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Having overthrown one president in 2011, Egyptians this week have been out on the streets in the hundreds of thousands - some say millions - demanding the departure of another. The opposition says Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, has failed to address the nation's multiple political, social, and economic crises - and seeks to impose an Islamist agenda that threatens fundamental rights. Morsi's supporters, who have also been out on the streets, albeit in smaller numbers, say he is the legitimate elected leader and should be allowed to serve his term.

On Monday, the Egyptian Army gave the politicians a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve their differences. If they do not, the military has said it will propose an alternative 'road map'. Already at least 31 people have been killed in clashes and hundreds more injured but considering the size of the protests and counter-protests - and the almost complete absence of police - there has so far been relatively little violence.

The potential for further violence, though, is palpable and there's little sign of the sort of the deployment of security forces that is needed to protect human life and property; and prevent an escalation. The police have been absent from the most violent incidents that we have documented in the last few days, even though the clashes in many cases continued for several hours.

Witnesses at the scene of clashes at the Muslim Brotherhood's national headquarters in the Moqattam district of eastern Cairo said they saw protesters throw Molotov cocktails at the building, and heard gunfire coming from inside. People were shot, including eight who died. Skirmishes continued for more than 10 hours and the building was eventually gutted by fire. Police drove by at one point but did not intervene until after the clashes were over, when they entered the building and arrested four people.

There was the same pattern of minimal police engagement in key locations throughout the country. Police were also absent from Tahrir Square on Sunday, where men assaulted and gang-raped at least 46 women - according to reports received by the group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. The absence of security forces has not just been a problem in the last few days of protests.

Police failed to intervene to prevent the gruesome mob lynching of four Shia men in a suburb of Cairo on June 23 – following months of anti-Shia hate speech; some of it associated with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. So where are the police? They are blamed, rightly, for many of the deaths of peaceful protesters during the January 2011 uprising so that's one reason they have kept a low profile during these latest protests.

Another factor is the strong antipathy of many police toward the Muslim Brotherhood, who were at the receiving end of the repressive police policies of the Mubarak years. But underlying the absence of the police is a failure of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military junta that eased out former president Hosni Mubarak and oversaw Egypt's transition, and the Morsi government - which took power after elections a year ago.

Neither the military nor the Morsi government succeeded in turning the police into an accountable and effective force with the confidence and capacity to tackle the country's growing security challenges. Egypt's revolution started on January 25, 2011 - Police Day. One of the major grievances of the protesters then was police abuse and the government responded then by unleashing even greater police violence on the protesters.

Since the departure of Mubarak, many police have effectively gone on strike as insecurity - one of the many grievances of today's protesters - has skyrocketed. However Egypt's competing political forces and the army resolve the current political crisis, recent events have underlined again the importance of police reform and accountability in the transition process. Without effective and accountable security forces, human rights - including the rights to life and security - will remain at risk.

Tom Porteous is the deputy programme director at the Human Rights Watch

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