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As Egypt lionizes police, activists worry

By Tom Perry and Shadia Nasralla

CAIRO (Reuters) - As the bodies of hundreds of people killed by security forces lay at a Cairo mosque, ignored by Egyptian media, four of the policemen who died in the violence were feted as heroes in a funeral broadcast live on state television.

"They died guarding this nation," said the TV commentator, as the four coffins draped with Egyptian flags were placed on separate fire trucks for a procession accompanied by a brass band.

In somber tones, the commentator said: "The coming period is one of security and safety."

The army-backed government is lionizing the police force that crushed Cairo protests by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Mursi this week, killing at least 578 people in a day of bloodshed that outstripped anything seen in the 30-year rule of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011.

Accompanied by the army's move back to the heart of government, it is worrying those Egyptians who fear a newly assertive security apparatus will try to knock a badly shaken democratic transition even further off course.

"It's very troubling," said Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 movement which helped to ignite the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising fuelled by anger at police brutality. "They are trying to present the police as angels."

Since Mursi was toppled on July 3, the police force has shown confidence not seen since Mubarak's downfall.

Kitted out with new gear, it is being lauded as the hero of a new war against an old enemy: Islamist militancy.

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has said 43 policemen were killed, a toll the Brotherhood dismissed as part of propaganda to demonize the group and justify an even tougher crackdown.

The burnt-out remains of police vehicles still lay abandoned on roads near where the main pro-Mursi sit-in was dispersed.

Ibrahim, a Mursi appointee, reflected the newly assertive mood, pointing to Mubarak-era policing as a model for the future as he detailed attacks on police stations across Egypt.

"I promise that as soon as conditions stabilize and the Egyptian street stabilizes, as soon as possible, security will be restored to this nation as if it was before January 25 (2011), and more," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

He also said sit-in protests would no longer be tolerated.

Last month, Ibrahim said he was reviving the "political security" agency, stirring memories of the days when secret police were used as an instrument of political oppression and riot squads deployed to crush even the smallest protest.

While fear of the police appeared to have been smashed by the 2011 uprising, rights activists say there has been no real reform of the institution since Mubarak's day. Both the army-led government that replaced him and the Mursi administration were faulted for failing to enact any reforms.

Allegations of police torture and excessive use of force have not eased, and fears are now growing that the force has a new license to crack down on political opponents.

"I don't think they will be able to turn back the clock," said Karim Ennarah of the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights. "Not that they are not going to try. I think they are going to try, they might think this is the best opportunity to repackage themselves."

Since Mursi's fall, signs have appeared in the streets of Cairo declaring the army, police and the nation as "one hand".

It is a message that appeals to many Egyptians who have complained about lax law and order since Mubarak's time, with police appearing unwilling or unable to tackle crime.

Some welcomed the declaration of a one-month state of emergency on Wednesday - another development with echoes of the Mubarak era - as a necessary step to restore order.

"Mubarak's days were the best, there was security then. It's good that now there's more police in the street," said Faten Kafrawi, 37, speaking at her tea stall in Tahrir Square.

Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, head of the interim government, praised the police on Wednesday for showing "self-restraint" in the face of attacks by protesters, a comment that drew a sharp riposte from New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Purely on the basis of the extremely high death toll on the side of protesters, I think it is completely inappropriate for the prime minister to make those kind of comments," said Heba Morayef, the group's Egypt director.

"This is the behavior of the security forces that feel they do not have to fear being held to account," she said.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad described the police as a mob. "They've got new arms and ammunition, they've got new tanks and trucks. They are certainly trying to establish themselves in a new rhetoric of being the big bully back on the scene," he said.

Although the police and other security forces may be re-gaining their old confidence, pro-democracy advocates say the people power that toppled Mubarak could keep them in check.

Maher, of the April 6 movement, who was briefly detained in May for organizing protests at the Interior Minister's house, said the government could not turn back the clock.

"If Ibrahim is thinking, or intending to reimpose the siege on political parties, and crushing protests, of course, he will fail," he said.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Alistair Lyon)

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