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Chaos and police brutality at Egypt’s presidential palace

The chaos around Egypt’s presidential palace yesterday resulted in police beatings and firebombings of the symbol of President Mohamed Morsi’s rule.

Egyptian police abuse was there for all to see last night when television cameras captured police dragging a naked man across the pavement, beating and kicking him as he writhed on the ground, covered in dirt, his pants around his ankles.

The scene took place as police drove protesters from the presidential palace after a group attacked the compound with firebombs. One person was killed in the clashes.

The footage was a powerful reminder, amid the chaos of Egypt‘s current protests and political crisis, that police abuse and brutality, one of the sparks of the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, continues unabated under Morsi, who has not attempted to reform the security forces.

“The police have been untouched and unreformed with no change,” says Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch. That police stripped and beat the man on the street, in public, “shows they feel they have very little to fear… that they don’t need to fear prosecution, and that they don’t need to fear that there will be repercussions for them.” 

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That attitude was one of the reasons Egyptians rose up against Mubarak.

The story took a new twist today when local paper newspaper Al Masry Al Youm reported the man told a prosecutor today that it was protesters who had stripped him of his clothes, because they thought he was with the police. He said “police saved me from the hands of the protesters,” according to the paper, adding that some police also beat him because they thought he was a protester. 

Attempts to verify that statement were unsuccessful. According to local press, he was at a police hospital, and it was unclear whether he was speaking freely or under duress.

Traditionally, the police have threatened citizens with reprisals for reporting state abuses, and Egypt’s prosecutors have rarely gone after cops for attacking citizens. The police murder of Khaled Said, a young businessman in Alexandria, in June 2010 led to an online campaign against state abuses that morphed into the protest movement that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Feb. 2011.

But since the uprising against Mubarak, it has been pretty much business as usual for the Egyptian police. The violence at the presidential palace last night followed a week of protests that left more than 50 people dead and a political deadlock that prompted the head of the armed forces to warn that a failure to resolve the crisis could lead Egypt to the brink of collapse.

President Mohamed Morsi blamed the political opposition for inciting yesterday’s violence, while opposition leaders denied any role and demanded the Interior Minister resign after footage of the police abuse was broadcast on television. Yesterday appears to have have widened the distance between the two sides. Meanwhile, many of the young men who have fought police in Cairoduring the last week say they have no loyalty to opposition politicians, meaning even a political agreement may do little to halt the violence.

Before the attack on the presidential palace, demonstrators had gathered there to protest against Morsi. By evening, a small number of protesters at the gates began to attack with firebombs, throwing Molotov cocktails over the wall into the compound. Police soon responded with water canons, tear gas, and birdshot.

As police drove protesters from the palace, Ahmed Tarik was watching from a nearby building. He saw riot police go into a side street, and then come out dragging a man by his legs. Mai Sirry, who was with him, said police “seemed as if they were enjoying it, as if it was a game.” They later saw police shoot at people who were attempting to leave the coffee shop they were trapped in while the clashes raged.

Local media identified the man as Hamada Saber, and said he was taken to a police hospital. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, announced it regretted the incident and said it would investigate. The president’s adviser for foreign affairs quickly released a statement in English on his Facebook page casting it as an isolated incident amid the police’s response to violence and vandalism.

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Ms. Morayef says an immediate criminal investigation announced by the prosecutor should take place, not an internal ministry investigation. She says the video is a reminder that police abuse has continued while many have had their hands full focusing on lack of accountability for police killings over the past two years. “It’s a reminder that the backdrop to all of this is the fact that police abuse is going on, and we don’t have the energy to talk about the fact that we’re seeing zero new trials for torture.”