CAIRO - A security official said Saturday that the Interior Ministry has agreed to purchase 100,000 new 9 mm pistols after low-ranking policemen went on strike demanding greater firepower to defend themselves against increased lawlessness.
The announcement ended five days of strikes by thousands of low-ranking policemen that threatened to further unravel security in the Arab world's most populous nation, two years after the overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
It is also likely to provoke a new wave of criticism against the Interior Ministry by activists who accuse police of using excessive force against unarmed protesters and carrying out the same brutal tactics of the former regime.
Allegations of torture at the hands of police persist, and about 70 people have been killed in nationwide protests in the past three weeks. Rights groups allege that police still operate with impunity.
The security official said the decision was made after studying the demands of policemen who complain they cannot properly defend themselves against attacks on security headquarters and police stations. Some protesters have also attacked police during demonstrations, severely wounding many.
A retired police colonel, Ihab Youssef, said low-ranking policemen, referred to in Egypt as "afrad" and "omana," are allowed to have firearms with them on duty, but must return their weapons to their superiors after work. They are asking to be able to carry the weapons at all times.
"This will cause a lot of problems because they are not well-trained and do not know how to use this weapon," Youssef said. "In the worst-case scenario, police will end up turning into thugs after working hours."
Some in the force are not only seething over what they say is inadequate firepower, but have openly protested serving under a president who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group the police aggressively targeted for decades. They say they are forced to confront protesters angry with President Mohammed Morsi.
The decision to issue arms to low-ranking officers comes just weeks after black-clad riot police appeared for the first time in new, protective gear that reduces their vulnerability to rocks and firebombs and conceals much of their faces.
In a first, the police also received three patrol helicopters.
Just hours before the decision was announced, about 50 police officers protested in the city of Aswan, demanding more weapons to fight a surge of crime that has swept across Egypt as police authority unraveled following Mubarak's ouster.
It was the latest in a string of incidents pointing to a breakdown of discipline in a force where the power and prestige of top security officials was rarely questioned by subordinates.
Policemen in Egypt also want better salaries and working conditions, and are frustrated that police can be tried in military courts.