After months of battling with angry young protesters, many in Egypt’s police forces say they have had enough.
Strikes and protests spread around the country Friday by police units frustrated with being blamed for deadly crackdowns on protesters and accusing Islamist President Mohammed Morsi of using them to fight his enemies. In at least 10 of the country’s 29 provinces, some units sealed their stations with chains, some calling for the removal of their boss, the interior minister, appointed by Morsi.
In past days, angry riot police locked their top commander in their camp for hours. Others refused to be deployed in clashes with street protesters in Nile Delta cities. Police disobeyed orders to secure Morsi’s motorcade route from his palace to his home in eastern Cairo, to guard his family home in the Delta, or to guard the headquarters of his Muslim Brotherhood in the capital.
The wave of police discontent adds a new layer to Egypt’s turmoil and sense of breakdown in state institutions. In a sign of the possible repercussions of the disarray, a hardline Islamist group announced its members would take up policing duties in the southern province of Assiut because of strikes by local security forces.
Since late January, cities around the country have been hit by relentless street protests, mainly directed against Morsi and the Brotherhood. Near daily, the demonstrations have turned into clashes with police, resulting in the killing of around 70 protesters. Each death has increased public anger against the security forces.
Some protests have turned into stone-throwing attacks on security agency buildings, and many protesters accuse Morsi of giving a green light to police to use excessive force. Their outrage has been further stoked by reports of torture and abduction of some activists by security agents.
Not all police were joining the strikes. Protesters continued to clash Friday with riot police in Cairo, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kubra, leaving dozens injured.
Striking police accuse the Brotherhood of trying to take over the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, by infusing it with its sympathizers.
“We hit the bottom and we are fed up. The ministry is falling apart and no one is listening,” said Capt. Mohammed Shalabi, who led a group of officers in a sit-in in front of Media City on the outskirts of Cairo.
“Our demands are no to politicization of the ministry, which means no to the Brotherhoodization of the ministry. We are making a pledge to stay away from politics,” he said.
Egypt’s police and internal security forces are widely hated among Egyptians, a legacy of the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, when they were notorious for abuses, torture and crackdowns on political opponents, including the Brotherhood. Within the security agencies, there remain deep resentments against the Brotherhood and resistance to their coming to power with Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president.
For the past two years, riot police have clashed repeatedly with protesters in the country’s stormy transition after Mubarak’s fall. Now the discontented among the police say they do not want to be the tool to put down unrest in the political confrontation between the Islamists and their opponents. They also resent complaints by the public that they are abusive and calls for prosecution of policemen for killings of protesters.
In Cairo, police demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry and demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who was installed by Morsi in December. Morsi removed his predecessor after he balked at cracking down on protesters outside the presidential palace and offices of the Muslim Brotherhood across the country. Striking police say Ibrahim was put in to take a tougher line, accusing him of carrying out a reshuffle in the ministry to bring in sympathizers to Islamists or officials willing to crack down.
“The police have been dragged to a war of attrition. There is no police force in the world that can keep up with these daily street clashes,” said Bahy Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “When their former minister tried to change course, he was fired.” He warned that, “these collapses will expand.”
The police frustration comes against backdrop of a public sphere charged with enmity and deep polarization.
The mainly liberal and secular opposition accuse Morsi of empowering his Brotherhood, trying to monopolize decision-making and seeking to infuse state institutions with Islamist supporters. Morsi’s backers in turn accuse the opposition of using street unrest to overturn Islamists’ repeated election victories, which they say give them the right to set the agenda.
The country’s powerful military — which up to Morsi’s election was transitional rulers who took power after Mubarak’s ouster — has been sending thinly veiled warnings that they would step back to politics.
The situation could get more explosive on Saturday, when a court is to issue verdicts against 52 defendants in the trial over a soccer riot in the city of Port Said last year, in which 74 people were killed, mostly fans of Cairo’s Al-Ahly team.
A first set of verdicts on Jan. 28 — in which 21 mostly Port Said residents were sentenced to death over the riot — sparked a near revolt in the city because its population sees the trial as unjust and politicized. More verdicts against Port Said residents on Saturday could prompt further protests. Fans of Al-Ahly, in turn, have vowed a wave of protests if the new verdicts are too light. Moreover, there are nine police officers among the defendants, and if they are convicted or get heavy sentences, it will likely fuel police anger.
Port Said, on the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal, has been the center of the heaviest violence in the unrest since late January.
During clashes between police and protesters the past week that killed eight people, it also saw dangerous frictions between police and the military. Army troops trying to break up the clashes at one point fired over the heads of police forces, which had been shooting tear gas their direction. Also, an army colonel was shot by live ammunition — by police, according to witnesses.
Ali Sabissi, a leader of Port Said soccer fans called the Ultras Green Eagles, said he helped carry the wounded colonel and blamed police for shooting him. “The police blamed a third party over the firing at the military,” he said. “There is no third party. There is police firing at military.”
On Friday, the police announced they were handing over security control in the city to the military.
Islamist allies of Morsi have spoken of the police strikes as an attempt at a “soft coup” against the president — and some were moving to fill the void, a step that could spread to other parts of the country.
Gamaa Islamiya, a powerful hard-line Islamist group, announced Friday its members would take over policing in the southern province of Assiut because the strikes. Skirmishes broke out between liberal protesters and Gamaa members in front of the governor’s office.
The Gamaa was one of two main militant groups that waged a bloody campaign of violence in southern Egypt aiming to overthrow the state in the 1990s. Before that, after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, the group attacked police stations in Assiut and declared an Islamic state there before their leaders were arrested.
It since forswore violence and entered politics after Mubarak’s fall in 2011, but it maintains a hard-line Islamist ideology.
Assiut’s top security official, Gen. Aboul-Kassem Deif, said the group’s move was illegal. But he seemed to acknowledge he could not stop it.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told The Associated Press.