Yesterday, when news broke out that Egypt’s new Central Bank Governor, Hisham Ramez, was robbed at gunpoint, it confirmed people’s worst fears about the rising crime rate in Cairo.
The governor’s car was stolen and his security guard killed, but Mr Ramez tried to reassure the public by saying the assault was a robbery rather than a targeted assassination attempt.
With sporadic violence on the streets of Cairo now the norm, an uptick in reported sexual harassment cases and a general feeling of insecurity in Egypt, the Twittersphere was less than optimistic:
It is in stark contrast to life in the Mubarak police state, when violent street crime was a relative rarity and few feared to walk alone at night, the New York Times’s David Kirkpatrick wrote back in May 2011 when the exchange of gunfire, tear gas and rubber bullets was still a novelty.
“Now it is like New York,” Hisham Fahmy, head of the American Chamber of Commerce, told Kirkpatrick.
The truth is, Egypt is nothing like New York in terms of violent crime (and many other reasons).
New York’s violent crime rate has not been particularly high in recent years thanks to better policing measures, but Cairo’s violent crime rate still pales in comparison.
Of the 66 most populous cities in the world, Cairo ranks 60th on an index of homicide rates, while New York is 24th, according to figures compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime featured in the Guardian.
That means, for every 100,000 people, there are 5.6 murders per year in New York in a country notorious for its gun crime, compared to just 0.6 murders a year in Cairo.
It’s only when you get to Central America where drug violence brings a new dimension to homicide rates. In Mexico City, out of every 100,000 people, 8.4 are murdered per year. And even Mexico City appears a safe haven compared to Venezuela’s capital Caracas where the homicide rate is 122 per 100,000, the highest in the world.
That’s not to downplay the increasing sense of unease in Cairo, especially at a time when the police lack legitimacy and the country appears lawless. The figures cited also only register murders, rather than muggings, sexual harassment and robbery, which is on the rise in Cairo, and doesn’t even begin to register the other major set of offences, that of economic crime which is still so prevalent in Egypt.
But what the UN data does show is that Cairo’s violent crime rate would have to increase at an exponential rate for it to become a serious problem.
The real problem, as spelled out in this policy brief for the One World Foundation, is the failure to restructure the police sector:
The police sector is associated with its general lack of respect for human rights when dealing with citizens. Moreover, state security officials and high ranking police officers have often disregarded their duty as service providers and have instead relied on fear tactics to intimidate the public.
The authors of the paper, Sally Roshdy and Wessal Montasser, point out that while “Egypt’s last parliament had discussed several draft laws regarding police reform, the only one that passed exclusively dealt with the living conditions of police officials and affirmed their rights, without addressing the critical issue of improving police-citizen relations”.
Add to that the fact that Egypt spends more on its police force than health and education combined, reforming the security sector is paramount to Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Some Egyptian officers have become suspicious of the government, who they say blame them for the deaths of more than 50 civilians in the last three weeks. Hundreds of police officers retaliated in a rare instance of open dissent by protesting against what they called political exploitation by the government of President Morsi.
If it’s not just the general public but the police force who are unhappy, who does that suggest is making a mistake?