CAIRO (Reuters) - When a score of men wielding knives and petrol bombs stormed a glitzy five-star hotel in Cairo in broad daylight, the police failed to show up for hours.
“I thought a war had broken out,” said Ahmed Mohamed, 70, who was driving past the Fairmont hotel during the August 2 robbery, which ended with a bystander dead and others wounded. He saw smoke billowing out and heard gun shots from inside.
“Where is our new president?” Mohamed asked. “Why doesn’t he bring the police back and put an end to the chaos and horror as he promised?”
The priority for many Egyptians, and one of those listed by President Mohamed Mursi for his first 100 days in office, is ending a crime wave that started in the power vacuum after Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
But it will be a huge task to rebuild public trust in the police and state security services, which Mubarak used to persecute dissenters, including Mursi’s own Muslim Brotherhood, as well as to change the culture of the 450,000-strong force.
Mursi has shown he can make tough decisions. On August 12, he dismissed Egypt’s two top army generals and rescinded powers of the interim military council that took charge when Mubarak fell.
Rights groups say police reforms must reach right down to the poorly paid recruits on the street taking bribes. Corruption needs to be scrubbed out and routine rights abuses, such as torture in investigations, need to be stopped, they say.
The fortress-like Interior Ministry in Cairo, surrounded by watch towers, once symbolized the power, privilege and secrecy of the police.
Cash poured into the force, which crushed a rebellion by Islamic militants in the 1990s. Egyptians learned just how sophisticated the police had become when wiretaps of often very ordinary private conversations came to light after the revolt.
The ministry’s spending outstripped that of education and health combined. It still does in the 2012/2013 budget, with an allocation of 17 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.8 billion).
Changing the force’s mindset on who should be seen as a danger to the state will be one obstacle to reform - Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, banned during Mubarak’s three decades in power, was long identified as Public Enemy Number One.
“The Interior Ministry was a very significant part of the old regime,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst and scholar of Middle East politics at England’s Durham University. “It was its main tool to oppress opposition and any attempt to change its nature will be faced by resistance.”
Police antipathy to the new leadership is barely disguised.
One officer summed up the feelings of many policemen when he told an Egyptian journalist while on duty during Mursi’s swearing-in ceremony: “He is your president, not ours.”
“How can a man we had arrested not very long ago suddenly become a president over us?” said another, referring to Mursi’s jail stint during Mubarak’s rule. He asked not to be named.
An Interior Ministry official, who also refused to be named, dismissed the idea that the president would shake up the force.
But Mursi’s new interior minister, Ahmed Gamal el-Din, 59, a career police officer who liaised with protesters during the anti-Mubarak revolt, has already changed some senior commanders and, after unannounced tours of police stations, sent one officer to a disciplinary committee for mishandling complaints.
Gamal el-Din is respected in the ministry, where one officer called him “strong, successful and strict”.
Mursi, for his part, has sought to show he harbors no ill-will towards the police.
“I tell my sons from the honorable police force that the apparatus includes many decent and honest national officers,” he told a police graduation ceremony.
But it is not only the police he must win over. Mursi needs to convince Egyptians that the once-hated force is changing.
One of the sparks for the anti-Mubarak protest was the killing in police custody of activist Khaled Said. And it was the police who used teargas, rubber bullets and even live fire to try to suppress the anti-Mubarak revolt in January 2011.
Egyptians cheered when the police were taken off the streets and the army moved in.
Since then, protesters have frequently besieged the Interior Ministry, seeing it as an emblem of the old order.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and other rights groups list a host of abuses from the use of torture to corruption, which includes bribes to traffic police and graft in the issuing of car licenses and in land and factory deals.
The police routinely dismiss accusations of torture and say corruption cases are swiftly investigated.
“Eliminating corruption from the police and security forces will be the true mark of success of Egypt’s revolution,” said Amr Adly, a lawyer who works for EIPR on corruption issues related to land and state institutions.
“It will mean that the state has succeeded in moving from a suppressing state to a democratic one.”
It could take years to rebuild the reputation of the police, but Egyptians are desperate to have them back on the streets.
They complain of petty crime but are alarmed by violent incidents like the storming of the Nile-side hotel, attacks unimaginable under Mubarak when the police had sweeping powers.
Sama Abdel Rawaf, sales manager at the Fairmont, maintained the police delay in reaching her hotel was understandable given the recent turmoil, and added: “There is a bigger security presence around the hotel now and it is very safe.”
Yet security remains a regular topic for talk shows, with callers phoning in with a litany of complaints about theft, thuggery and other security lapses, urging Mursi to act.
“I used to feel safe about sending my kids onto the streets, but now I worry. Every day, I read in the paper about places and people being robbed and attacked,” Azza Hamdy, a mother and housewife, told Reuters. “Egypt did not used to be like that.”
Editing by Edmund Blair and Sonya Hepinstall