Jemima Lewis: If you want a police state, holiday in Egypt

Although they were always polite, the sense of entitlement of the police was infuriating

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One of the advantages of being middle class and white, as the late Dr Benjamin Spock observed, is that you can go through life with "no idea what it feels like to be subjected to police who are routinely suspicious, rude, belligerent, and brutal".

This may explain why Middle England has yet to man the barricades in protest at the introduction of ID cards. The average Briton does not live in fear of the state, or its long arm. The worst most of us will experience at the hands of the police is bureaucratic incompetence, or a schoolmarmish lecture from a traffic cop. (A friend of mine was stopped recently for shooting a red light on his bicycle. "What would your parents say if I had to tell them you were hit by a lorry?" demanded the policeman, wagging a disapproving finger, and my friend was instantly transported back to the headmaster's office. "I don't have any parents," he lied sulkily. "I'm an orphan.")

The voices of doom who warn that we are sleepwalking into a police state fall on disbelieving ears. The idea of government machinery being used to enslave rather than protect us is simply too far-fetched for Joe Average to worry about. When black leaders complain about the alienating effects of stop-and-search, the white majority looks on in blank incomprehension. Political correctness gone mad, they grumble under their breath; there's no smoke without fire.

Unless you have experienced the indignity of being continually obliged to justify your existence to the police, the ID cards debate is little more than high-falutin' political theory. So, for the 55 per cent of Britons who say they are in favour of ID cards, I have a suggestion: take your next holiday in Egypt.

In theory, Egypt is a democracy - albeit one that has had the same President for 25 years. It observes most of the democratic niceties: opposition parties, occasional elections, a relatively free press. But its people do not feel free. Everywhere they turn, they see men in uniform.

Cairo alone has more police officers per thousand citizens than any other capital in the world. The sheer variety of police departments is intimidating. There are Municipal Police, Traffic Police, Electricity, Airport and River Police, Military Intelligence, Tourist and Antiquities Police, the Central Security Forces (who carry Kalashnikovs for spontaneous crowd control); and - spookiest of all - the State Security police, who hang around government buildings disguised as vendors and peasants, scrutinising passers-by for suspicious behaviour.

These men (they are almost all men) are suffused with self-importance, as well they might be. Their superior position in the social hierarchy is symbolised and enforced by the fact that they can descend on any innocent civilian and demand to see his or her papers. No Egyptian would dare to refuse, let alone point out to a police officer that he is supposed to be a servant of the people, as outraged Englishmen are wont to do. They would be rewarded with, at best, incredulous laughter, and at worst a spell in the slammer.

I was in Alexandria recently with my boyfriend, who was writing an article on Egyptian food, and a professional photographer, Martin. The Alexandrian tourist office sent a guide, Mohammed, to keep us out of trouble. Even so, it took us less than an hour to get arrested.

We were wandering through the old district, taking pictures of 18th century architecture, when a dozen men in khaki surrounded us. They had machine-guns slung under their arms like handbags, and they herded us into a vast unmarked building. This, it transpired, was the headquarters of the tourist police. By taking photographs nearby, Martin had endangered national security.

Our passports were taken away for inspection and we were detained in a windowless room full of frightened Egyptians. Mohammed sat with his head in his hands, keening with anguish. Eventually we were taken to see the chief of police: a handsome man who chain-smoked and told us about the time he went to London on an exchange organised by Scotland Yard, and how much he enjoyed Madame Tussaud's and Starlight Express.

These fond reminiscences were interrupted by bouts of violent invective in Arabic, aimed at Mohammed. "I am telling him," explained the chief with an ingratiating smile, "that he is an idiot. You are foreigners: you don't understand our laws. He is to blame for everything."

Once he'd had his fill of bullying Mohammed, the Anglophile policeman released us - but that was not our last encounter with the law. Everywhere we went, Martin's camera attracted suspicion. Our passports were inspected and re-inspected, and sometimes a retinue of curious constables would insist on accompanying us through the streets. Although they were always polite - tourists being vital to the economy - their sense of entitlement was infuriating.

"Every community," said Robert Kennedy, "gets the law-enforcement it insists on". The British police have always been - notionally at least - servants of the people, accountable to the people. ID cards will turn that on its head, making us accountable to them. Is that really what we want? Because if not, now is the time to start insisting.

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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