CAIRO — Egypt's interior minister today declared he would not allow vigilantes or militias to take over police duties, while admitting his police force has been strained by daily protests, clashes and criticism.
Minister Mohammed Ibrahim was speaking a day after protesters rampaged through Cairo, furious over the acquittal of seven of nine police officers in a trial over soccer violence that left 74 people dead last year. Some 21 civilians received death sentences in the highly charged trial.
Protesters torched a police club and the soccer federation headquarters Saturday. Hundreds of rioters battled police along the Nile river boulevard in an area packed with hotels and diplomatic missions. Two people were killed. The clashes along the river continued today.
There were also limited protests in Port Said, the Suez Canal city where the soccer stadium riot erupted in February 2012. The city was the scene of bloody clashes with police in the past week. They stopped this weekend after police evacuated their headquarters and the military took over.
The unrest coincides with an unprecedented wave of strikes by police over demands for better working conditions, as well as anger over alleged attempts by President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to take control of the police force.
Ibrahim acknowledged that his force is under strain, but he insisted he will not allow vigilante groups to take over the duties of the force.
“From the minister to the youngest recruit in the force, we will not accept to have militias in Egypt,” Ibrahim said. “That will be only when we are totally dead, finished.”
His declaration followed a statement by a hard-line Islamist group that its members would take up policing duties in the southern province of Assiut because of strikes by local security forces. Lawmakers have raised the possibility of legalizing private security companies, granting them the right to arrest and detain.
“There are groups of policemen on strike. I understand them. They are protesting the pressure they are under, the attacks from the media,” the minister said. “They work in hard conditions and exert everything they can and are not met with appreciation or thanks.”
Egypt's police and internal security forces are widely hated seen as a legacy of the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, when they were notorious for abuses, torture and crackdowns on political opponents, including the Brotherhood.
Ibrahim said the strike is minor and is not affecting the capabilities of the force. Instead, dragging the police into the political dispute between the opposition and the ruling Islamists is exhausting the force, he said.
“I only ask all (political) forces to leave the police out of the political equation and the conflict that is taking place,” Ibrahim said.
He said he is talking with the striking policemen, who, he said are demanding better armament.
He dismissed charges that the Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is dictating his ministry's policies.
“There is no interference by anyone in the work of the ministry. Rest assured,” he told reporters.
He said “infiltrators” among the protesters target police with live ammunition, birdshot and firebombs, to draw the force into using violence.
In the country's Islamist-led Shura Council, the upper house of the legislature, members criticized the striking police, accusing them of dereliction of duty and allowing chaos to spread. One called for banning strikes by police, while another accused former regime officials of conspiring to undermine Morsi's rule and hold on power.
“We are facing a very tight conspiracy that aims to destroy any legitimacy,” said Hassan Youssef Abdel-Ghaffour of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
Egypt's new constitution granted the Shura council temporary power to legislate following a court order disbanding the more powerful lower house last year.
Since late January, the country has been hit by relentless street protests, mainly directed against Morsi and the Brotherhood. The near-daily demonstrations have turned into clashes with police, and about 80 protesters have been killed since then.
The political turmoil is deepened by a battered economy, as the government struggles with unemployment, poverty and dangerously shrinking foreign currency reserves. Today, drivers of vans used for public transportation around Cairo went on strike because of rising prices of diesel fuel, briefly blocking main roads and causing huge traffic jams.
Today, the U.S. and Egypt signed a $190 million budget support agreement, pledged by U.S. State Secretary John Kerry during his visit last week.
U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson called the grant, the first installment on a planned $450 million in budget support, as “a down payment on Egypt's promising future.”
Egypt has also been negotiating with the International monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan, but the talks have been delayed because of the political turmoil.
Patterson said that as Egypt works with the IMF on a program for economic stability, “we will continue to be there, as friends, to support your efforts with additional assistance,” according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy.