ghamr, and then fired on a crowd that came to protest the death, killing another person.
In February, television cameras caught police dragging and beating a half-naked man during protests outside the presidential palace. The footage was broadcast live.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who briefly served as interior minister after helping stage a 1952 coup, used police to monitor, subvert and arrest political opponents and contain protests over the country’s defeat to Israel in a 1967 war.
The ministry’s influence continued to grow under Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, and then under Mubarak, who used it to quash Islamist insurgents in southern Egypt in the 1990s and suppress unrest over rising prices in the years before his fall.
The police say they have around 450,000 in the force, but some activists estimate there are over 1 million on the payroll.
Thousands of largely poor Egyptians fulfill their mandatory military service in the Interior Ministry, often as riot police on the frontlines at demonstrations.
Such conscription fosters what Georgetown University scholars Daniel Brumberg and Hesham Sallam described as the civilian ministry’s “air of militarisation”.
“The secrecy surrounding its activities evokes the traits of a closed military establishment that is removed from society and governed with little transparency and accountability,” they wrote in a United States Institute of Peace report last year.
As the ministry’s sway grew, so did a culture of impunity. Torture became routine in Egyptian prisons, where some historians argue police cruelty radicalised militants who went on to form al Qaeda.
Politically-active Egyptians have long taken police espionage as a given. Their suspicions proved justified when Egyptians broke into police intelligence offices in March 2011 and uncovered documents including phone call transcripts and notes on their daily movements. Even those who shy away from politics associate police with bribery, theft and humiliation.
On the fourth day of the uprising against Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians left Friday prayers and torched their local police stations. Police withdrew from the streets in the afternoon, and the army took over.
Twelve-foot concrete walls block most of the roads to the Interior Ministry from Tahrir Square, the centre of the uprising just a few hundred meters away. Coils of barbed wire and black-uniformed riot police protect others.
Police say they have been exhausted and humiliated by the revolution, which robbed them of the prestige they associated with service and made them the target of violent protests. They say they have changed the way they approach policing.
“Before this, every regime would exploit the police, and the police interfered in political life. It was like this for hundreds, thousands of years before the revolution. But the revolution came and toppled the police state,” the Interior Ministry’s spokesman Hany Abdel Latif said during an interview in its freshly-refurbished media centre.
“We’ve changed, and we’ve changed seriously. Our goal is to secure the citizen, not to secure the regime.”
Producing a printed chart, Abdel Latif said 176 police had been killed and over 7,000 wounded since the 2011 uprising. Egypt’s borders were “inflamed,” he said. Squabbling politicians were stoking unrest. Criminals were emboldened.
“When we look at the atmosphere the police are working in and assess their performance, we find they’re doing well given the extremely harsh and difficult circumstances,” he said.
But activists and diplomats say the ministry has resisted outside pressure and offers to help carry out reforms.
“There must be dozens of embassies, literally, who have offered assistance in riot police training, in equipping and professionalisation,” a senior U.S. diplomat said. “They say, ‘We will get back to you’.”
Addressing reporters this month, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim admitted there were problems within the police, but they would be solved “inside the family.”
Mursi and leaders in his Muslim Brotherhood have, to an extent, adopted the Interior Ministry’s argument since winning presidential elections in June. Police reform was a regular feature of Mursi’s campaign stump speech - he now says the country needs stability before taking major measures.
Essam Haddad, the president’s national security adviser, said reforming the police will take time.
“There are people who are rocking the boat for the time being,” Haddad said. “We have to stabilise the boat.”
Activists have interpreted the shift in the Brotherhood’s rhetoric as evidence it wants to appropriate the ministry rather than reform it - or at least avoid conflict with it as the government pushes through sensitive economic reforms.
Faced with deteriorating state finances and foreign currency reserves after political upheaval scared off tourists and foreign investors, Mursi’s government is negotiating a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that will probably entail unpopular tax hikes and cuts to fuel subsidies.
In this context, Ennarah said the Brotherhood appeared to be deliberately avoiding reforming the police.
“They think they have an ungovernable population and they know that their social and economic platform isn’t going to make the majority of the population happy,” he said. “Their priority is to control, and that’s why they don’t want to disconcert the police.”
Still, fully co-opting the force would be an uphill struggle for the Islamists. Suspicion of the Brotherhood runs deep among the police, who monitored and subverted them for decades.
Officers have been trained to see the Brotherhood as a threat to national security, said Dalia Youssef, who runs a risk management consultancy and a police reform initiative with her husband Ihab, a former police colonel who fought Islamist militants in southern Egypt in the 80s and 90s.
“Their job was to arrest them. Now they have to work under their authority,” she said. “It’s very difficult as a police officer to be able to deal with that.”
Junior officers and conscripts have staged protests in the last few months, emboldened to press demands through collective action after the revolution. Many want the interior minister to resign because they feel he is too close to the Brotherhood.
For people in Ramlet Bulaq, the debate over police reform seems academic. As in thousands of other slums across Egypt, many see brutality, impunity and corruption as inherent.
The police perform few if any of the functions Westerners often associate with such a force, such as neighbourhood watches, criminal investigation and basic law enforcement.
Instead, locals often carry out these tasks through informal committees and vigilante groups. Anwar Ramadan, Karima Ahmed’s husband, said no one in the area went to the police if someone committed a crime. “We get together and we sort it out,” he said. “There’s no trust in the government. None at all.”
This suggests police reform will depend on bigger changes to the way the country works. One of the steepest barriers is Egypt’s wealth divide, which the revolution has barely altered.
Living in squalor beneath the gleaming Nile City Towers - a 34-storey hotel, mall and office complex sandwiched between the slum and the River Nile - many in Ramlet Bulaq still see the rule of law as a remote province of the rich, and legitimised violence as an instrument of the elite to guard and extend its interests.
“Is a police officer going to side with me, who gives him nothing, or is he going to side with someone who pays him?” said Gaber Younis, a 63-year-old retired electricity ministry employee who lives in Ramlet Bulaq.
“This corruption is like a splinter that’s gotten into the bone. It’s a disease that won’t come out.”
Additional reporting by Paul Taylor, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh and Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Anna Willard