Please note, opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent Egyptian Streets’ editorial policy.
On an almost regular basis, a teenager is killed by police officers in the United States and other countries. Police often claim that the dead suspect was carrying a weapon, acting in a suspicious manner, and threatened the armed policemen.
Police men (if even charged) are often found not guilty as they acted in ‘self-defence’.
When I attended a protest at an Egyptian Embassy abroad in 2011, a police officer on the scene told me how, if any individual – a protester or not – approached a police officer with even a rock in his hand, the police had the right to shoot him.
That brings us to Egypt, the scene of violent protests since the toppling of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
On July 8, 51 Morsi supporters and three soldiers and police officers were killed in violence that broke out at the Republican Guard Headquarters, the headquarters of a military division whose main responsibility is to defend major government and strategic industrial institutions.
Yet the violence at the Republican Guard was merely a prelude of events to come. Less than three weeks later, at least 74 were killed and hundreds injured at Nasr Road – where former President Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated by Islamist militants.
As with previous incidents, Egypt’s Interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood traded blame for the violence. Still, it was the Military’s defence following the attacks on the Republican Guard that will – and should – continue to resonate in each Egyptian’s mind: the law (both local and international) grants security forces the right to defend military institutions and themselves, especially after being attacked.
The Military’s spokesperson stated that despite attempts to incite violence against the Military – and despite the fact that the law states that individuals may not gather or threaten military institutions – the Military continued to allow protesters to demonstrate and surround military institutions and personnel.
Essentially, what this meant was that Egypt’s military was allowing demonstrations outside vital institutions, but would take all necessary action once it was attacked, or felt that suspicious behavior could lead to a security breach.
The fact of the matter is, the Military did not open fire on a peaceful demonstration on July 8. The Military reacted to a threat – in a similar way to how police officers and security services all across the globe react to threats.
The Muslim Brotherhood claimed the Military opened fire on Morsi supporters as they prayed, yet footage has shown those same supporters carrying firearms, Molotov cocktails, knives, and other weaponry.
The story would have been different of course had the Military opened fire on un-armed protesters or civilians: attending a peaceful demonstration with a weapon – with the intention of potentially using it against someone – immediately discredits the ‘peaceful’ nature of that demonstration.
Still, the police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed, peaceful Morsi supporters on July 26. Right?
Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Video from shortly before the police first fired tear-gas at a large crowd of approaching Morsi supporters who were chanting “We will not go back!” showed various supporters carrying long, sharp weapons, stones, and other dangerous items.
Clashes continued for hours following the initial tear-gas, leading to the deaths of at least 74 Morsi supporters. Though the Ministry of Interior denied using live ammunition against the protesters, footage clearly showed that they did fire live bullets at the Morsi supporters. And they had a right to do so.
Why do the police not simply fire tear-gas, rubber bullets, and practice other riot-control methods? Because the protesters they are dealing with were not unarmed.
From individuals wearing gas-masks to wade the effects of the tear gas, to those carrying makeshift shotguns, it becomes clear that the police on the scene are faced with a threat that surpasses any riot control tactics. Police men on the ground – many of whom who are there to simply do their job and earn a minimum wage – are likely considering one thing: if I do not fight back, will I die?
Nevertheless, there needs to be limits to how far police action can go. Randomly firing live ammunition at a large group of demonstrators instead of attempting to target those carrying weapons or cause a threat, can lead to the loss of many innocent lives.
Moreover, allowing opponents of Morsi and plain-clothed police to “fight-back” against armed Morsi supporters is incorrect and should be condemned. Allowing civilians to fire at Morsi supporters (and protecting them) is as bad –if not worse – than the Morsi supporters attacking the police.
As activists, the media, government officials, and opposition figures continue to trade blame, we must remember the mandate that security forces have to defend themselves and state institutions. Yet, though the police may have a mandate to ‘defend themselves’ against ‘threatening’ demonstrators, we must also remember that this mandate can often be unjust.
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