CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Interior Ministry offered a rare expression of regret Saturday after riot police were caught on camera a day earlier beating a protester who had been stripped of his clothes, and then dragging the naked man along the muddy pavement before bundling him into a police van.
The video of the beating, which took place late Friday only blocks from the presidential palace where protests were raging in the streets, further inflamed popular anger with security forces just as several thousand anti-government demonstrators marched on the palace again on Saturday. The uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was fueled in part by anger over police brutality.
In the footage aired live on Egyptian TV, at least seven black-clad riot police used sticks to beat 48-year-old Hamada Saber, who was sprawled out on the ground, shirtless and with his pants down around his ankles.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry voiced its “regret” about the assault, and vowed to investigate. But it also sought to distance itself — and the police in general — from the abuse, saying it “was carried out by individuals that do not represent in any way the doctrine of all policemen who direct their efforts to protecting the security and stability of the nation and sacrifice their lives to protect civilians.”
Later in the day, however, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim put the blame elsewhere entirely, saying initial results from the public prosecutor’s investigation indicated that Saber was undressed by “rioters” during skirmishes between police and protesters.
“The Central Security Forces then found him lying on the ground and tried to put him in an armored vehicle, though the way in which they did that was excessive,” Ibrahim said.
President Mohammed Morsi’s office called Saber’s beating “shocking”, but stressed that violence and vandalism of government property is unacceptable.
The abuse took place as thousands of protesters chanted against President Mohammed Morsi on Friday. The march was part of a wave of demonstrations that have rocked Egypt since last week’s second anniversary of the 2011 revolt, leaving more than 60 people dead and plunging the country into turmoil once again.
In what appeared to be an effort to protect the police from a harsh backlash over the video, Ibrahim said that nearly 400 policemen have been wounded this past week in clashes, and warned that the disintegration of police will lead to even wider-spread chaos in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
“The collapse of police will affect Egypt and transform it into a militia state like some neighboring nations,” Ibrahim said, alluding to Libya where militias comprise the bulk of security after that nation’s uprising.
Already some Islamists have warned they could set up militias to protect their interests, while a group calling itself “Black Bloc” whose followers wear black masks claim to defend protesters opposed to the Islamist president’s rule.
Rights groups have accused Morsi of not taking steps to reform the Interior Ministry, which was the backbone of Mubarak’s regime. Police under Mubarak were notorious for using excessive force against protesters and beating those in custody.
In a defining image of post-Mubarak violence against protesters, Egyptians were outraged last year when military police were caught on camera dragging a veiled woman through the streets during a protest, pulling her conservative black robe over her head and revealing her blue bra.
Protesters and rights groups have accused police of using excessive force this past week during a wave of mass demonstrations in cities around the country called by opposition politicians, trying to wrest concessions from Morsi.
But many protesters go further, saying Morsi must be removed from office. They are accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of monopolizing power and of failing to deal with the country’s mounting woes. Many have been further angered by Morsi’s praise of the security forces after the high death toll. Some have taken to attacking government buildings, from prisons to police stations to courthouses.
The chaos prompted Morsi to order a limited curfew in three provinces and the deployment of the military to the streets.
The main opposition National Salvation Front said Saturday that the “gruesome images” of Saber’s beating demand the interior minister’s resignation.
Also Saturday, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the area around the presidential palace. He said those who are camped out there are neither protesters nor revolutionaries. He said protesters “do not torch, attack hotels, rape women, steal from shops, they do not burn the presidential palace.”
In an impassioned speech Saturday carried live on Egyptian state TV, Kandil said the street violence and political unrest that has engulfed the country for more than a week is threatening the nation’s already ailing economy.
“The Egyptian economy is bleeding,” he said. “It is holding itself, but if this situation persists it will be dangerous, extremely dangerous.”
Foreign currency earners such as tourism and foreign investment have dried up in the past two years of political unrest. Foreign reserves currently estimate at around $15 billion, less than half of where it stood before the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak. The Egyptian pound has also lost around four percent of its value due to the turmoil and planned austerity measures threaten to curb subsidies relied on by millions of poor Egyptians.
Kandil called on the opposition to back away from any more protests or marches.
Also Saturday, Mubarak’s former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, was found guilty of abusing his position by forcing police conscripts to work on his mansion and land outside Cairo. Both he and former riot police chief Hassan Abdel-Hamid were sentenced to three years in prison and fined around $340,000. The verdict can be appealed.
Al-Adly is already serving time for corruption and was sentenced to life in prison with Mubarak for failing to prevent the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the 2011 revolt that ousted the longtime leader. Both men appealed, and will be given a retrial.
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