CAIRO – With near impunity and the backing of the Islamist president, Egyptian police have been accused of firing wildly at protesters, beating them and lashing out with deadly force in clashes across much of the country the past week, regaining their Hosni Mubarak-era notoriety as a tool of repression.
In the process, nearly 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured, and the security forces have re-emerged as a significant political player after spending the two years since Mubarak's ouster on the sidelines, sulking or unwilling to fully take back the streets.
Moreover, President Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood was long oppressed by the security forces, has made it clear that he needs the police on his side to protect his still shaky grip on power. On state TV Sunday, he thanked the police for their response to the protests, a day after dozens had been killed in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
Riot police continued on Thursday to battle rock-throwing protesters in an area near Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the seventh day of clashes in the wave of political violence that has engulfed Egypt — though battles elsewhere have eased somewhat.
The police's furious response to the protests and riots — some of which targeted their stations and left two police officers dead — uncovered the depth of discontent in the once all-powerful security forces. Since Mubarak's fall, they have been demoralized and in disarray. But now they are signaling that they want back the status they held under his rule, when no one questioned their use of force and they had unlimited powers of arrest.
"The police saw the protests as an opportunity to show they are strong, capable and ready to crush them," said rights lawyer Negad Borai. "They knew they had political cover, to which they responded by using a disproportionate amount of force."
The Interior Ministry, in charge of police, says its forces showed restraint and pointed out that dozens of police were injured in the clashes, along with the two dead. It has also staunchly denied that police fired birdshot at protesters in the street fighting. At least three protesters are known to have been killed by birdshot, and many others have shown wounds from the metal pellets riddling their torsos and heads.
Five different interior ministers have headed the forces in the past two years, and none has been able to exercise full control over the unsettled ranks.
Distraught police officers heckled the latest interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, when he showed up for the funeral of the two officers killed last weekend. They accused him of being there only for the news cameras, and raised such a storm that the minister, surrounded by his bodyguards, left the mosque and the funeral went ahead without him. Later, Ibrahim said in a statement that he understood the officers were under stress.
Some in the force are seething over what they see as the inadequate firepower given to the police in the face of attackers who have frequently targeted police stations and prisons over the past two years.
Egyptian media reported that riot police conscripts mutinied at a large Cairo base to protest what they see as crippling constraints on their use of firearms against protesters. The Interior Ministry denied the reports, but Prime Minister Hesham Kandil visited the base on Wednesday, a highly unusual move that suggested there had been troubles.
There is also resistance to serving under a president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose members police targeted for years under Mubarak.
Many in the police, for example, are convinced that Morsi and his Brotherhood are unfit to rule and not worth working for, according to security officials familiar with the mood on the force, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
The sacking last month of Ibrahim's predecessor, Ahmed Gamal-Eddin, did not go down well in the force.
Gamal-Eddin, who was popular among officers, is thought to have lost his job over his refusal to use force against opposition supporters who made their way to the outer walls of the presidential palace last month and for failing to prevent attacks on offices of the Brotherhood and its political party around the country.
Morsi, who came to office seven months ago as Egypt's first freely elected president, has been trying to woo the police, praising them for the few steps that have been taken to restore law and order.
Last week, the black-clad riot police appeared for the first time in new, protective gear that reduces their vulnerability to rocks and firebombs and conceal much of their faces. In a first, the police also received three patrol helicopters.
Morsi's television address on Sunday also gave the police key political cover. He thanked the security forces for their handling of the protests and described the protesters as thugs or die-hard Mubarak loyalists trying to bring down the state, effectively justifying any police action.
Furthermore, he declared a 30-day state of emergency in Port Said and two other Suez Canal cities, giving police there far reaching powers to arrest and detain suspects, a move that harked back to Mubarak's rule, when Egypt was under emergency laws for most of his 29 years in power.
The speech came a day after nearly 40 people were killed in Port Said, where protesters and witnesses spoke of random shootings by police marksmen stationed on rooftops or from moving armored cars, lashing out after the two policemen were killed by armed men trying to storm a prison.
In Cairo, footage aired on Egyptian TV stations showed protesters, some as young as 15, lying on the ground while getting beaten up by bands of policemen.
"Their actions are brutal and their officers are taunting us with obscene hand signs," complained Hamadah Hasem, a 26-year-old protester in Cairo.
Hebya Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, noted that Morsi made no mention of claims of excessive force by police or pledge investigations of alleged abuses.
"In a sense, Morsi is making decisions that are similar to those of his predecessors," she said about the president's apparent abandonment of plans to reform the police and instead focus on winning them over.
"It is short sighted," she said.
Egypt's police are a militarized force believed to number around 500,000 men. They played a key role in maintaining Mubarak's grip on power, systematically detaining and torturing Islamists and silencing dissidents. Hated and blamed for massive human rights abuses, the brutality of the police was among the key reasons behind the 2011 revolution.
The police melted away four days into the 18-day revolution following deadly clashes with protesters. They have since returned to duty but are yet to fully take back the streets, even as crime and disorder have increased dramatically.
Some policemen say they will not fully carry out their duties as a retribution for their humiliating defeat in 2011. Others maintain they are ready to go back to work in earnest if given guarantees that they won't be prosecuted for their actions in enforcing the law.
The anti-Mubarak revolution raised calls for widespread reform of the police aimed at purging abusive officers, ending a culture that condoned torture, bribe-taking and abuses, and improving the professional capabilities of the force. No process for doing any of that has begun.
Revolutionaries and rights activists blame the police for the death of nearly 900 protesters during the revolution and dozens more in unrest that followed Mubarak's overthrow. The police, on their part, say they shot to kill when their lives were in danger as bands of armed protesters stormed police stations across much of the country.
More than a 100 policemen have been put on trials on charges of killing protesters, but almost all were acquitted. The latest example came Thursday when a court in Sharqiyah acquitted the Nile Delta province's former police chief and seven of his top aides on charges of killing protesters in 2011.
Mubarak and his security chief, former interior minister Habib el-Adly, were convicted of failing to prevent the killings and sentenced in June to life in prison. Both successfully appealed their sentences and will now face a new trial.