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Re-making Egypt’s notorious state security agency

Egypt's National Security Service should be launched shortly and consider giving access to surveillance files, say senior MOI sources to Ahram Online

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 5 Apr 2011
State Security
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"It is a matter of weeks,” states a ministry of interior senior official to Ahram Online regarding the complete overhaul of Egypt’s National Security, who abused their powers during the ousted Mubarak era and were commonly known for interrogations, beatings and torture.

“We have done the initial selection of top generals and we are finalising the selection of officers. There will be training on the new concept and mode of operation. National security will no longer be about the regime, but about the nation," said the official source.

The source describes the new National Security to be "a much smaller service than [the dissolved] State Security."

According to this and other ministry of interior sources the size of the new agency will be roughly fifty per cent of the previous service. This, they say, is due to the expected reduction of surveillance officers operating across the nation who were "monitoring everything and everyone, almost."

The operation of the new service of National Security "will refrain" from digging its nose in the private lives of opposition figures, journalists and civil society activists. The volume of personal surveillance and eavesdropping will also be reduced considerably.

"The objective will be to protect the nation from major criminal attacks, be they political or financial," said another ministry of interior source.

He added that while Islamists in the general sense of the word should not be subject to surveillance by the new National Security Service "potential cooperatives of major extremist groups, like Al-Qaeda, will certainly be watched."

As for government security, sources agree it will be approached from an entirely different perspective than that of the past. This new approach would require National Security Service to alert of possible assassination attempts against top state figures as possible crimes rather than to pursue and persecute opposition figures as potential political hazards. The job is then about protecting lives and not reinforcing the regime.

Close coordination is expected to be institutionalised between the National Security Service and the Intelligence Service. "This was not exactly the case in the past because they [the heads of the two services] were competing for the favour [of the toppled president]," said an officer of the previous state security who is now being re-trained before joining the new national security service.

Ministry of Interior sources say that the selection of those transferred from State Security to National Security was based on two basic criteria: professional efficiency and clearance from violations of minor or major of human rights under the previous regime.

Most of the officers transferred from State Security to National Security have been "selected by a board" from "the younger officers." Of those "very very few" had serviced on the desks in charge of monitoring the national front.

"Those who were involved in threatening and torture are out. Many of them chose to retire and some were offered an early retirement package," said one the state-now-national security officer.

Meanwhile, the ministry of interior is soliciting expertise from several European countries, especially Germany, to get technical help on the formation of the National Security.

A key question that is being asked - and is still unanswered - is what to do with the piles of information was collected by the dissolved State Security – often through violations of human rights.

A model that the ministry of interior is contemplating is how Germany handled surveillance and interrogation information after the fall of the Berlin wall (and with it the notorious East Germany Stasi): the files were organized and the concerned individuals were given unlimited access to their own files while police are given limited access, depending on legal orders.

"In Germany, today, citizens of the previous East Germany can go and ask to see their files; often people are surprised by the many details over their lives that were reported to Stasi and they are at times shocked by the fact that their actions were reported by some of the closest people – sometimes spouses, children and parents," said a German source.

This example might not be very compatible with the Egyptian context – as some ministry of interior sources suggest. The overall trend so far in Egypt is to protect the privacy of individuals who were subject to unwarranted tampering.

Another key question is whether or not the new service will operate on the basis of the same set of rules and regulations that governed the operation of the dissolved service. Some of these rules, ministry of interior sources say, will be completely thrown out, while others will be re-written and some will be kept.

Essentially, the same sources add, the right of National Security to exercise eavesdropping, recording of phone calls and private encounters will be reduced to a minimum and will be made conditional to the approval and surveillance of the prosecution.

Meanwhile, it is not clear whether National Security will keep the same notorious State Security headquarter building in Nasr City in northeast Cairo, which was partially burned and looted. The objective for the ministry of interior is to build a new service with a new image.

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