|Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kenneth J. Cooper is pictured here in Khan el-Khalili during his Fulbright Scholarship in 2008. He writes here about his encounters with Egyptian police. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth J. Cooper)|
Along a wide boulevard in Cairo, a dozen Egyptians were standing on the steps to a building, holding placards written in Arabic. They were doctors employed in government hospitals, staging another demonstration at their union’s headquarters to call for an increase in their meager pay.
Down on the sidewalk, confronting the orderly demonstrators was a phalanx of uniformed police in full riot gear. As I walked between the demonstrators and officers, I counted 50 police on the sidewalk or across the street, where several police wagons were parked. The government appeared to think a handful of its own employees who wanted a raise represented a threat to public order or safety. To me, the police presence was more menacing.
That scene during my five months living in Cairo in 2008 illustrates the repressive force of Egyptian police and one reason masses of protesters have taken to the streets in the last week, demanding that their heavy-handed ruler, Hosni Muburak, resign after 30 years in office. During my stay as a Fulbright Scholar at Cairo University, it became clear that the police are not around to “serve and protect” the people, but to protect the government from the people.
Because I was often mistaken for an Egyptian, I had my own brushes with police hostility, especially from the plain clothes officers who seemed to be everywhere.
My wife Lucilda and I were almost detained once. Near the end of the spring semester, we were riding in a taxi, taking one of our final shopping trips before returning to the States. Traffic was unusually heavy, so the driver was making evasive turns onto streets unfamiliar to us. At a stop light, Lucilda was taking photos from the back seat when, suddenly, several men approached and told the driver to pull over and park.
They were plain-clothes police officers. We didn’t understand what they were saying in Arabic, and they didn’t understand English. We could not fathom what the problem could possibly be, but the men kept gesturing for us to come inside a walled compound. The Egyptian police are known to beat suspects, so we were not going inside anywhere unless the officers physically forced us to. Lucilda was so anxious she phoned someone connected to the country’s Binational Fulbright Commission after we showed the police our passports and my business card.
After a while, a ranking officer in a white uniform arrived and spoke to us in English on the sidewalk. The problem? The plain clothes officers thought Lucilda had been taking photos of the compound, where the police academy sits behind high walls. On her digital camera, she showed him frames of an old mosque’s minaret on the other side of the intersection. He was pleasant, and told us we could go.
I repeatedly had to deal with the hostility and disrespect of a plain clothes officer who manned a checkpoint near the US Embassy, a bunker-like complex. The adjoining streets are closed to most vehicles and pedestrians, unless doing business at the embassy or shopping at stores on those streets.
This particular officer had a hard time believing I was not Egyptian and gave me a hard time. “Where are you going?” he would snarl, with evident hostility. He’d ask for my passport, and I’d tell him I didn’t have to carry it and would show him my driver’s license instead. The officer would let me through then, but I went through the same harassing drill with him every time he was on duty.
So I understand why the current protestors despise the police and why the government tried to calm the country by withdrawing them for a time, bringing in the military.
There’s another reason Mubarak’s days in office ought to be numbered, and no quick fix exists.
Egypt’s unwritten social contract has been broken. The deal was supposed to be the government would not grant many freedoms but, in exchange, would take care of people’s basic needs with heavy subsidies. That last part of the bargain is no longer true, because of inflation, high unemployment and a budget burdened with the heavy cost of the military and police.
Many college graduates can’t find jobs, and young couples are not getting married because they can’t afford to buy an apartment. While I was in Egypt, there were limited, sporadic bread riots because the price of that staple had gone up. A popular takeout dish, koshary, a carbohydrate overload of pasta, rice and lentils was becoming unaffordable for the working class.
The doctors did get a raise in 2008, as did other public employees. The government increased their wages to head off a general strike, initiated on Facebook by an idealistic young woman, to protest low wages and high prices. The government also threatened serious consequences for its employees who didn’t come to work on the day of the general strike, which fizzled out.
Soon afterwards, the government — overnight — raised taxes on practically everything, including gasoline and the family minivan, which officials called a luxury. There was no advance notice or public debate about the tax increases, which Mubarak’s party rammed through parliament at night.
That kind of abuse of power can spark revolutions. Three years later, the Egyptian people are showing they’ve finally had enough.