News | Participation / Civil Rights - North Africa In Egypt, the Police are Soldiers for the Regime

Building on traditions dating back to colonialism, Egyptian police today are more militarized than ever


The notorious Central Security Forces on the streets in the Maspero district of Cairo, 28 October 2011. Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Scholarly debates around “police militarization” may not be new as such, but they have undoubtedly gained increased attention over the past decade, thanks to the revolutions in the Middle East triggered by incidents of police brutality, and to the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in the US and Europe. Yet in few countries has the militarization of the police been as dramatic — and the discussion around it so muted — as in Egypt, particularly since the 2013 coup that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president and installed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist currently based in Berlin. His posts appear regularly on Substack and Twitter.

Drawing on a decades-long process that had already seen the police turn into one of the most effective and repressive domestic armed forces on the Earth, since taking power, Sisi’s regime has worked to streamline repression and ensure that no opposition to his rule can be expressed, let alone in an organized fashion. What was once a tool for colonial powers to maintain control over their colonized subjects has long become a tool of the post-colonial order to maintain that same control, albeit in new institutional form.

Policing’s Colonial Origins

The general narrative around “militarization” is usually misleading. The discussion is mostly centred on visuals, like scenes of heavily armed security personnel in tactical gear and combat fatigues patrolling the streets supported by tanks and helicopters, or snatching citizens in unmarked cars. This perspective implies that the police were previously a noble “civilian” project that was only later corrupted by the military, and now have to be held accountable — as if they ever had been.

Such discourse overlooks the shared origin and ethos between military and police. “Both are state apparatuses sanctioned to exercise violence in the name of security and order”, observe David Correia and Tyler Wall, scholars of modern policing. “There is a reason that oppressed populations often speak of police and military as one and the same.”

Modern police apparatuses were seeded by the experiences of military colonization of the Global South, which ultimately boomeranged back to the metropoles. Both in the imperial centres and the peripheries, the police were moulded into a tool for social control, ensuring that populations remained in line and docile in the face of colonial expropriation and hyper-exploitation. Whether with batons, guns, or smiles, the police have waged counterinsurgency from their inception.

The police and the military have a long history of overlapping personnel. Over the past two centuries, military veterans and demobilized soldiers provided police forces around the world with human and technical resources. More importantly, virtually all founders of modern police institutions either led or were directly involved in military colonial projects and were conscious of that lineage, especially in Britain and the US.

In other countries, police forces more or less evolved as a direct extension of the military and continue to be indistinguishable, like the French National Gendarmerie, Italy’s Carabinieri Reali, Spain’s Guardia Civil, or the Dutch Gendarmerie. “Isomorphism, either through emulation or coercion — the latter referring to militarized police imposed upon a country by colonialism or temporary occupation ... accounts for the spread of most of Europe’s military police”, explains sociologist Julian Go.

The new colonial masters could not have stayed in Egypt for seven decades without a pliant local police force.

Even in Britain, the US, or France, sections of the police that initially worked hard to present themselves as “civilian” forces, whether for ideological purposes or as a matter of practicality, became heavily militarized by the 1960s, largely thanks to the imperial boomerang effect of their colonial wars abroad. This was when units like the Special Patrol Group in Britain, SWAT in the US, and similar formations started mushrooming. In 1960, around 12 percent of the world’s countries had national or federal militarized police units. By 2022, that figure approached 88 percent.

Much like an occupying army, police uniforms have largely copied the military across history, conveying a sense of uniformity, power, and domination to both the public as well as to officers. Research on the US, for example, has shown that “attempts to change the paramilitary style of the police uniform by some departments in the 1970s resulted in a loss of perceived authority and legitimacy”.

Moreover, “police departments wearing dark uniforms were more likely to act aggressively toward citizens than departments with lighter uniforms”. The badges and insignias are also carefully designed to convey similar powerful psychological messages, as if the police were knights on a battlefield.

Attempts at “professionalizing” and “reforming” the police have historically meant enforcing “discipline” and centralization borrowed from the military. Both are hierarchical organizations, with (almost identical) ranks and rigid chains of command. Presenting the police as “servants of the community” or as a “civilian” institution that somehow became “militarized” can only be described as propaganda. The police were a war project from the start.

Cairo’s Militarized Enforcers

The modern Egyptian police force was militarized from the onset. Beginning in the nineteenth century, police depended on conscripts and shared ranks, structure, and personnel with the army. Drawing on the medieval tradition of basaseen (onlookers), the earliest form of spies during the Islamic Caliphate, the Egyptian state developed an infrastructure for surveillance and intelligence gathering that penetrated most layers of urban society. The British took over that system, modernizing it into what became known as the “City Eye” network.

The new colonial masters could not have stayed in Egypt for seven decades without a pliant local police force. It was little surprise, then, that the Ministry of Interior (MOI) became the colonialists’ first target as soon as they began extending their control over the Egyptian state organs and population. They regarded “the reorganization of the gendarmerie, a branch of the police service, as more important than that of the army”. Having invaded the country in 1882 on the heels of a military officers’ rebellion that came to be known as the Urabi Revolt, part of the British rationale for expanding the gendarmerie was to counterbalance the Egyptian army. They initially needed a loyal and dependable parallel force they could use in case the army mutinied.

When the Free Officers staged their coup in the summer of 1952, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a secular state, they engineered new security organs and restructured the police. The MOI’s various departments were heavily staffed and directed by army officers, sometimes to the dismay of veteran police officers.

Egypt witnessed 16 cabinet reshuffles from 18 June 1953, when the monarchy was officially abolished, until the death of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death on 28 September 1970. All interior ministers came from the military except for one, Police Major General Abdel Azim Fahmy (1962–1965), the former head of the General Investigations Department (GID), the forerunner of the State Security Police. This era also witnessed close security cooperation with the Soviet Union, which generally encouraged its allies to adopt a heavy militarized model of policing.

Mutiny under Mubarak

If militarization was embedded in the DNA of modern policing in Egypt, this trajectory only accelerated after the end of Nasser’s reign with the creation of the Central Security Forces (CSF). Police Major General Hassan Talaat, the former director of the GID, wrote in his memoirs that he was inspired by the French National Gendarmerie and the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité during a visit to Paris in May 1967, and sought to create a similar force in Egypt.

The force came into existence in 1969, comprising 189 officers and 11,690 soldiers. The resurgence of militarized police units in Egypt was also part of a growing regional trend, with similar forces emerging in neighbouring countries. The CSF soon gained notoriety for its role in the brutal suppression of the 1971–73 student rebellion against Anwar Sadat.

By the beginning of 1977, its size had swelled to include 577 officers and 35,576 soldiers. Horrified by their failure to suppress a two-day national uprising on 18 and 19 January 1977 triggered by austerity policies, Sadat rushed to expand the CSF to 110,000 conscripts, turning it into “an Interior Ministry-run army”. While State Security Police had already created a Special Operations unit in 1974, by the end of the 1970s, on the eve of Hosni Mubarak’s rise to power, a similar department in the CSF was created for special operations that included counterterrorism, alongside an expansion of the force’s infrastructure, logistics, and militarized armaments.

Mubarak, who always feared a coup, was naturally hesitant to involve the military in the counterinsurgency. Instead, he relied on the MOI to confront Islamist militants.

Mubarak would continue to expand the force and its geographical jurisdiction, as well as elevating its status in the administrative structure of the MOI, by a series of decrees in 1984 and 1985, making the CSF the regime’s first line of defence. Yet the sheer size that made the CSF a seemingly formidable army was also its Achilles’s heel.

To ensure conscripts would obey orders with little resistance, the CSF consciously recruited working-class Egyptians with basic education at best and very limited knowledge of current affairs and politics, usually drawn from the provinces outside the metropolitan cities of Cairo and Alexandria. Moreover, conscripts from the southern provinces usually served in the north, while northern conscripts served in the south, to further decrease their level of awareness of their surroundings.

The conscripts were mistreated by their officers in the camps, paid poorly, ill-fed, and tortured. After rumours began to spread that their conscription was to extend to four instead of three years, conscripts launched a full-scale mutiny on 25 February 1986. The uprising started and was mainly concentrated) in the Giza camps, but soon spread to Cairo, Qalyoubiya, Asyut, Suhag, and Ismailiya. Angry conscripts rioted and attacked their officers, cut the freeway linking Cairo to Alexandria, and stormed, looted, and burned down five-star hotels, nightclubs, and other symbols of wealth in Giza’s al-Haram district. South of Cairo, thousands of conscripts stormed the Tora Prison compound and released 1,273 prisoners.

Much to the horror of the regime, the unemployed, seasonal workers, and students from Giza’s urban slums joined the riots, threatening to escalate the crisis into a social uprising, and the army was called in to suppress the mutineers. In total, 107 people died in the crackdown. Meanwhile, around 21,000 police conscripts were relieved of duty, and more than 1,000 were referred to the High State Security Court for trial.

The MOI promised to improve their pay and working conditions, but by all accounts, the conscripts continue to languish. Following the 2011 revolution, they went on a number of mutinies triggered by ill-treatment.

Waging the War on Terror

By the late 1980s under the tenure of Interior Minister Zaki Badr, the police were turned into a heavily militarized force, gradually transforming into something resembling a quasi-colonial occupation force augmented by death squads.

CSF Special Operations units smashed industrial actions, stormed mosques to prevent Imams suspected of having ties to militants from preaching, detained suspects without trial for extended periods of time, and took families of wanted suspects as hostages (including women, which was long a taboo especially in the conservative Upper Egyptian provinces). Officers tortured with impunity. Militarized police forces raided villages and small towns, imposing collective punishment on their residents in a fashion that very much resembled a foreign occupation.

Badr also encouraged the police to engage in assassinations. “I don’t want a ‘defendant’”, Badr told his men, former Deputy Interior Minister Mohamed Taalab recalled. “A defendant would have to be presented to the prosecutor and might complain about having been tortured and so on. Enough. If he [the terrorist] is attacking you, finish him off. It is a war.” Extrajudicial killings became normalized as a systemic police practice against both Islamist and criminal suspects in the decades to come.

The War on Terror in the 1990s would only give momentum to such practices and set the stage for further militarization of the police. Mubarak, who always feared a coup, was naturally hesitant to involve the military in the counterinsurgency. Instead, he relied on the MOI to confront Islamist militants.

State Security Police officers acquired a notorious reputation for executing suspects. The agency’s Special Operations group was described by Hesham Sabry, a former State Security Police officer, as “death squads”. These squads primarily operated in the 1990s, but continued to be active until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.

Coup-Proofing the Police

The collapse of the MOI following the so-called “Friday of Rage” on 28 January 2011 meant the army was forced to deploy its troops onto the Egyptian streets en masse for prolonged periods of time. While the army was busy patrolling the cities, however, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) oversaw the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the MOI.

An already militarized force, army supervision would only speed up the momentum of militarization under the pretext of fighting “crime” and combatting “terror.” The most obvious signs of this were the new cars, body armour, weaponry, and tanks the police were equipped with under SCAF and Muhammad Morsi. Yet beyond those most obvious markers, it is important to understand how the police have become in effect an army-like occupation force, colonizing local neighbourhoods across the country in a bid to pacify the population.

Since the 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been working to unify the repressive state apparatus, namely the MOI, the military, and the General Intelligence Service. While they still maintain separate administrative structures, they have entered a new era of coordination and information sharing unseen since 1952 due to the existential threat the Egyptian state faced with the 2011 uprisings.

The militarization of Egypt’s police forces can be expected to continue unabated in the years to come.

Such unity has also meant that whatever barriers that existed to inhibit the police’s further militarization in the past were lifted. These barriers were part of the delicate balance crafted since 1952, which intentionally fragmented the security sector and pitted its components against one another, to “coup-proof” the regime.

Since 2019, the police have been allowed to conscript university graduates. For a long time, university graduates had been the preserve of the military, while the police were usually given the “leftovers” — mostly illiterates. Furthermore, the MOI Special Forces (the “death squads”) have participated in the US–Egyptian Bright Star annual exercises since 2021, training side-by-side with the military. These developments reflect the growing overlap between the military and police in terms of their operational mandates.

The militarization of Egypt’s police forces can be expected to continue unabated in the years to come. This is not only due to the overall militarized nature of Sisi’s regime, which impacts all state organs, but also the economic crisis and the austerity measures taken to address it, which in turn require reinforcing the MOI’s capabilities to put down any social unrest.