Cycle of Violence: Abused Egyptian Conscripts Become Abusers

Cairo, Al Qahirah, Egypt -- A woman tries to protect CSF forces from protesters throwing bricks. The photographer claims they said lied in their promise to release her brother. March 5, 2013 (Photo:  Bora S. Kamel  | Flickr)

Cairo, Al Qahirah, Egypt -- A woman tries to protect CSF forces from protesters throwing bricks. The photographer claims they said lied in their promise to release her brother. March 5, 2013 (Photo: Bora S. Kamel | Flickr)

Among protesters’ list of grievances against the Egyptian authorities, abuse by the Central Security Forces (CSF) lies at the top. The CSF serves as the first line of defense when the authorities seek to quell demonstrations quickly, often using excessive, and at times deadly, force to suppress protests. Even though this paramilitary organization acts as an instrument of oppression and abuse against citizens, its conscripts are regularly subjected to severe mistreatment from their commanding officers and superiors.

The CSF, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, was established in 1969 in order to put down demonstrations that followed Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War. Owen L. Sirrs, author of “A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service” describes the CSF as the regime’s “brute force” whereas the State Security Investigations (SSI) acts as the regime’s “ears, eyes, and interrogator.”  The CSF recruits from men who are called up for Egypt’s compulsory military service, many of whom come from the countryside, are poor, and cannot read or write.

Initially, the CSF was composed of 189 officers and 11,690 soldiers but as years progressed, the regime’s reliance on the its services grew. By January 25, 2011 the CSF had more than 300,000 officers, soldiers, and conscripts. They are routinely dispatched or stationed near hot-spots for protests (such as universities, embassies, and government offices) and are afforded a vast array of instruments and supplies which include armored vehicles, sniper rifles, iron bars, electric prods, and other weapons.

The training and service of a CSF conscript has a reputation for being arduous and harsh.  This harsh training paired with a number of factors, including extended service and salary reductions, pushed thousands of conscripts based in Haram to leave their base and riot in the surrounding areas on February 25, 1986. The conscripts burned and looted major tourist hotels and other sites near the Pyramids. Rioting spread to training camps in Shubra, Tora, and Hikestep. After three days the army violently put down the uprising, leaving 103 dead (some human rights organizations argue that this figure was in the thousands). More recently in early 2013, CSF recruits and officers stationed in the Sinai and Suez Canal region protested “inhuman and degrading” working conditions, demanded to be armed while on duty, and openly opposed the Ministry of Interior’s policies.

Many articles have come out in both the Egyptian and international press that illustrate the mistreatment of CSF conscripts. Ahmed, a conscript interviewed by the Egyptian Independent, reported that soldiers are regularly beaten and mistreated by officers. A CSF officer interviewed for the same article argued that “where the Interior Ministry does fail is conscripts’ living standards.” Additionally the BBC reported in 2008 that 10 CSF conscripts were fatally beaten in Alexandria on the orders of their superior officers. Sherif Etman of The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights claims that recruits are “treated very badly by the system” and “regarded as expendable by their commanders.” 

The January 2013 train derailment in Badrasheen was another pivotal event that shed more light on conscript abuse. The conscripts, coming from poor rural villages, were heading to a training facility known as “Mubarak Camp.”  Packed in antiquated train cars, multiple people were crammed into seats only designed for two, some were forced to sit on baggage racks, and some recruits reported getting beaten at the hands of their officers. These unsafe conditions were a disaster waiting to happen, resulting in the deaths of 19 CSF recruits and more than 100 injured.

It is clear that reform is needed in the CSF.  Mohamed Mahfouz, a former police officer and assistant coordinator of group “Officers but Honorable” has suggested that the CSF be disbanded and replaced with rapid response units that deal with organized crime, narcotics, and protests. If the government chooses to go this route, they should look at comparable organizations in other countries.  Mahfouz’s suggested changes should also be followed with a reorientation of law-enforcement priorities from regime preservation to public safety.

One example Egyptians can look to is the Carabinieri in Italy.  The Carabinieri has units responsible for preserving “public order” and “territorial integrity” in urban areas.  It also has a unit, the Raggruppamento Operativo Speciale, which is responsible for dealing with organized crime (among other threats).  Egyptian officials should look the Carabinieri’s structuring and see if it would be feasible to reorganize the CSF based under similar guidelines. 

Beyond restructuring, the CSF also needs to reevaluate its tactics both externally toward protesters and within the confines of the organization itself. Inviting observers and trainers from large police departments in the US or Western Europe to educate CSF officers on effective and non-lethal techniques of crowd control is also essential. For their part, officers should adopt less draconian and more effective training and leadership techniques implemented by their counterparts in other countries.  Finally, they should initiate whistle-blower policies, which have proven effective in similar police forces and military institutions to improve conditions.

Hopefully these reforms can help break the cycle of the abused becoming the abusers and bring about a more humane peacekeeping force in fractured Egypt.