Egypt’s new ‘societal police:’ Better security or more repression?

On Oct. 18, the legislation committee at the Egyptian State Council approved the establishment of the “societal police.” According to the ruling, members of this force will be non-police civilians who will be given police powers, the power of arrest being the most significant. The new law lists shooting, martial arts, and dealing with riots among the skills members will be taught during their 18 months of training.

The societal police will be chosen according to certain criteria to be determined by the Interior Ministry, which this force will answer to. Since its inception, the law has been the subject of heated debate, with proponents considering it a step toward stability, and detractors foreseeing negative impacts on personal and political freedoms.

Fouad Allam, former deputy head of state security, considers the law a practical solution to the years-long security vacuum, and an efficient way to make citizens feel safer, especially in neighborhoods with a limited security presence.

“The presence of societal police, whose members will be regularly patrolling their respective areas, will lead to a remarkable drop in the crime rate, with criminals and terrorists finding it more difficult to melt into the crowds,” he said. Allam downplayed concerns about lack of training: “The new police will get the proper training so they’ll be able to handle all necessary situations while of course respecting citizens.”

Security expert Gamal Abu Zikri said establishing societal police “will offer a large number of job opportunities to Egyptian youths,” lauding the idea as “innovative.”

For journalist Ahmed Marei, societal police will complement regular police, especially when dealing with issues “that cannot be tackled with security measures only.” The law, he adds, will establish a close relationship between the people and security forces, with the latter including regular citizens. This will alleviate long-standing tensions between “society and state institutions.”

Societal police, Marei said, would “take the role of the citizen in the community to a much higher level,” and “raise security awareness among Egyptians in general.” Being part of the general public, they will also be better able to deal with post-crime situations in their areas: “They will, for example, offer support and advice for victims of domestic violence, and will play a major part in their rehabilitation and integration in society.”


The April 6 Youth Movement is vehemently opposed to the law. “The Interior Ministry is in charge of maintaining security and should assume full responsibility for that and solve the problems it has internally instead of resorting to external solutions,” said movement coordinator Amr Ali. The ministry needs to start a restructuring process that eliminates corruption and promotes citizenship principles, he added.

“Policemen need to know that their duty is to protect the people and to apply the law to everyone including their own people,” he said. In response to official statements about the existence of societal police in other countries, Ali said: “Each country has its own circumstances.”

Rights researcher Mina Thabet said establishing societal police is another step toward recruiting citizens for security apparatuses. “The Interior Ministry is making citizens work for it,” he said. “This started with encouraging students to write reports about their colleagues, then turning media outlets into propaganda machines, and now having detectives in every neighborhood and every street.”

The Justice Organization for Development and Human Rights said the ministry has ulterior motives beyond having citizens spy on each other. “The ministry is creating this new force to get away with the crimes it commits especially before international courts,” the organization said, adding that attributing violations to societal police is an ideal exit for regular police.

The Independent Judiciary Front, which considers the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi a military coup, called the new law a “legalization of thuggery,” in reference to the Interior Ministry’s recruitment of thugs to clamp down on activists during the era of President Hosni Mubarak.

“There has always been a shady, undeclared relationship between the ministry and thugs,” the front said. “This law will create legalized militias that crush opposition as instructed by the regime.”

Yousry Hammad, deputy head of the Watan Party, said societal police will be the Egyptian version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, “which works for the regime and its cliques.”

For Mokhtar Ghubashi, head of the Arab Center for Political and Strategic Studies, giving societal police the right of arrest is alarming, especially since “the law doesn’t provide a detailed job description for the new police, or how they’re going to deal with crimes or political unrest.”

Legal expert Mohamed Abdel Fattah said regardless of the pros and cons of the law, a decision of that sort should have been postponed until a parliament is elected. “In fact, the State Council might retract the decision, or at least postpone its implementation, until there’s a parliament,” he said. The law is to be ratified by the president, who currently has legislative power until parliament is elected.

Ahmed Fawzi, secretary general of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says the law not only ignores the necessity of parliamentary approval, but also overlooks civil society organizations. “This decision shouldn’t have been made without establishing societal dialogue.”

Stripping Egyptians of citizenship: a new punishment?

Based on available information, Hisham Mohammad Ahmed al-Tayeb is the first Egyptian to be stripped of his citizenship. According to a cabinet decree issued on Oct. 15, the decision was taken because of “his permanent residence outside the country and his links to a foreign body that works on destabilizing national security.”

Law 26 of 1975 gives the state the right to strip Egyptians of their citizenship “whether recently naturalized or of Egyptian parentage … at any time” if they are involved in “actions that threaten the country’s security.”

Journalist Ahmed al-Sawy questions why no information was released about Tayeb, either from the Interior Ministry that requested the penalty or the cabinet that authorized it.

“The published decree contained no details,” wrote Sawy. “What is the crime Tayeb committed to deserve having his nationality stripped? What is the name of the foreign body that works on destabilizing Egypt’s security?”

Sawy said even if this body is Mossad, there has not been one case when such action was taken against people found guilty of spying for Israel, and the same applies to terrorists.

“None of the terrorists convicted before civil or military courts were stripped of their nationality even with their threat reaching its peak in the 80s and 90s,” he wrote.

Sawy cited the examples of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mustafa Hamza, the mastermind of the plot to assassinate former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia.

Despite the limited information available about Tayeb and his alleged crime, the decision has stirred controversy, with many wondering if this punishment will be applied to more Egyptians.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said such a decision cannot be made without a court order. “If a person is acting suspiciously, then a trial should take place,” he said. “But it’s totally unacceptable to strip people of their nationality without giving clear reasons.”

Mohammad Zarea, head of the Arab Penal Reform Organization, agreed that a trial should precede such a decision, which in the case of Tayeb is administrative, not judicial.

Zarea added that stripping people of their citizenship “violates all universal charters” and is “a practice no longer applied anywhere around the world.”

He said this punishment can only be applied automatically if Egyptians obtain a foreign passport without permission from the Interior Ministry, as required by law. “However, there are many Egyptians who did this and were never stripped of their citizenship.”

Gamal Gibril, professor of constitutional law, said the judiciary is not authorized to strip citizenship. “However, the citizen whose nationality was stripped can file a lawsuit against the prime minister to contest the decision,” he said, adding that the state should announce the reasons for such a decision in order not to stir the public.

Ahmed Arafat, head of the Constitutional Reformation Committee at the City Council, said: “A new constitutional declaration has to be issued by the president” to make such a punishment constitutional.

There have been previous calls to strip members of terrorist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, of their citizenship.
“Those who conspire against their countries do not deserve to carry its passport,” said former MP Mohammad Abu Hamed. “If the constitution allows sentencing terrorists to death then surely stripping them of their nationality would not be a problem.”

Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, head of the Socialist Alliance Party and vice chairman of the National Council for Human Rights, said Brotherhood members can be stripped of their citizenship as a last resort if they continue to threaten Egypt’s security.

“The Netherlands has actually announced stripping members of terrorist and militant groups of Dutch nationality and this is a good step on the road to eliminating terrorism,” he said.

The Brotherhood denies having any connection with Tayeb, as claimed by some media outlets.

“Only fascist regimes would strip citizens of their nationality,” said Mohammad Gamal Heshmat, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood Council. “Yet we would expect anything from a regime that came to power through a coup and for this reason every decision it makes is null and void.”

Activist Karim Abdel Radi objected in principle to giving the state the right to strip people of their citizenship.

“The state does not have the right to strip citizens of their nationality because it did not bestow it upon them in the first place,” he said.

“If the state is allowed to make such decisions, then every citizen who belongs to the opposition would risk the same fate.”

Religious parties in Egypt threatened with political ban

The Court of Urgent Matters is expected to issue  a verdict this week in the lawsuit that demands the disbanding of all political parties with a religious platform.

The lawsuit was filed by Tarek Mahmoud, legal advisor of the Popular Front against the Brotherhoodization of Egypt, established in 2012 after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.

Mahmoud based his lawsuit on Article 74 of the 2013 constitution, drafted after the toppling of Brotherhood rule, which says “all citizens have the right to establish political parties as regulated by the law provided that those parties are not formed on the basis of religion, gender or ethnic discrimination, sectarianism, or geographical location.”

The article also says political parties can only be dissolved through a court order.

Mahmoud demands that the Supreme Elections Committee, which will supervise the upcoming parliamentary elections, be instructed to reject the nomination papers of the 11 parties targeted by the lawsuit.

Mahmoud won an earlier lawsuit that banned Brotherhood members from taking part in parliamentary elections on the basis of its designation as a terrorist group.

He later accused other religious parties of pledging allegiance to the Brotherhood. “Most leaders of those parties fled, or are detained for collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood and inciting violence against the state,” he said.

According to the complaint filed with the Court of Urgent Matters, religious parties “have been using politics as a façade for engaging in religious practices in violation of the Egyptian constitution.”

If those parties take part in parliamentary elections and win, the complaint said, Egypt will face “a serious threat” since they will exploit religion to achieve their goals and issue legislation that serves their agendas.

The complaint says the threat is intensified by the fact that many of those parties still consider the June 30 protests that toppled Brotherhood rule a military coup, and so do not recognize the current government.

Mahmoud said due to the unconstitutionality of religious parties, the parliament in which they win seats would be similarly unconstitutional. “The parliament itself would, therefore, be prone to dissolution.”

Judge Mohamed Hamed al-Gamal, former chairman of the State Council, said religious parties should face the same fate as the Brotherhood since they have the same ideological reference.

“Those parties don’t acknowledge borders and aren’t loyal to the nation, but rather to what they claim is the Islamic caliphate,” he said.

Gamal added that there is no need for another court order to disband religious parties since there is already a precedent in the case of the Brotherhood.

“The state, as represented by the president and the cabinet, should make a decision to apply the previous verdict on all similar parties,” he said.

Minister of Islamic Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa said each party in question “uses religion to impose its ideologies – which are usually fanatical – on society, and they go to extremes as they at times accuse others of apostasy and even sanction their bloodshed.”

Gomaa said those organizations use community work as a pretext to take advantage of the religious tendencies of Egyptians in order to gain power.

“That’s why the presence of these parties constitutes a grave threat to the fabric of Egyptian society and jeopardizes its unity,” he said.

Shawki al-Sayed, professor of constitutional law, said the history of Islamist groups has long demonstrated the dangers of mixing religion and politics.

“This goes back to 1948, when then-Interior Minister Abdel Rahman Omar exposed the crimes of the Brotherhood and highlighted the damage inflicted on the political scene as a result of the use of religion in politics,” he said.

Religious basis or reference?

Emad al-Mahdy, former member of the upper house of parliament for the Nour Party, which is included in the lawsuit, distinguishes between a religious party and one that makes religion its reference.

He argues that a religious party “would make religion an integral part of its platform and would, therefore, discriminate on the basis of religion.” This, he adds, is against the constitution and the principles of citizenship.

Making Islamic law the party’s reference, however, is different, he said. “Article 2 of the constitution states that Islamic law is the main source of legislation, therefore making this law a reference for the party is not unconstitutional.”

Only examining the political platform of each party will determine if it is a religious party or one with a religious reference, he added. “This platform can be changed if it proves to have a religious basis.”

“The Nour Party has since its inception been keen on not using religion in politics, and on demonstrating that it only takes Islamic law as its main reference,” Mahdy said.

Emad Gad, analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, refutes the arguments of the Nour Party.

“It was obvious in the performance of party members who won seats in the previous parliament that the party represents the organization and its discourse was always religious,” he wrote.

Gad said the Nour Party’s eventual support for the June 30 protests was not representative of its members’ convictions.

“The dispersal of the sit-ins resulted in the death and detention of more members from Nour than from the Brotherhood,” he said.

“While at the grassroots level, members of the party joined the ranks of the Brotherhood because they shared the same ideologies, the leadership made a political calculation and decided to support the protests that ousted the Brotherhood.”

The Nour Party’s participation in the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood and its subsequent support for current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the elections is seen as contradictory to the constitutional ban on religious parties and which is expected to affect Nour more than any other party. That is why the alliance between Sisi and Nour, which Washington Post correspondent Erin Cunningham calls “tenuous,” seems to have fulfilled its purpose and is not expected to last for long.

According to Cunningham, the alliance between Sisi and Nour was mainly based on “a shared interest in eradicating the Brotherhood as a political force.” The power-sharing process that has followed is expected to be rife with challenges especially that Sisi is not likely to apply the strict version of Islam that Nour demands. For example, “Nour party has in the past proposed banning alcohol and revealing swimsuits on beaches, moves that would thwart government plans to revive Egypt’s tourism industry and promote economic recovery,” wrote Cunningham.

In fact, when asked in a TV interview how the backing of Nour Party would affect his future dealings with the party, Sisi’s reply was quite straightforward. “Don’t forget that the new constitution, the drafting of which Nour Party attended, bans any religious parties,” he said, adding that he doesn’t owe anybody anything.

However, political analyst Wahid Abdel Meguid said the article that bans the establishment of political parties on religious bases is not enough to evaluate the legitimacy of the parties in question.

“We have to admit that the term ‘religious basis’ is a vague one,” he said. “There has to be a law that defines the activities that would categorize a party as religious.”

Abdel Meguid does not see disbanding parties as a solution. “The new law should ban the use of religious slogans and mosques in electoral campaigns,” he said.

He added that the ban should not be confined to religious parties, since the National Democratic Party, which ruled Egypt prior to the Jan. 25 revolution, also used religious discourse for propaganda.