Rebuilding Egypt's tarnished police

Media caption, Shaimaa Khalil visits a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo, where new recruits get lessons in combat training and human rights.

The police used to rule the streets in Egypt with a firm and often frightening hand. But now that they have virtually withdrawn from public view, and the streets are becoming increasingly lawless, people are asking where they are and why they have abandoned them? In her series of reports, Egypt's Challenge, the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil examines the role of the police in the country two years after the revolution.

It is early morning assembly at the Police Academy - formerly known as the Mubarak Police Academy - on the outskirts of Cairo.

Hundreds of cadets are lined up neatly, each group with different coloured epaulettes, indicating their year of training.

They are all clean-shaven, very young and trying their best to look as serious as possible.

The day starts with a warm-up run.

"Let me hear your loud shouts," they chant after their instructor. "I have never feared death."

The reputation of the police force in Egypt is one of heavy handedness and oppression.

It was always seen as the government's iron fist, keeping the masses under control.

The 25 January revolution in 2011 started on National Police Day, a clear sign of what many Egyptians think of these men in uniform.

But things are changing now, officers in the police academy tell me. There are even new training methods.

Image caption, As well as physical training, police are now being instructed in human rights, an academy official says

As the young cadets jump through flaming hurdles, run laps, climb up ropes and glide down on harnesses, with the sound of gunfire all around, one of the senior instructors tells me that it is not just legal studies and combat training that these recruits go through - now there is also a focus on human rights.

I hear this phrase "human rights" from many ranking officers all through the day at the academy. It is an interesting new emphasis, given the police's reputation for human rights violations.

It is also a tacit recognition of the need to restore the credibility of an organisation with a notoriously bad reputation.

'Complete collapse'

But despite the Police Academy's best efforts to reform, many Egyptians say they feel abandoned.

After the revolution, which was partly against police brutality, the police force itself was defeated and shamed.

Police officers were no longer feared or respected, so they retreated to their barracks, leaving a huge security vacuum in the country.

"To punish us." That's the answer I get when I ask a taxi driver why he thinks there are no police on the streets.

Many people do not feel safe to go out at night now. Robberies, especially car thefts, have risen dramatically in the last two years. All over Egyptian social media nowadays there is advice on what to do if your car is robbed or hijacked.

But Dr General Ahmed Gad Mansour, the new president of Egypt's Police Academy and assistant to the interior minister, says that the police are now working under extremely difficult circumstances.

"After 25 January, the police was in a state of complete collapse," he tells me.

"There was a collapse of morale. The reality is we have to rebuild the personnel. We also have to physically rebuild the force.

"And we have to do all this in an unstable and very poor economic and political environment."

But, two years after the revolution, Egyptians are still complaining about police brutality.

Ayman Mehanna says he was a bystander in an area where a demonstration was taking place when he was arrested by plain-clothed policemen. They threw him into a van, trampled on him, then took him to a central police station.

"There were 40 to 50 of us crammed into a small room," Mr Mehanna recounts. "They covered our heads with black plastic bags, beat us and insulted us. I don't want to go into details but they also abused me sexually with a stick."

"They tied ropes around our necks and made us pretend to be dogs and called us women's names."

'We protect people'

After he was released, Mr Mehanna filed a court complaint against the police officers who abused him but he says it has got nowhere.

"There's not even been an investigation. I want payback. I want those who did this to me to go to prison. I want to be able to face my family, my friends, my nine-year-old son," he tells me.

Gen Mansour of the Police Academy believes the true picture of police behaviour has been distorted.

"The media exaggerate some incidents," he says.

"I admit there are mistakes but if you keep showing a mistake 24 hours a day for weeks on end and you make programmes and have interviews about it, then that's how you give the impression that it's a huge mistake and that it's systematic. The vast majority of policemen work extremely hard."

Despite its reputation, 21-year-old Khaled Hassan Aboul Ela says he has always dreamed of being in the police force.

He is now in his fourth and final year at the academy and about to start his police job for real. He maintains he is not really concerned about what is said about the police on mainstream or social media.

"Everyone can upload a video on YouTube, everyone can say anything on Facebook or Twitter. It's not the truth, you were not there. You can't judge anyone. That's how I see it."

He smiles when I ask him if he is concerned about being a policeman in the current environment in Egypt.

"Actually, I'm looking forward to it. This is the job I have always wanted. This is like a dream coming true for me," Mr Hassan Aboul Ela responds.

"We are like the heroes of this country. I can proudly say that. We protect people, we catch the bad guys. It's what we do."

Mr Hassan Aboul Ela and many of his colleagues have a huge and difficult task ahead of them - not only to reinstate security in Egypt but also to reform the image of a police force that has been badly tarnished over many years.

Listen to The Documentary: Egypt's Challenge on Tuesday 14 May on the BBC World Service.