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Egyptian riot police fire tear gas at protesters (not seen) during clashes in front of the Semiramis Intercontinental hotel, background near Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.
Khalil Hamra/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 2/1/2013
CAIRO--With near impunity and the backing of the Islamist president, Egyptian police have been accused of firing wildly at protesters, beating them and lashing out with deadly force in clashes across much of the country the past week, regaining their Hosni Mubarak-era notoriety as a tool of repression.
In the process, nearly 60 people have been killed and hundreds injured, and the security forces have re-emerged as a significant political player after spending the two years since Mubarak's ouster on the sidelines, sulking or unwilling to fully take back the streets.
Moreover, President Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood was long oppressed by the security forces, has made it clear that he needs the police on his side to protect his still shaky grip on power. On state TV Sunday, he thanked the police for their response to the protests, a day after dozens had been killed in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
Riot police continued on Thursday to battle rock-throwing protesters in an area near Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the seventh day of clashes in the wave of political violence that has engulfed Egypt--though battles elsewhere have eased somewhat.
The police's furious response to the protests and riots--some of which targeted their stations and left two police officers dead--uncovered the depth of discontent in the once all-powerful security forces. Since Mubarak's fall, they have been demoralized and in disarray. But now they are signaling that they want back the status they held under his rule, when no one questioned their use of force and they had unlimited powers of arrest.
"The police saw the protests as an opportunity to show they are strong, capable and ready to crush them," said rights lawyer Negad Borai. "They knew they had political cover, to which they responded by using a disproportionate amount of force."
The Interior Ministry, in charge of police, says its forces showed restraint and pointed out that dozens of police were injured in the clashes, along with the two dead. It has also staunchly denied that police fired birdshot at protesters in the street fighting. At least three protesters are known to have been killed by birdshot, and many others have shown wounds from the metal pellets riddling their torsos and heads.
Five different interior ministers have headed the forces in the past two years, and none has been able to exercise full control over the unsettled ranks.
Distraught police officers heckled the latest interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, when he showed up for the funeral of the two officers killed last weekend.