The phrase “Yes Sir” is the title of a revelatory new book about Egypt’s security apparatus. Correspondents spoke to its author Mohamed Hosni Abu el-Ez.

The phrase “Yes Sir” is the title of a revelatory new book about Egypt’s security apparatus. Correspondents spoke to its author Mohamed Hosni Abu el-Ez.

In his new book Yes Sir, published earlier this year by Egyptian publisher Merit, Mohamed Hosni Abu el-Ez turns the phrase of the title into the root of all evil. Still in his early thirties, Abu el-Ez quit the police force following the brutal repression he witnessed at the Mohamed Mahmud Street clashes in November 2011. He argues that generations of policemen have used it to please their superiors, working under their motto: ‘The police, the people, and the country are at the president’s service.’

The purpose of the book – a mixture of factual accounts combined with the story of fictional Major Mohamed Mahmud is neither to expose specific people or to reveal the police’s secrets, but to disclose major flaws and problems. He argues that the officers the Egyptian police values most highly are not just those who know the law and enforce it professionally and loyally – but those committed to blindly following orders.

Correspondents spoke to Mohamed Hosni Abu al-Ez:

Mr. Abu al-Ez, how did you become a writer amid the conditions you witnessed in the Egyptian police force?

When I gave up working at the Ministry of Interior I did not think of becoming a writer. But after second thoughts, I decided to pursue my lifelong dream, as I had loved writing since I was a little boy. But in the mid-1990s, most of my ill-fated generation applied to join military academies and the police academy. Then after my resignation, I thought my experience as a policeman could reveal some of the things most people neither saw nor knew anything about.

What problem do the police have that people don’t know about? Is it simply that officers are being trained the wrong way, are being trained to blindly obey orders – as your book says?

In the media, the police’s problem is reduced to the need to change the police academy’s curricula, but the problem actually lies in the way officers are trained to think from the very beginning. Police officers are taught that they are like army officers. I refer to this in my book as ‘militarizing the police’. There is a huge difference between an army officer who obeys orders and a police officer who is supposed to enforce the law. Now some are calling for the return of [former Interior Minister] el-Adly’s regime, in other words, they see the regime of fear as the way out. But I believe this is not the solution, since it would only aggravate and complicate things.

Your book describes how el-Adly’s regime created an entire administration centred around protecting him and his entourage. Was it not possible to change such things after the revolution?

The problem is the way police officers and top officials think. I criticized their way of thinking and their belief in conspiracy theories when I analysed the people’s uprising. In general I do not refute conspiracy theories, but the revolution was a product of the people’s fierce anger. They should admit it; otherwise, we will never break this vicious circle. I was honest and accurate in describing what was happing behind the scenes and not a single officer can deny it.

In general, how do you describe your participation in the reform initiatives of groups like “Officers but Honest” and “Rebellious Officers”?

When [former President Hosni] Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, a general coalition of police officers formed, comprising 10-20 groups. I participated in all their meetings, but unfortunately they turned out to be hypocrites. Publicly they claimed to be rebels, but behind closed doors they condemned the revolution. In the first few meetings, they talked about how to rebel against the MoI, but at the same time they were attacking the revolution, even though it was offering them this golden opportunity. All these attempts were aimed at restoring the status quo. Even the “ministry purification” process launched by the MoI itself in August 2011 aimed to get rid of those they deemed “bad apples.”

The book is a mixture of articles, confessions, and a narrative whose fictional protagonist’s name is Major Mohamed Mahmud – rather than yours. Why did you opt for this structure, in spite of your intention to narrate events accurately?

I did not worry about the literary genre. I was primarily concerned with putting my vision at the service of those who seek reform. I also intended to document my story and my experiences for my son, in particular, for I don’t know what he will be taught in his History classes. I did my best to be honest and objective, and to convey the picture as it is so that people will learn the reality.

You are still out of work. Are you afraid of any retaliation after publishing your book, especially since you know all about the police force’s repression and how it punishes those who disobey orders?

My primary goal was to promote reform, regardless of the consequences. I did not intend to expose or defame specific people; rather, to give an inside view of the regime itself – as I did in a chapter entitled ‘Those who have parachuted down,’ where Mohamed Mahmud, the narrator, says that learning torture techniques is a major discipline in security apparatuses. That was actually the first thing I learned after graduating from the police academy.

Leftist parties have called for restructuring the MoI many times. What do you think of these calls?

They were mostly naive and lacked a clear vision. Experts from “Officers but Honest” have compiled reports on how to solve the MoI’s problems, and there are some postgraduate theses emerging from inside the police force itself about how to develop the force. But the problem is a lack of political will. 

Read an excerpt from Yes Sir here.