The 25 January is traditionally a national holiday in Egypt to commemorate the policemen who lost their lives in 1952, whilst resisting British colonial forces. Demonstrators who went to the streets on 25 January 2011 intentionally chose the date to subvert this national holiday and protest against widespread and systematic brutality by Egypt's police and security forces. One particular case which stirred anger and frustration amongst Egyptians was the murder of a young man, Khalid Sa‘id, at the hands of two police officers, who dragged him from an internet café in Alexandria in June 2010 (six months before the breakout of the 2011 revolution) and beat him to death.
Since the early formations of the police force in nineteenth-century Egypt, it has grown to be a ‘state within the state’. Egyptian citizens are monitored by the police and security apparatus in all walks of life from birth to death. This prevalent surveillance makes the police a widely engaged topic in Egyptian popular culture, particularly cinema and television drama series. Whilst the state-owned film industry attempted to portray a generally positive image of the police as a ‘patriotic’ institution, independent filmmakers, particularly in the three decades preceding the 2011 revolution, criticized the police and security apparatus in a number of films that sought to underscore institutional corruption and systematic brutality, often highlighting the frequent injustices to which ordinary citizens and political detainees were subjected. Renowned filmmakers such as Youssef Chahine, Mohammad Khan and Atef al-Tayyeb produced films which highlighted deep-seated crimes and corruption within the police force.
Representations of police brutality
On the eve of the 2011 revolution, ordinary Egyptians had had enough of police violence, unlawful detention, torture in police stations and daily intimidations. Under the thirty-year rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, the regime oversaw the dramatic expansion of the Ministry of the Interior. As scholar Hazim Kandil asserts, police violence became ‘endemic’ under the Mubarak regime (Kandil, 2014, pp. 196, 199). Specifically, the Central Security Forces (or 'Amn al-Markazi) were used to do the ‘dirty work’ of the State Security Investigations Service, Mabahith Amn El Dawla, the entity within the Ministry of the Interior responsible for monitoring and controlling political opposition groups and the highest national internal security authority in the country. The Ultras football groups taunted the security forces with chants of ‘al-dakhliyya baltagiyya’ (‘the security forces are thugs’).
The 2011 revolution presented the Interior Ministry, responsible for the police, with an unprecedented challenge: on the night of 28 January 2011 it entirely lost control of the country as many police stations were attacked and even set on fire by ordinary citizens. This became known as the ‘Friday of Rage.’ In March 2011, the Ministry dissolved the much-hated Mabahith Amn El Dawla and replaced it with the National Security Agency. However, this was merely a change in name rather than in practices. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in most of the archive items, the police and security apparatus are represented as enemies of the revolution. Films, TV shows and graffiti were frequently used to depict the police and security forces as violent.
The theme of police brutality was most poignantly explored in films made after 2011 such as The Square, Nawwara, and The Trace of the Butterfly. In such films, the police were depicted as a part of the ‘deep state’ of authoritarian violence that successfully survived the Mubarak regime. In narrating police violence and killings of protestors, these filmmakers relied heavily on real footage of street clashes, in the quest to challenge regime narratives that portrayed the protestors as the source of violence. Archival footage of the protests was used in a number of films to indict the police and armed forces. Retribution for the martyrs of the revolution, as Amal Ramsis’ film The Trace of the Butterfly documents, was a major demand of the protesters. This use of real footage in films marks a major rupture from cinematic works representing the police before 2011.
Other representations of the police in film
Yet, there have also been a few accounts that also tried to depict the police in more humane ways, as in the film Clash, or simply following orders, as in the second part of the three-part film The Good, the Bad, and the Politician. Clash is one of the only independent films in this archive that was fairly well received within Egypt, perhaps because of its more sympathetic depiction of police forces. The film was shot in 27 days and is set entirely within the confines of an 8-metre-square police truck. Symbolic of the chaos it is trying to represent, it seeks through this fictional framework to evoke the violent polarization created by the removal of the former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. According to an interview with the film’s director Mohamed Diab, the work seeks to show the possibility of ‘co-existence’ and highlight moments of humanity in the civil conflict witnessed in Egypt after 2013.
In the second part of The Good, the Bad and the Politician, entitled ‘The Bad’, director Ayten Amin interviews three policemen from the Central Security Forces who explain their viewpoints and their roles during the January revolution. They argue that they were merely ‘insignificant numbers’ within the huge force and thus they had no choice but to abide by orders that they received from above. Ultimately, they believe that their job is to protect the country. The director shows the extent to which their ideas are contradictory and the ways that they justify the use of violence against fellow Egyptians.
The Raba‘a massacre, a turning point
After the Raba‘a massacre on 14 August 2013 that saw around 1000 people killed by the police and armed forces, Egyptians faced unprecedented political repression, far worse than during the Mubarak era. This included forced disappearances, prolonged and unjustified periods of ‘temporary’ imprisonment without trial, and the continued persecution of dissenting voices in the media and press (causing many activists, journalists, TV presenters, artists and writers to leave the country). As a result, the re-veneration of the security services and the police became necessary for the consolidation of authoritarian rule.
Deemed to be a process of ‘counter-revolution’ by opponents, the El-Sisi regime sought to ensure that Egyptians would be whole heartedly behind the police force. After 2013, TV dramas, in particular, were used to disseminate a positive image of the security apparatus as a whole. Many drama series (mosalsalat) shown during the fasting month of Ramadan praised the police force and their unrelenting efforts in keeping public order and citizens’ safety as their top priority. A notable example is the popular drama series ‘Handcuffs’. This was the first television series to be produced under the patronage of the Interior Ministry.
- To cite: Mostafa, Dalia S. and Dina Rezk (2020) Representations of the Police and Security Apparatus in Popular Culture, in Politics, Popular Culture and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, https://egyptrevolution2011.ac.uk/exhibits/show/police-and-security/police-and-security
El-Mahdy, Rabab and Marfleet, Philip (eds.) (2009), Egypt: The Moment of Change (London: Zed Books).
Fahmy, Khalid (1999), ‘The Police and the People in Nineteenth-Century Egypt’. Die Welt des Islams, 39(3), pp. 340–377.
Kandil, Hazim (2014), Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (London: Verso).
Mostafa, Dalia S. (2018), ‘Shifting Narratives of the Police in Egyptian Cinema before and after the January 2011 Revolution’. Contemporary Levant, 3(2) (2018), pp. 137-152.
al-Aswany, Mohamed (2018) ‘A season of morality and police uniforms’ Mada Masr, 24 June 2018, https://madamasr.com/en/2018/06/24/feature/culture/a-season-of-morality-and-police-uniforms/
al-Aswany, Mohamed (2018) ‘An industry under threat: Ramadan 2019, brought to you by Egyptian Media Group’ Mada Masr, 23 December 2018, https://madamasr.com/en/2018/12/23/feature/culture/an-industry-under-threat-ramadan-2019-brought-to-you-by-egyptian-media-group/
Items from the archive