2 Feb 2011

Egypt protests continue, but where have the police gone?

Egypt’s police have disappeared from the streets where protesters have amassed in their thousands, and a former Middle East adviser to the EU tells Channel 4 News that the top brass may be in hiding.

The protests continue, but where have the police gone? - Reuters

Human Rights Watch has released a 95-page report in which it alleges that the police force in Egypt have been carrying out torture and human rights abuses under the Hosni Mubarak regime.

The charity suggested that as well as a struggling economy and poor living standards, ending police abuse has been a key motivation behind the massive popular demonstrations.

And Alistair Crooke, director of Conflicts Forum, told Channel 4 News that the mysterious vanishing act by Egyptian police could be because high-ranking officers have gone into hiding, fearing recrimination in the event of Mubarak’s resignation.

“The police say what’s happened is that when they vanished off the streets, it was because their high command had vanished. So most of the (lower ranking officers) decided to go home, take off their uniforms and look after their families. And they say they’ve had no contact or instructions,” he said.

Egypt live blog: the battle for Tahrir Square

Army and police antipathy

The army’s strong presence on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere could also be another reason why police have disappeared; Mr Crooke described the relationship between the two forces as “very bad indeed.”

He said: “The Egyptian police and the riot police have a very poor relationship with the military. They attempted to rebel at one stage and there was a fierce clash with the military. At the beginning of these recent demos the army clashed with the police.”

The army has so far played a strictly passive role in the protests and vowed not to interfere in the people’s calls for Mubarak’s resignation; soldiers were bystanders as pro and anti-Mubarak supporters clashed in Tahrir Square on Wednesday.

‘Undercover officers’

But the death toll of the protests has trebled from 100-300 in about two days, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, and eyewitness reports described gunmen coming out of police cars to try to break into the National Museum in Cairo.

Other gunmen were reportedly carrying machine guns described as “unique to the police force.”

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch told Channel 4 News that it believed police without uniforms, those loyal to Mubarak, had looted the National Museum, Cairo and used violence in protests and riots.

Some were shot and injured by soldiers guarding the museum and upon being hospitalised, were found carrying police identification cards.

Earlier, Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director at Human Rights Watch, said it was “unexplainable” that thousands of prisoners escaped from prisons over the weekend.

“Mubarak’s mantra to his own people was that he was the guarantor of the nation’s stability. It would make sense that he would want to send the message that without him, there is no safety,” he said.

Mr Crooke said that the notion that officers loyal to Mubarak inciting violence and causing trouble was probable, and indicated that if the protesters get their way and force a regime change, they would demand for those high-ranking police officers to be targeted.

“There are plain-clothes thugs that we saw very clearly on television, going in and beating up people and taking away journalists with clubs,” he said.

“Those people will not have an easy time if the revolution succeeds.”