CAIRO — Thousands of low-ranking police officers on strike across Egypt refused orders to work Thursday and protested what they say is the politicization of the force in favor of the president’s Muslim Brotherhood party.
The strike, in its fourth day, is a rare show of defiance by police officers against their superiors. It threatens to unravel a security force weakened by two years of unrest after the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
For decades, Egypt’s police aggressively targeted the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that were once outlawed. Officers say they are now forced to confront protesters angry with Mubarak’s successor, President Mohammed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They also are angry that they can be tried in military courts and complain that current laws do not protect them when they carry out their duties.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement Thursday that it stands at equal distance from all parties and that the ministry is being objective in its duties.
The ministry, which oversees police in Egypt, relies on low-ranking police officers to guard government buildings, particularly in the face of angry protests in Suez Canal cities and in areas north of Cairo in the Nile Delta region. Hundreds of officers have been wounded in the past six weeks of unrest in those areas; several have been killed.
In Cairo, dozens of police officers blocked the entrance to one of the city’s main police stations and expressed anger at Morsi’s policies. Others held a sit-in outside Morsi’s house in his hometown of Zagazig, northeast of the capital.
South of the capital, in Assiut and Luxor, officers protested what they say is new Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s attempt to use the force to protect the Muslim Brotherhood.
The strike, in its fourth day, is a rare show of defiance by police officers against their superiors.
Security officials in the Interior Ministry said the former interior minister refused orders to direct police against anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo in December. They say that the Muslim Brotherhood also was enraged that police did not protect the group’s offices that month from being torched by Egyptians angry with Morsi’s handling of the drafting of the constitution.
The strike comes just two days before a court is expected to issue verdicts to defendants on trial for a deadly soccer riot that killed 74 people in the Suez city of Port Said. Nine security officials are among the 73 people on trial. Earlier, 21 people in the case were handed death sentences, which can be appealed. Those terms sparked a wave of violent protests in the city that led to 40 deaths in late January and accusations that police used excessive violence to clamp down on rioters.
Anger is also boiling in the Nile Delta province of Dakahliya, where protesters and police officers accuse the new security director there of ordering heavy-handed tactics to suppress anti-Brotherhood protests. Sami al-Meehy was appointed the province’s security chief in recent days, just as anger there mounted against the Brotherhood and a civil disobedience campaign began. Police there are accused of intentionally running over and killing a protester last weekend.
A similar strike last month by thousands of low-ranking police officers led to work stoppages for five days. They were demanding better firepower, wages, and working conditions. The ministry said it agreed to buy 100,000 9mm pistols and improve health care facilities for officers, ending February’s strike.
The police force, once a frightening and powerful underpinning of Mubarak’s rule, has been accused by rights activists of carrying out the same brutal tactics under Morsi.
Egypt’s uprising, which began two years ago on a day meant to commemorate police, was largely rooted in widespread hatred of security forces under Mubarak. More than 100 policemen have been put on trial for the killings of protesters, and all but two were acquitted.
Allegations of torture at the hands of police persist, and more than 70 people have been killed in nationwide protests since late January.
Rights groups allege that police are still operating with impunity.
The latest allegation took place late Wednesday in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla. Hundreds of residents took to the streets to protest the killings of a family.