Egypt police struggle to regain pride on still-skimpy salaries

The plainclothes cop stares over a street that stinks of things dying. Black shoes, black pants, green shirt, ball cap covering a bald spot. Ragab Eweid could be a mechanic or a guy with a truckload of cabbage. He tries to blend in but it's hard to know where he fits anymore.

The country is all turned around and he's just as desperate as the burglars and petty thieves he chases days and nights through the warehouses and market stalls on his beat. He often feels adrift out here on the city's ever-expanding outskirts, a civil servant with a wife and a daughter and a diabetic son. How do you pay for that on a salary of $89.66 a month?

No wonder so many cops were on the take, even if everyone despised them for it.

"Before the revolution, I used to tell people I worked in private security," he says. "I rarely admitted to being a cop. People looked at us with such disgust and fear."

Toward the end of Hosni Mubarak's reign, the police mirrored the impurity and failings of the collapsing state. From undercover detectives to patrolmen in their hated white uniforms and dark berets, they held sway, collecting bribes, falsely accusing people, making them disappear, their torture rooms of sodomies and beatings filmed on surreptitious cellphones.

Few lives in Egypt have been upended as dramatically as those of police officers who tumbled from the street-level symbol of a cruel power to confused and bitter men.

"The revolution humiliated the police," Eweid says. "Our superiors want to make us feel hunger again. It's like raising a wild dog. That's why they won't pay us more. They want us to go back into the streets to intimidate and beat and, in a strange way, to regain the pride of the police. They want to put fear back into the people."

That strategy is playing out today in the streets of Cairo as thousands of protesters demanding an end to military rule clash with riot police. The air in Tahrir Square stings with tear gas and echoes with the crack of gunfire and the whoosh of batons; the wounded carried away, draped in the arms of friends. Human rights groups have accused police of excessive force in the deaths of at least 27 protesters since Saturday.

Eweid says he has never tortured a man or taken a payoff. But he's felt the itch. He unfolds medical papers from three hospitals explaining that their beds were full and they couldn't admit his son, Mohammed, who slipped into a diabetic coma last month. Eweid carried his boy home and the next day appeared at one of the hospitals, begging until they admitted Mohammed, allowing him to share a bed with another patient.

It was embarrassing, but a cop gets no special treatment these days. The revolution shattered the people's terror of the state and today hundreds of thousands of patrolmen, captains and detectives are caught in an unsettling new order.

"I had to absorb the people's fury," is how Eweid puts it.

Some of the once untouchable are in jeopardy. Former Interior Minister Habib Adli, who commanded the nation's police, is on trial in the deaths of more than 800 protesters last winter. Hundreds of top police commanders have been removed from their posts in a series of purges.

In Egypt's unfinished revolution, people find themselves squeezed between the military council, a sinister Interior Ministry and a brazen generation of criminals who have traded in knives for Kalashnikovs. Even if many still loathe the police, they increasingly need their protection. But patrolmen, angry over low pay and fearing retribution, have not returned to many neighborhoods in cities and towns across the nation that are plagued by lawlessness, clan feuds and vigilantes.

Yasser Haddad sells vegetables in a warehouse on Eweid's beat. Most wholesalers here are fierce competitors who migrated from southern Egypt. Guns are hidden beneath tunics as crates of onions, eggplants and carrots clatter across the loading docks. There is a boldness among them now that keeps policemen at the edges, even when fights erupt involving hundreds of men.

"The traders here are more powerful and better connected than any cop," says Haddad, who works in a business his grandfather started decades ago. "The police don't come close. They know they are too weak after the revolution.... They don't do anything these days. It's not good. We need law and order in the market."

Another vendor, Hamada Saad, a university graduate forced into the family trade when he couldn't find a teaching job, says, "This police station in this neighborhood is just a formality."

Eweid steps past the scrape of a girl's broom in a dirt alley.

He climbs a few steps to his apartment. His policeman's shirt hangs on the wall between a calendar and a framed page of God's name written 99 ways in Arabic. The Avenger. The Shaper of Beauty. The apartment is an 8-foot-by-12-foot room. The family shares two wooden boxes covered in blankets for beds. A TV sits on a refrigerator near a hutch; the room is separated by a curtain from a kitchen the size of a shower stall. Green shutters keep out the dust and soften the clatter of donkey carts ridden in from the fields along the canals.

"I was young and ambitious when I joined the force 14 years ago," says Eweid, who quit school to help his father, a government clerk, support his family. "I caught thieves and ex-cons, but after a year I noticed the torture and bribes. I saw what went on at the back of the station house. Cops were making a lot of corrupt money and no one wanted to stop."

Police officers never earned much but they enjoyed patronage and the power to extort. The misconduct became so pervasive that when a driver was pulled over for speeding or a busted headlight, the natural inclination was to slip money into the officer's hand. It was the poor taking from the poor, and police who didn't take could barely afford to pay the rent or raise a family.

"My son needs medicines and hospitals. How can I pay for that? I can't even afford a taxi ride home from work if he has an emergency," says Eweid, who can talk for long stretches about the rising inflation that leaves him nearly broke by the end of each month. "If I can't support my son, pay for his care, it's hard for me to give justice to others."

Mohammed runs into the room. He is slight and fast and Eweid's eyes stay on him until he darts with his sister, Doaa, across the threshold and into the alley. Eweid takes off his cap. A brown bump the color of a raisin marks his forehead; it is the sign of devotion, of a man prostrating five times a day to God. His wife, a distant cousin, sits beside him on a box, wearing a beige head scarf and a long tunic trimmed in sliver.

Eweid leaves home early one morning, passing the pyramids in the distance and pressing his way into downtown Cairo. An angry man with a microphone chants from the top of a colonial-era villa in front of the Interior Ministry. Eweid is among hundreds of protesting policemen, some holding signs saying, "No to Injustice and Corruption" and "The Ministry Is Closed for Cleaning."

The policemen are demanding higher pay, job security, bigger pensions and opportunities to become commanding officers, slots that for decades were held for graduates of a police academy that accepted only the rich and politically connected. In recent months, the ministry has raised salaries by 120 pounds a month ($20) and promised reforms. Eweid and others say that is not enough. They are on a work slowdown and have threatened a national strike that would tangle the cities of Cairo and Alexandria.

"State TV makes us all look like criminals and thieves," yells one patrolman, "but we are pawns of our superiors."

Another hollers: "This is a revolution for our dignity. We have no social or financial rights. We have no say in the ministry. Our commanders get better meals than we do during the holy month of Ramadan. Why? We fast the same as them."

The men gather in small packs, conspiracies whirl, rage fumes; their protest is a microcosm of the nation. Cellphones are held up. Videos taken. Someone whispers: There are informers. Be careful. A new voice echoes from a microphone as riot forces with shields and batons wait around the corner in dark trucks. A gun is pulled and the protesting policemen swarm a man, beating him on the head, his swollen face disappearing in a blur of fists. They're sure he's an infiltrator: a paid shill or a Mubarak loyalist out to cause trouble on behalf of remnants of the old regime.

Police against police. Eweid shakes his head.

Eweid flags a minibus to carry him an hour to his station house. The bus smells of after-shave and sweat, of shifts beginning and ending. It races over the ring road; Cairo flies by in a ragged portrait of unfinished buildings, hung-out laundry, autumn dust, crowds and hurry. Eweid gets out near a beggar with cardboard tied to his brow to block the sun.

More than 1 million people live on his beat, many of them migrants from shantytowns, deserts and the Nile Delta.

"This is one of the most dangerous places in the city," he says. "We don't have the force to deal with it.... I've done a lot of special training over the years, in shooting and putting out fires. I wanted to be better, but for so long the department never cared if you were better. I was transferred to this side of the city two years ago after I complained about corruption and erratic duty hours."

He walks and thinks about his son.

"He can't go to school every day. I'll have to pay for tutors."

Ahmed Kalyoubi comes this way every day to a warehouse for vegetables to sell on the street. He remembers how he and other vendors would scatter as cops approached to escape beatings, arrests and paying bribes, how he spent two days in jail once for nothing at all. He's noticed a change in the police.

"They don't chase us anymore," Kalyoubi says.

Eweid walks on.

"The people respect us more today," he says. "I believe that."

He mentions this often, as if saying it somehow wills it so. Policemen in white uniforms guard a bank, sacks are loaded at the warehouse, vendors close up for the day, a boy washes in front of a mosque. Traffic gathers on the ring road.

Eweid walks and listens, staring over broken pavement and lights coming on in apartment buildings beyond a tangle of fence. There are many more hours to go. He wonders if he'll ever have a key to a small house he can call his own in a nice part of town.

Probably not.

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World