CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of low-ranking policemen on strike across Egypt on Thursday refused orders to work and protested what they claim is the politicization of the force in favor of the president's Muslim Brotherhood party.
The strike, in its fourth day, is a rare show of defiance by policemen against their superiors. It threatens to unravel a security force already weakened by two years of unrest following the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
For decades, Egypt's police aggressively targeted the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that were once outlawed. Policemen say they are now being forced to confront protesters angry with Mubarak's successor, President Mohammed Morsi, and his Brotherhood supporters. They also are angry that they can be tried in military courts and complain that current laws do not protect them when they carry out their duties.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement Thursday that it stands at equal distance from all parties, and that the ministry is being objective in its duties.
The ministry, which oversees police in Egypt, relies on low-ranking policemen to protect government buildings, particularly in the face of angry protests in Suez Canal cities and in areas north of Cairo in the Nile Delta region. Hundreds of policemen have been wounded in the past six weeks of unrest in those areas, and several have been killed in the anti-government protests.
In Cairo, dozens of policemen blocked the entrance to one of the city's main police stations and expressed anger at Morsi's policies. Others held a sit-in outside Morsi's house in his hometown of Zagazig, northeast of the capital.
South of the capital, in Assiut and Luxor, policemen protested what they say is new Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim's attempts to use the force to protect the Brotherhood.
Security officials in the Interior Ministry said that the former interior minister refused orders to direct police against anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo in December. They say that the Brotherhood was also enraged that police did not protect the group's offices that month from being torched by Egyptians angry with Morsi's handling of the drafting of the constitution.
The strike comes just two days before a court is expected to hand down verdicts to defendants standing trial for a deadly soccer riot that killed 74 people in the canal city of Port Said. Nine security officials are among the 73 people on trial. Earlier, 21 people in the case were handed death sentences, which can be appealed, sparking a wave of violent protests in the city that led to 40 deaths in late January and accusations that police used excessive violence to clamp down on rioters.
Anger is also boiling in the Nile Delta province of Dakahliya, where protesters and policemen accuse the new security director there of ordering heavy-handed tactics to suppress anti-Brotherhood protests. Sami al-Meehy was appointed the province's security chief in recent days, just as anger there was mounting against the Brotherhood and a civil disobedience campaign began. Police there are accused of intentionally running over and killing a protester last weekend.
A similar strike last month by thousands of low-ranking policemen led to work stoppages for five days. They were demanding better firepower, wages and working conditions. The ministry said it agreed to purchase 100,000 new 9mm pistols and improve health care facilities for policemen, ending February's strike.
The police force, once a frightening and powerful underpinning of Mubarak's rule, has been accused by rights activists of carrying out the same brutal tactics under Morsi.
Egypt's uprising, which began two years ago on a day meant to commemorate police, was largely rooted in widespread hatred of security forces under Mubarak. More than 100 policemen have been put on trial for the killings of protesters, and all but two were acquitted.
Allegations of torture at the hands of police persist, and more than 70 people have been killed in nationwide protests since late January. Rights groups allege that police are still operating with impunity.
The latest allegation took place late Wednesday in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla. Hundreds of residents took to the streets to protest the killing of Ibrahim el-Kady, his wife, their daughter and their daughter's fiancé. According to Mahalla activist Samuel Adly, police were chasing a suspect when they fired at the wrong car, killing the four.
Security officials say they are investigating the incident.
The family's son told the satellite channel Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr alleges that policemen were behind the killing. He said he saw men dressed in police uniform firing on his father's car, which was parked outside the family's house.
Lawlessness also has plagued parts of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where two British tourists were freed just hours after their kidnapping on Thursday.
A military intelligence official said the couple was released unharmed after police promised the Bedouin kidnappers that they would release a detained relative who had been arrested and accused of smuggling weapons from Libya to Egypt. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Tourists have been targeted in the past by Bedouin in Sinai wanting to pressure police to free detained relatives. Tourists are typically not held long and released unharmed.
Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk in Cairo contributed to this report.