CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian security official said Saturday that the interior ministry has agreed to purchase 100,000 new 9mm pistols after low-ranking policemen went on strike demanding greater firepower to defend themselves against increased lawlessness.
The announcement ended five days of strikes by thousands of low-ranking policemen that threatened to further unravel security in the Arab world's most populous nation, two years after the overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
It is also likely to provoke a new wave of criticism against the interior ministry by rights groups and activists who accuse police of using excessive force against unarmed protesters and carrying out the same brutal tactics of the former regime.
Allegations of torture at the hands of police persist, and around 70 people have been killed in nationwide protests in just the past three weeks. Rights groups allege that police are still operating with impunity.
The security official said the decision was made after studying the demands of policemen who complain they cannot properly defend themselves against attacks on security headquarters and police stations. Some protesters have also attacked police during demonstrations, severely wounding many in clashes.
Retired police colonel, Ihab Youssef, said that currently low-ranking policemen, referred to in Egypt as "afrad" and "omana", are allowed to have firearms with them on duty, but must return their weapons back to their superiors after work. They are requesting to be able to carry the weapons at all times.
"This will cause a lot of problems because they are not well trained and do not know how to use this weapon," Youssef said. "In the worst case scenario, police will end up turning into thugs after working hours."
Some in the force are not only seething over what they say is inadequate fire power, but have openly protested serving under a president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group who the police aggressively targeted for decades. They say they are being forced to confront protesters angry with President Mohammed Morsi.
The decision to issue arms to low-ranking officers comes just weeks after black-clad riot police appeared for the first time in new, protective gear that reduces their vulnerability to rocks and firebombs and conceals much of their faces. In a first, the police also received three patrol helicopters.
Just hours before the decision was announced, around 50 policemen protested in the city of Aswan, demanding more weapons to fight a surge of crime that has swept across Egypt as police authority unraveled following Mubarak's ouster.
It was the latest in a string of incidents pointing to a breakdown of discipline in a force where the power and prestige of top security officials was rarely questioned by subordinates.
Policemen in Egypt also want better salaries and working conditions, and are frustrated that police can be tried in military courts.
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 have been put on trial for the killings of protesters, and all but two were acquitted.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the interior ministry on Saturday agreed to study raising pensions and will increase the number of housing, hospitals and medical clinics for policemen throughout Egypt.
Youssef, who is also a founder of a group calling for police reform, said the interior ministry has not taken any initiative to curb corruption and abuse by the force. This, he says, leads to continued mistrust between police and the public. He said the new fire power will go to policemen who are not trained about the law or human rights.
The recent strikes and protests by low-ranking policemen refusing to work or take orders from their superiors has created resentment among high-level officers who, Youssef warns, could also end up refusing to work.
"The ministry needs to understand that the money paid to deliver these weapons to the police could have been used in better ways," he said. "So long as the interior minister tries to keep them quiet to keep the problem under control there will come a time when the situation implodes."
Hagag Salama contributed from Luxor, Egypt.