Egypt's state security: a scorpion's tale

Waleed Marzouk, Wednesday 9 Mar 2011

With protesters storming state security offices across the country in the past few days, the decrepit institution has sounded off its agonized death rattle, but can it rise from the ashes, and in what form?

State security: a scorpion
In Friday, March 4, 2011 photo Egyptian military police seize documents from protesters after they stormed the security police headquarters in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP Photo/Ahmed Mohammed)

On 5 and 6 March, concerned citizens tuned in to whatever media outlets they could get their hands on, from terrestrial TV stations to Twitter, to follow up on reports of brave activists storming state security offices to salvage incriminating files being set ablaze. As the images of former torture chambers reduced to charred husks streamed in, people wondered whether corrupt former regime officials would now be able to slip the noose given the broken chain of evidence that may result from the missing files.

Dozens of state security officers have since been arrested and recent reports of the head of state security Hassan Abdel-Rahman being detained by the Armed Forces have now been confirmed, prompting the media to confidently, though perhaps prematurely, announce the “de facto death” of the institution. The question remains whether this contemptible beast has truly been put to sleep. If it still breathes, is this a window of opportunity for rehabilitation, or extermination?

Contemptible conduct

Prior to the 25 January revolution, internal security was the responsibility of three intelligence organizations. General Intelligence reported to the presidency, Military Intelligence to the Ministry of Defense and the General Directorate for State Security Investigations, commonly referred to as state security, was under the direct control of the Interior Minister, and responsible for domestic security.

As the leaked files have blaringly evidenced, state security had made full use of the notorious emergency law to monitor, as well as detain and torture, members of opposition movements, foreign and local journalists, political activists and anyone that might have had the misfortune to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when voicing their dissent.

Files obtained and leaked onto the Internet from the state security headquarters at Nasr City implicate the organization directly in the bombing that occurred at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, and outline the torture devices routinely used on the premises.  

The leaked files have become the talk of the town, with practically every other local café patron cracking wise about the possible contents of their own file and the Armed Forces’ childlike appeals that they be returned in the name of patriotism, delivered via mass text messages.

What has become termed “Amn dawla [state security] leaks” is giving WikiLeaks a serious run for its money in local media.

Blinding hubris

Journalist Ayman Farouk, who has been covering the Interior Ministry closely for over a decade, notes that in 2005 the state security apparatus’ emboldening reached off-the-chart levels. In a pitifully transparent response to mounting international pressure, the government allowed more opposition movements to emerge onto the political arena. And as their members were profiled, smirked at when they demonstrated, and given a mouthful of iron fist when they stepped out of line, the real feather in cap of state security, according to Farouk, was their effective infiltration and subsequent discrediting of many of those movements.

“They infiltrated these pro-democracy movements, like Kefaya, and gave them access to foreign funds. This created internal conflict within these movements, and credibility problems for them,” says Farouk.

Farouk maintains that state security has been blinded by its own hubris since, coasting on its momentum, until this year’s revolt.

The panicky, after-the-fact responses of the apparatus in the first few days of the uprising revealed the chinks in its armor. And key instances, such as the decision to block all telecommunications on 28 January, the Day of Anger, and releasing thugs into Tahrir square to assault peaceful demonstrators on 2 February, since then known as the Battle of the Camel, were not only misguided tactics but abysmal strategic failures that led to the eventual demise of the corroded apparatus, asserts Farouk.

Making appropriate use of former president Anwar Al Sadat’s famous quote, Farouk declares that the organization’s nefarious henchmen should foremost be “charged with political idiocy.”

Yet while one would be hard pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the organization’s typically heavy-handed approach or the stellar ineptitude it demonstrated since the 25 January uprising, few have presented thoroughly conceived alternatives for what purpose this organization could serve, and what form it could take.

In lieu of a corrupt general

The police force is meant to be a civil organization that reports to the Ministry of Justice, states rights activists Aida Seif El Dawla, who also works as a program coordinator at El Nadim center, which specializes in the rehabilitation of violence and torture victims and has spent years documenting and exposing state security transgressions.

“Why is it an unspoken rule that the Minister of Interior be recruited from the police force? Why are they sifting through the generals looking for the least corrupt, the one with the least offensive reputation? Why can’t it be a chancellor from the Ministry of Justice?”

Seif El Dawla responds emphatically when asked if she harbors any vision for the effective restructuring of the state security apparatus. “Absolutely not,” she asserts, adding that rights organizations such as El Nadim Center have always been clear in their stance that the apparatus should be dismantled.

“What purpose does it serve?” she inquires, “I can understand a general Intelligence authority, but why a state security apparatus?”

Seif El Dawla argues that the claim that some institution is required to deal with domestic security is specious, since no issue can come up that can’t be dealt with by law enforcement. She also indicates that El Nadim Center has yet to subject the newly-appointed Minister of Interior Mansour el-Essawi to their customary extensive research and present his track record on the center’s website for public scrutiny.

Four lawyers per precinct

Human rights lawyer and advocate Amir Salem, however, does have a vision.

“The real problem with state security is that it operated with impunity, with no accountability toward the prosecutor’s office or the judicial system and with powers that defy the imagination. These included appointing ministers, governors and university deans, as well as openly infiltrating political parties, labor unions and media outlets,” Salem asserts.

Salem can conceive of an apparatus that functions as a basic civil intelligence gathering establishment, similar to the Information and Decision Support Center, under the supervision of a civil secular state.

A thorough house cleaning would be required first, according to Salem. Former state security officers would be confronted with their “Nazi war crimes” and undergo psychological rehabilitation. The Interior Ministry would have to be drained of its most of its needless personnel (estimated at 1.8 million) and, most importantly, the abolishment of resorting to the national draft to man the domestic security apparatus.

Salem even went as far as to suggest a radical proposition at a law enforcement precinct he visited, but chose not to name. Each police station, according to Salem’s recommendation, would devote a room to four lawyers that would provide general legal assistance, from transcribing statements to appeal considerations. They would work under the supervision of the prosecutor-general’s office and the lawyer’s syndicate.

Chuckling, Salem recalls how the station officers balked at the suggestion that their work be monitored by lawyers.

Down on the ground

But on Monday night, past curfew, Tahrir square was packed with over thirty tents, and the squatting demonstrators that showed no intention of leaving anytime soon probably did not consider these concerns a laughing matter, especially given the events that unfolded in neighboring Lazoghly square the day before.  

Tahrir square’s centerpiece is now a poster-strewn monolith displaying the faces of the “thieves of Egypt’s fortune”, from Hosni Mubarak to former information and housing ministers Safwat El Sherif and Ahmad El Maghraby, respectively, with many of the faces (the ones protestors can reach) sporting doodled stars of David on their foreheads.  An updated list of the protestors’ demands cites the dissolution of the state security apparatus as priority number three, with the top two being the dissolution of the National Democratic party and local councils.

One protestor was, ironically, an army conscript assigned to his traffic monitoring duties by the Interior Ministry. Understandably, he chose to go by a pseudonym – in this case, “freedom-lover”. He has not abandoned his duties as a policeman, but his commitment to the square’s protest movement became complete after he witnessed what he describes as “despicable measures” taken by state security to disperse protestors in the first two days of the uprising, which included firing expired tear gas canisters, jeopardizing the health of the front-line anti-riot policemen and targeted protestors alike. He now joins the protestors in Tahrir square as soon as his shift is over, and has been sleeping there since last Friday. 

Freedom-lover still has faith in the institution of state security, though he believes it is essential that it be dismantled before any attempts at restructuring are made. “You can only purify [state security] after you dissolve it first. This apparatus has to protect both civilians and policemen,” he says, calling for an end to the practice of using military draftees in the domestic security apparatus.

Sherif Rashad, a 23-year-old protester and media student, wants more, however. He has inhabited the square since the Friday before last, 25 February, when the army’s attempts to disperse protestors with cattle prods resulted in altercations.  He says state security remain “at least 90 per cent operational” with the thugs unleashed on protestors in front of state security offices at Lazoghly square on Sunday night irrefutable evidence that their leadership is still at large.

Rashad says the state security officials are easy to recognize, despite their civilian clothing, because of the “combative, entitled attitude” they project and never learned to shake off. “They might as well have ‘State Security’ printed on their foreheads,” quips Rashad.

A spirited protester, Rashad maintains that he has been reduced to a “kill or be killed” predicament vis-à-vis state security. “If they get me, especially given the state of the country now, I’ll definitely be tortured,” says Rashad. 

Since they recognize him and know where he lives, reasons Rashad, he can only feel safe going back home once he trusts that the apparatus has been thoroughly dismantled and all corrupt officers adequately prosecuted.

Mohamed Maher, a 22-year-old security guard and protester, now shares a tent with Rashad in Tahrir square. He claims he has been on state security’s most wanted dissident list ever since he helped smuggle food and medicine across the Rafah border into Gaza in 2009, and knows what it means to live with palpable fear on a daily basis. He was helping conduct traffic with a youth patrol group near Abdeen square on Sunday when he was spotted by three undercover security officials that recognized him. They chased him all the way down Bab el-Louk Street until he was able to seek refuge in Tahrir square.

Asked whether there can be any hope in restructuring the organization, Maher sticks adamantly to his guns, employing an apt analogy. “If you got bit by a scorpion, and chased it back to its den and found them all, what would do? Shuffle them around, or exterminate them?”

It’s not surprising, therefore, to find that Rashad and Maher, like many of their peers still occupying Tahrir square, share an outspoken contempt for the institution and its repressive officers. They even agree on their preferred method of retribution. “They should all be impaled, like Sulieman al-Halabi,” recommends Rashad.

“On the Cairo tower,” offers Maher.

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