CAIRO: Egypt's military-backed interim president said Thursday that the country's uprisings have put an end to the police state and to abuses, part of a campaign to rebrand the security forces amid a heavy handed crackdown on Islamists and other critics of the government.
Adly Mansour's comments marking Police Day celebrations came despite continued reports of rampant abuses by security forces before and after the military's July 3 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Rights groups have criticized police for excessive force in breaking up Islamist protests in a crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters.
Security forces have also carried out a wave of arrests, justifying it as a campaign against terrorism and implementing draconian new laws against protests. Thousands of supporters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood have been jailed, along with a number of journalists and many of the top secular activists who led the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Last month, female secular activists said they were beaten in a police station after being arrested for holding a protest.
The deputy Mideast-North Africa director of Amnesty International on Thursday called on Egyptian authorities to "change course and take concrete steps to show they respect human rights and rule of law," including release "prisoners of conscience."
Otherwise, "Egypt is likely to find its jails packed with unlawfully detained prisoners and its morgues and hospitals with yet more victims of arbitrary and abusive force by its police," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry described the report as "tarnishing the facts" and said the government respects human rights while it is engaged in "combating terrorism."
Mansour's speech came days ahead of the anniversary Saturday of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, which began on Jan. 25, 2011. The day could bring rival rallies into the streets. Military loyalists have called on Egyptians to mass in Cairo's Tahrir Square and urge army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Morsi, to run for president. El-Sissi has yet to announce his intentions.
At the same time, Morsi's Islamist supporters have called for escalated protests, trying to use the anniversary to build momentum in what the group has called a campaign to "break the coup" and ignite a new revolution.
Hundreds of pro-Morsi students clashed with security forces in fierce street battles in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria early Thursday, leaving one protester dead, according to security officials. Brotherhood websites circulated pictures of the slain student, Amr Khalaf, with a bloody head. In one of his last Facebook postings, Khalaf identified himself as "the next martyr" with a picture reading, "waiting my turn."
Saturday brings the awkward confluence of Police Day, a Jan. 25 holiday praising the security forces, with the uprising anniversary.
In 2011, activists launched their protests intentionally on Police Day to denounce the widespread abuses by security agencies under Mubarak - including torture, arbitrary arrests and corruption. The protests swelled into an all-out revolt against him, fueled by public hatred of police, as well as economic woes and frustration with years of autocracy. Police forces virtually collapsed after battles with protesters.
But security agencies have re-emerged to prominence after Morsi's ouster, which came after massive rallies demanding he step down for abusing power.
Since then, thousands of members of Morsi' Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested, and the group has been branded a terrorist organization, with authorities blaming it for a wave of militant violence since his ouster, though the group denies any link.
Pro-military media have touted the police as heroes in the fight against militants. In the latest violence, masked gunmen riding on motorcycles sprayed a police checkpoint in the central province of Bani Sueif with bullets, killing five policemen and wounding two, the Interior Ministry said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Thousands of mourners chanted against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in an angry funeral procession that reflected continued popular resentment against the group.
The ceremony in the Police Academy was the first official celebration of Police Day since the 2011 uprising. It was held two days early so as not to conflict with revolution commemorations Saturday. Mansour made a rare reference by officials to police abuses under Mubarak - though he didn't specify the former president, and he presented them as individual transgressions and a thing of the past.
"The glorious revolution healed a chasm caused by wrong practices of commanders or individuals who were mistaken in understanding their role in protecting the nation and the people and misused power," Mansour said.
He added that Egypt is starting a "new era" where police "preserve the dignity of the Egyptian citizen," and "draws a definitive end to the police state, never to return."
In the same celebration, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim - who heads the police - referred to the Muslim Brotherhood group as "forces of evil" which "hijacked the people's revolution ... and took over power." He lauded the police as a "nationalist institution" that will take the lead in "dealing with terrorism."
Egypt has seen a string of attacks by Islamic militants, including suicide bombings, since Morsi's ouster, largely targeting police and the military, but also claiming civilian victims. Authorities have justified the broad sweep of arrests against the Brotherhood as part of the fight against terrorism.
But activists say that violence gave police a pretext to take revenge against those who led the anti-Mubarak uprising that dealt a blow to the police. Now critics of the military are often branded in the media of being either Morsi's supporters or foreign agents.
The Brotherhood has sought to build a common front with secular activists, but have met with sharp rejections. The activists deeply opposed Morsi during his one-year presidency, accusing him and his Brotherhood of committing abuses, monopolizing power and failing to carry out democratic reforms.
This week, the Brotherhood issued a statement trying to make amends, though it stopped short of an explicit apology. "We undoubtedly all learned the lessons and we are now convinced of the wisdom that the nation is for the whole people," it said. "No one owns the truth and no one controls .(the label) of patriotism."
Still, it convinced few in the activist camp.
One group, the Revolutionary Socialists, said in a statement Thursday that while it stands against "military state repression .... we will never have common grounds with the Muslim Brotherhood and definitely will not forget their crimes."