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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz