Egyptian Police: Localized Violence in Global Perspective


The discovery of the body of the Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni on a roadside on the outskirts of Cairo in February 2016 brought the question of police violence in Egypt to international attention. The wounds that covered his corpse — including cigarette burns, broken bones, smashed teeth and shapes carved into his hand, back and forehead — have been widely read as examples of the bloody language that is routinely inscribed on the bodies of Egyptians by the police who are ostensibly employed to protect them. Egyptian and Italian prosecutors have since confirmed that Regeni had been investigated by the police in the days running up to his disappearance. Reuters reported anonymous Egyptian “security sources” as saying that Regeni’s status as an outsider gathering information on political developments in Egypt would have made him a natural object of suspicion. This assessment of the circumstances surrounding Regeni’s death ties it to claims on the part of the Egyptian police to be engaged in defending the country from foreign plots, thereby situating the violence enacted upon him primarily within the space of the sovereign nation state.

On the face of it, many other instances of police violence witnessed in Egypt in recent months have played out within the terms of even more circumscribed spaces. The victims range from Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, a socialist activist killed by shotgun pellets fired at close range during a march to Tahrir in January 2015; to a taxi driver shot dead during a dispute with a policeman over a fare in Darb al-Ahmar in February of this year; to a tea seller apparently gunned down in the course of an argument with a policeman over prices in al-Rehab in April. It is clear that all of these forms of violence are bound up with localized dynamics: efforts on the part of the regime to purge urban spaces of those who would challenge the particular forms of order that it would like to see prevail there; street-level structures of political authority which allow individual policemen to act with the expectation of impunity; and class relations which shunt substantial parts of the country’s population into a vulnerable position at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy.

Yet, to fully understand the role that the police play in Egyptian society and the forms of violence that they exercise, it is also necessary to take into account shifts in social, economic and political order which have unfolded in recent decades on a wider scale. Doing so serves to situate police actions in Egypt in relation to dynamics which extend far beyond city centers, urban quarters, and even Egypt’s own borders.

Funambulist Egypt 1
Protesters against the police on Qasr al-Ayni Street in Cairo (December 17, 2011) / Photograph by Alisdare Hickson

The Egyptian police — which broadly defined encompasses a vast apparatus including regular cops, the conscripts of the paramilitary Central Security Forces, homeland security, border guards, and an array of intelligence agencies — have long celebrated their role in safeguarding the national sphere from foreign plots. The annual Police Day on January 25, marks the occasion of the 1952 Battle of Ismailia, in which Egyptian police engaged in combat with British imperial forces in defiance of orders to surrender their stations in the Suez Canal town. In the decades after the British evacuated their last bases in the country in 1956, the police would go on to frame domestic leftist activists and Islamist militants as lackeys of foreign powers, thereby situating police actions against them within a reinvented narrative of anti-imperialism. This discourse threatened to splinter in 2011, when Police Day was pointedly selected as the date for the beginning of that year’s uprising and large sections of the nation identified the police as a key object of their ire and proceeded to beat them off the streets. In doing so, they were united in part by disgust at widely-circulated images of the brutalized body of Khaled Said, killed at the hands of officers in Alexandria in June 2010. In subsequent years though, and especially since Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi secured the presidency in June 2014, the Egyptian police have reasserted themselves and resuscitated the same narrative, not least in connection with their systematic targeting of human rights workers and NGOs accused of accepting foreign funding.

However, the complex history of policing in Egypt belies this official, nationalist rhetoric. The modern Egyptian police institution first began to take shape under the developmentalist regime of Muhammad Ali followed by his son Ismail’s in the 19th century, with the involvement of Italian officers hired to oversee reforms. It was then the British administration, following the occupation of Egypt in 1882, which consolidated a new countrywide apparatus out of the network of personnel which had existed up until that time. They did so with a view to bolstering their occupation, drafting in British officers and establishing a police training college under British direction. The historian Abd al-Wahhab Bakr, writing in Arabic on the basis of British archive sources, has documented the continuation of close relations between elements of the police and British representatives in Egypt well after the point of formal independence in 1922, including the sharing of information on communist activists, Muslim Brothers and government figures. He concludes that the concept of “security” to which the police subscribed right up to the eve of the Free Officers coup in 1952 essentially equated to “the security of the occupation powers, the palace, and those with interests linked to them.” In these senses, the Egyptian police institution was from an early stage in its history stitched into the fabric of an imperial order, which extended across much of the face of the globe.

In the decades that followed the 1952 coup, the trajectory of the Egyptian police remained bound up with transformations in the international political order. Under Gamal Abd al-Nasser, at the height of the Cold War, Egyptian officers were sent to the Soviet Union for training. Subsequently, as Cairo shifted its loyalties further west under Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, police training came to be increasingly provided by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Well into the new millennium, the U.S. was hiring private firms to offer courses in themes such as public relations, community policing, and interview and interrogation skills.

Funambulist Egypt 2
“The police versus the protesters.” Graffiti in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo / Photograph by Lilian Wagdy (December 2011)

In addition to altering the place of the Egyptian police in relation to such cross-border training circuits, the geopolitical realignment under Sadat also set in motion broader processes which would contribute to repositioning them within Egyptian society. From the 1970s onwards, as Sadat cozied up to the capitalist powers, economic restructuring put Egypt on a path towards the liberalization of trade and investment, and the eventual consolidation of a neoliberal economy. According to the political sociologist Salwa Ismail, this process in turn contributed to Egypt’s maturation into a fully-fledged security state (Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters, 2006). As the country’s erstwhile welfarist social contract crumbled, and as the reform process gave rise to newly autonomous spheres of social life like the informal labor market and unregulated housing, coercive policing came to the fore as a means of keeping the population in line. With this, the urban popular quarters which are home to so many became spaces of pervasive surveillance, marked by a regular rhythm of stop-and-search, and the trumping up of charges as a means of disciplining youth and gaining leverage for recruiting informants.

Basma Abd al-Aziz, a psychiatrist who has worked with the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, has written of a related shift in dynamics of police violence and the spaces in which it played out from the 1980s onwards (Ighra’ al-Sulta al-Mutlaqa, 2011). She suggests that with the economic transformations of this period, public grievances over developments like the growing gap between rich and poor, the rising price of basic foodstuffs, and lack of basic protection like health insurance for the least well off went hand-in-hand with a new perception of the population in its entirety as a potential threat to the regime. She juxtaposes this with a deterioration of relations between the police and the public and a dispersal of violence, which expanded outwards from the longstanding practice of torturing opposition activists in police cells to a new normal of seemingly random acts of brutality in streets and homes.

Published writings by police officers in books and journals over the past several decades also suggest that integration into the global capitalist order directly affected how the police viewed and justified their role in society. Commentary by officers throughout this period suggests a concern to underline that economic liberalization necessitated a firm enforcement of security strictures. They emphasized that opening up to international markets brought with it a new need for Egypt to attract foreign capital and that this called for the police to go above and beyond in ensuring “stability” of the kind demanded by foreign investors. In the words of police officer Muhammad Rahawan, writing around the turn of the millennium, “the economic competition between states has come to include competition between their security apparatuses.” Such language tended to be used in connection with an emphasis on themes like securing transportation infrastructure and combating fraud. However, in a context where the police have long been routinely used to repress labor activism and crush strikes, it is not difficult to connect a different set of dots.

Funambulist Egypt 3
Graffiti for the protesters injured by the Egyptian police in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo. / Photograph by Lilian Wagdy (December 2011)

In the years since 2011, many of these dynamics have gained a new pace and intensity. Maha Abdelrahman has traced how a police apparatus which had already secured a central position as upholder of the neoliberal order was able to further consolidate its standing in public life in the post-uprising period, as a political leadership lacking in other bases of legitimacy turned increasingly to a shallow discourse of national security to bolster its rule (“Policing Neoliberalism in Egypt,” 2016). This went hand-in-hand with the thawing of old rivalries between the military and internal security agencies, as well as a major boost in resources channeled towards the Interior Ministry.

Meanwhile, the activities of the Egyptian policing apparatus have in recent years also been drawn into a relationship with global markets in an even more direct sense. Using leaked documents, London-based NGO Privacy International has traced how an obscure Egyptian security entity referred to as the Technical Research Department, presumed to be a unit within General Intelligence, dealt with European firms before and after the 2011 uprising to purchase mass surveillance technologies and to pursue the acquisition of malware for spying on individual targets. Privacy International has also reported on Egyptian state documents leaked in 2014 revealing plans to establish a system to allow systematic searching of content on platforms including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube with a view to identifying “everything that is a violation of the law, [and] the spreading of destructive ideas.”

Again, Reuters reported that several foreign companies were in the bidding to provide the required “security solutions,” which Egyptian officials were apparently keen to ensure had been “tested in European or American countries.” The elaboration of Egypt’s domestic security infrastructure — with all that this means for Egyptian citizens, whether in their political activism or in their everyday lives — has thus come to be bound up with the profit-making activities of private actors far beyond the Middle East.

All of this is to suggest that, if one hopes to understand the many different kinds of violence exercised by the police on a routine basis in Egypt, one must look beyond the immediate spaces in which that violence occurs. Without discounting localized dynamics of regime maneuvering, class relations, and everyday political hierarchies, it is also necessary to consider Egyptian police actions as located within a far broader transnational space. The disciplining of bodies within a global division of labor, cross-border flows of security personnel, expertise and technologies, and the erosion of the social contract and repression of grievances driven by neoliberal restructuring, all situate the Egyptian police within the terms of far-reaching configurations of social, economic and political order.

For safety reasons, this article is published anonymously in agreement with its author.