CAIRO - Egypt's president praised the country's policemen on Friday despite public criticism over their violent response to anti-government demonstrations, and he warned officers who are also protesting his rule against breaking ranks.
President Mohammed Morsi addressed riot police at one of their camps near Cairo before joining them in weekly Friday prayers in a show of solidarity with the force.
The riot police, known as Central Security, have been at the forefront of deadly clashes with protesters the past two years since the 18-day uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Hundreds of protesters have been killed over that period, and rights groups accuse the police of using snipers and lethal force. Policemen also have been killed and have suffered serious injuries.
Over the past weeks, thousands of officers and low-ranking policemen staged protests outside police stations and refused to work. Some accuse the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, of trying to control the force. The Brotherhood denies the claims. Others demand higher wages, better working conditions, greater firepower and stronger immunity from prosecution for carrying out their duties. Many are demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the security forces.
With the interior minister and riot police commander standing beside him, Morsi praised the police for keeping security.
"This country loves you, hugs you and protects you, and always expects from you courage and sacrifice," he said.
He seemed to laud them for a role in the uprising against Mubarak, which began on Jan. 25, 2011 — and which the police tried to crush. A government report obtained this week by The Associated Press concluded that police were behind the deaths of nearly 900 protesters during the 18-day uprising.
The police "were at the heart" of Jan. 25 revolution, Morsi said in his speech, after praising them for being "at the heart" of earlier Egyptian victories.
"Almighty God willed that Jan. 25 also be Police Day, a day of remembering the sacrifices of the police."
The 2011 revolution was sparked in large part by outrage over abuses and torture by the police, which under Mubarak targeted opponents including the Muslim Brotherhood. The uprising began when anti-torture activists called an anti-police protest coinciding with Police Day, a public holiday commemorating the security forces. When huge crowds joined the rallies and turned them into anti-Mubarak protests, police cracked down, sparking days of bloody fighting. The Brotherhood joined the revolt.
In his speech, Morsi warned the police against divisions.
"Be aware, as I know you are, against breaking ranks or else our enemy will break us all," Morsi said. "Our enemy outside the country is happy when we are divided."
Rights activists on Facebook denounced Morsi's speech and questioned his suggestion that police were at the heart of the uprising.
"Instead of this talk that turns the facts upside down in an attempt to reach out to riot police, should it not be a priority first of the president to put forth a plan to repair the relationship between police and the people?" asked one group dedicated to the case of Khaled Said, a young man tortured to death by police in 2010. Said's death was a rallying cry in the anti-Mubarak protests.
Morsi acknowledged changes that have swept Egypt since the revolution, saying that his June 30 election as the country's first freely elected and first civilian president was a historical turning point for the police force.
In the past two years, around 100 policemen have been tried in cases related to the killing of protesters with almost all ending in acquittals.
Reform of the police is among protesters' top demands.
In the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said, thousands of residents rallied against Morsi on Friday. They also demanded retribution for the killing of around 45 people in clashes with police there this year.
The protest came a day after Morsi delivered a televised message to the people of Port Said, promising investigations that would uncover perpetrators of the recent unrest there.
Last week, protesters in the city torched security headquarters there, forcing the police to withdraw from the streets. The army, which took over security of the city, was enthusiastically welcomed.
That sentiment was echoed in Cairo, where several hundred people rallied on Friday in support of bringing back military rule and ousting Morsi.
Also in Cairo, Egyptian journalists elected a critic of Islamists as the new head of their union Friday, replacing a figure considered by most journalists as pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Members of the Journalism Syndicate chanted, "Down with Brotherhood rule," after Diaa Rashwan, a longtime scholar on Islamist movements, was declared the winner of the voting.