Rules of Engagement: Egypt’s Military, Police need Change, Reform

Iniatlly published in bikyamasr

Rules of Engagement (2000) a military courtroom drama that featured Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson; it was not particularly a groundbreaking movie. Nonetheless, the director William Freidken explored uncharted water, namely, the role of the military in the post-War scenario, when soldiers are ordered to serve as policemen, deal with hostile civilians and work in the actual chaos of conflict.

 Outside Hollywood, the Rules of Engagement (ROE) provide carefully thought details of when and how force shall be used in military and police operations, it also synchronizes them with the political aspect in a clear strategy, and provides consistent and reliable standards.

Clarity and discipline of implementation are the two major factors that determine the outcome in any military or police engagement.

In Ismailia 1952, the Egyptian police had clear ROE, when a group of Fedayeen (Freedom Fighters) sought refuge within the Police barracks; they decided not to surrender them to the British army forces- who controlled the Suez Canal- under any circumstances.

The British also had clear ROE – Get the “terrorists’ out at any price – and that was what they achieved. Following hours of stand off, confrontation was inevitable, and the result was the death of 50 Egyptian police officers, and 4 British soldiers in a day that Egypt still commemorates as “Police day.”  The event in Ismailia led to spread of fury all over Egypt. Eventually, the British lost control over the Suez Canal following 1956 war.

Throughout the following Fifty-nine years, Egypt witnessed radical changes in the role of the police.  Rather than serving and protecting the people, the Police, and Central Security Forces (CSF) had become an instrument of oppression by the alternate dictators who ruled the country.  The love affair (between Police and people) gradually became a violent affair that ended up in full-scale confrontation on the 25th of January 2011( the day Egyptians revolted against Mubarak) when the police had failed miserably to control the crowd (despite their ruthless tactics) who for the first time defied their authority and power.

Later, The military council sent their men to the streets of Cairo with entirely different sets of orders. The crowds, whom the police had treated as mobs and rioters became legitimate peaceful protestors. The instructions were clear –do not shoot- as a result, the army won the hearts and mind of most Egyptians and the revolution had prevailed.

By serving as policemen in post revolution Egypt, the military has embarked on the tricky path of dealing with civilians during uncertain time. Unfortunately, They took the task lightly, relaying heavily on the false assumption that civilians will not turn against them.

The underestimated challenges were evident during the Maspero confrontations  (9th October 2011).  The poorly trained, ill-equipped Soldiers had to face angry crowds. They failed to handle it, and the result was the tragic loss of 23 innocent civilians lives.

Behaving as police, the army labeled the protestors as “rioters/ thugs with foreign fingers involved.“ In other words, it was perfectly legitimate to shoot at them.

By refusing to acknowledge the problem, another bloody confrontation was a matter of time. This one was in Mohamed Mahmoud street meters away from the Ministry of Interior. The army decided to lead from behind and left the Central Security Forces (CSF) to face the crowds.  Rather than saving lives as their predecessors in 1952, the police went on to shower protestors with relentless tear gas, bird pellets aiming at eyes, and head, Their dismal performance was counter-productive and heightened the determination and resolve amongst the defiant youth.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Rule of Engagements of the Security and Army forces was neither clear nor efficient. The military and police has lost both their deterrence and respect, by inflicting several civilian casualties without effectively controlling their ground. It also left the door open to countless conspiracy theories.

Yes, the army has issued an apology, but what is the point of an apology without regret, reflection and without reforms?

If the military truly wants to stop the trail of tragic loss of lives, they should publish the exact Rules of Engagement in both the Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud events and should hold those responsible accountable for their crimes in order to avoid another tragedy from happening in the future.

On the other hand, it was heart breaking to watch some Egyptians labeling the protestors as thugs and foreign agents.  For a minute, I wished the security forces in Mohamed Mahmoud Street were not Egyptians, but British or Israelis. May be then the so-called “silent majority” would rally behind the defiant youth rather than cruelly turning against them.

There is no doubt that Egypt needs a new “Protest Culture” that guarantee the right of expression of liberty in an orderly disciplined manner.  This culture would never flourish unless the security forces implement several reforms aiming at effective crowd control, while avoiding the tragic loss of lives.

William Freidken drama was implausible with a flimsy end, but the military version of last week tragedy in Egypt was even more implausible, if not repugnant and abhorrent. We can afford to forget fiction, but we need to face up to reality and do what is right not what is convenient.


About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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2 Responses to Rules of Engagement: Egypt’s Military, Police need Change, Reform

  1. Nervana, you make very valid points here about the paradox of leadership and control. Thanks for the posting.


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