“This was a place where just driving or walking by it gave me the creeps,” says Hossam Hamalawy, an activist who was twice detained by State Security (although not at that facility).
On Saturday night, Hamalawy and many others entered the facility—in a way they never expected. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I was entering it not as a detainee, not as someone who’s blindfolded.” Instead, he was part of a triumphant, storming crowd, come to hold accountable those they had long feared.
One of the demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square has been the abolition of Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, which has had free license to spy, kidnap, and torture. Tasked mainly with maintaining the regime in power, it employed at least 100,000 officers and unknown legions of informants.
So far, the authorities here have balked, arguing that the service needs to be reformed and restructured, but remains necessary. This past weekend, Egyptians lost their patience and simply started dismantling it themselves. After reports of documents being burned and moved out by the truckload, crowds converged on its offices in Alexandria, Cairo, and the southern city of Aswan.
Once they broke in, they found hallways knee-deep in shredded paper; empty cells and interrogation rooms; and torture devices. Despite the service’s efforts, not all documents had been destroyed. Activists—some of whom found their own or their friends’ files—picked up armfuls of papers, carried them home and yesterday started posting them online. (One of the main sites is a Twitter feed and Facebook group called SSLeaks.)
Once they broke into security offices, they found hallways knee-deep in shredded paper; empty cells and interrogation rooms; and torture devices.
Egyptians can now browse through pages and pages of documentation of the daily activities of a secret service that controlled everything from university appointments to the guests on TV talk shows to the winners of the next elections to, allegedly, the drug trade. Created mostly to repress an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, the service morphed into a shadow state that even other government ministries had to pay extortion money to.
Although it’s difficult to verify the authenticity of the documents, the size and timing of the dump and the details it contains suggest that most of them are genuine. A memo from February 2008 gives directions in chilling legalese to keep detainees long enough for them to heal from beatings and torture: “It’s been noticed recently that some of the elements transferred to the Special Operations Group from the administrations and branches of the [State Security] apparatus have injuries... a matter that leads us to request that you examine their state and extend their detention until they are on the way to recovery. Please pay careful attention to the cases that will be transferred to the Special Operations Group and ensure their healthy condition and the absence of any injuries.”
The documents also show the security services were drinking their own Kool-Aid. Another undated but apparently recent memo presenting an “analysis of the state of chaos that the country has witnessed recently” states that the protests against former President Hosni Mubarak were the work of “the United States, the European Union, and the Zionist entity,” which created a “plan aiming at tearing the Arab and Muslim world,” with the goal of “making the Arab world lose its national, Islamic identity and forcing the Arab people to normalize with Israel.”
The documents leaked so far also show the security services wire-tapping opposition figures, orchestrating media campaigns, and managing their vast network of informers.
Many documents also show the security services “arranging” elections—instructing the Muslim Brotherhood not to run in certain districts; throwing their support behind members of the president’s ruling party, and making sure no real election-monitoring takes place.
The documents, much like the interiors of the sprawling State Security complexes, now viewable on YouTube—bland reception rooms full of chandeliers and three-star-hotel furniture; endless hallways; archives full of neatly labeled files—are a study in the banality of evil. They reveal a degree of daily interference in the country’s affairs that is staggering in its minuteness and pettiness.
After the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in parliament in 2005, a document from State Security instructs ministries not to collaborate with the new parliamentarians and to make sure they are unable to improve health, education, and housing services in their districts. In August 2010, a man in the province of Baheira tried to open a branch office of Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Coalition for Change. State Security made a list of his properties and instructed the tax authorities to go after him.
Today, the once-all-powerful service is on the run. “They must be totally demoralized. I’m sure their operations have been largely disrupted,” says Hamalawy. But like many Egyptians, he is still concerned about the damage they could do. “We’re talking about a crime syndicate,” he says. “These guys are armed, they have the contacts with criminals… once they feel totally cornered they will start lashing out or fighting back.” Many fear the security services, with their back against the wall, will orchestrate terrorist attacks, sectarian violence, or a crime wave—anything to distract and frighten the public.
That’s why it’s important to move to swift and comprehensive prosecution, argues Hamalawy. “We go after everybody, from the informers all the way up to the directors... They definitely need to be put on trial.”
So far, the raids on State Security offices haven’t led to the freeing of detainees—to the despair of relatives who rushed to the scene, hoping to find them. There may be thousands of individuals still in the hands of the service, some of whom have been “missing” for years. Human-rights groups have estimated that the service held between 8,000 and 15,000 prisoners in the last decade (a blurry document from the leaked files, dated 2003, seems to confirm this, putting the number of detainees at 9,412).
It’s also likely that the documents that have been found so far are the least incriminating. State Security has been cleaning shop for a while. An order dated January 26 (a day after protests broke out) instructs all “branch offices” to destroy their “secret archives” (by shredding rather than burning, presumably so as to attract less attention) and to “limit their secret libraries to the fundamentals for the future, without maintaining pictures.”
The documents made public do not discuss the rendition program that Egypt operated for the United States; there is no documentation of secret detention facilities, no transcripts of interrogations, no information about how informers were bribed or blackmailed into collaborating. These documents may have been destroyed already; or they may be in secret, secure locations.
Wherever they are, Egyptians are looking for them.
Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.