Morsi’s television address on Sunday also gave the police key political cover. He thanked the security forces for their handling of the protests and described the protesters as thugs or die-hard Mubarak loyalists trying to bring down the state, effectively justifying any police action.
Furthermore, he declared a 30-day state of emergency in Port Said and two other Suez Canal cities, giving police there far reaching powers to arrest and detain suspects, a move that harked back to Mubarak’s rule, when Egypt was under emergency laws for most of his 29 years in power.
The speech came a day after nearly 40 people were killed in Port Said, where protesters and witnesses spoke of random shootings by police marksmen stationed on rooftops or from moving armored cars, lashing out after the two policemen were killed by armed men trying to storm a prison.
In Cairo, footage aired on Egyptian TV stations showed protesters, some as young as 15, lying on the ground while getting beaten up by bands of policemen.
‘‘Their actions are brutal and their officers are taunting us with obscene hand signs,’’ complained Hamadah Hasem, a 26-year-old protester in Cairo.
Hebya Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, noted that Morsi made no mention of claims of excessive force by police or pledge investigations of alleged abuses.
‘‘In a sense, Morsi is making decisions that are similar to those of his predecessors,’’ she said about the president’s apparent abandonment of plans to reform the police and instead focus on winning them over.
‘‘It is short sighted,’’ she said.
Egypt’s police are a militarized force believed to number around 500,000 men. They played a key role in maintaining Mubarak’s grip on power, systematically detaining and torturing Islamists and silencing dissidents. Hated and blamed for massive human rights abuses, the brutality of the police was among the key reasons behind the 2011 revolution.
The police melted away four days into the 18-day revolution following deadly clashes with protesters. They have since returned to duty but are yet to fully take back the streets, even as crime and disorder have increased dramatically.
Some policemen say they will not fully carry out their duties as a retribution for their humiliating defeat in 2011. Others maintain they are ready to go back to work in earnest if given guarantees that they won’t be prosecuted for their actions in enforcing the law.
The anti-Mubarak revolution raised calls for widespread reform of the police aimed at purging abusive officers, ending a culture that condoned torture, bribe-taking and abuses, and improving the professional capabilities of the force. No process for doing any of that has begun.
Revolutionaries and rights activists blame the police for the death of nearly 900 protesters during the revolution and dozens more in unrest that followed Mubarak’s overthrow. The police, on their part, say they shot to kill when their lives were in danger as bands of armed protesters stormed police stations across much of the country.
More than a 100 policemen have been put on trials on charges of killing protesters, but almost all were acquitted. The latest example came Thursday when a court in Sharqiyah acquitted the Nile Delta province’s former police chief and seven of his top aides on charges of killing protesters in 2011.
Mubarak and his security chief, former interior minister Habib el-Adly, were convicted of failing to prevent the killings and sentenced in June to life in prison. Both successfully appealed their sentences and will now face a new trial.