Old Regime

In Egypt, Security Agencies Still Major Barriers to Change

As the country looks toward a June presidential runoff, Egypt’s dreaded security agencies remain loathsome relics of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Mahmud Hams, AFP / Getty Images

Among the many reasons why Hosni Mubarak’s people finally turned against him last year, the behavior of Egypt’s police and security agencies deserve to rank in any observer’s top three. Put simply, the Interior Ministry under Mubarak lost control of itself—morphing into a predatory force with no real checks on its behavior, as its reach extended into the lives of almost every citizen.

Now 15 months after Mubarak was driven from power, disturbingly little has changed. Egypt’s hated and dreaded Interior Ministry stands largely unreformed—an armed and resentful elephant in the room of post-revolutionary Egypt, and one of the biggest potential obstacles to truly changing the way the country worked under the old regime.

“In terms of internal reform, very little really has happened,” said Karim Ennarah a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights NGO.

“The only thing that really has changed is that after the revolution … they’ve discovered PR. Before that they really didn’t care.”

Egypt’s police have returned to the streets in nearly full force; in some districts their grip is less firm than it used to be, but they’ve largely revived their thug-and-informant-based control networks and retained the penchant for stationhouse brutality and coerced confessions. Curiously, this return to power has coincided with an increase in street crime and rising public perception of widespread instability.

It’s a twin phenomenon that some find to be more than a coincidence. Some observers such as Alaa Aswany, a bestselling novelist and longtime opposition activist, believe the police and security infrastructure are either sitting back and letting the situation on the streets deteriorate or actively involved in making it worse.

“Basically every general in state security is guilty of a crime against the Egyptian people. And they know that once we have a fair election, we’re probably going to send them to jail for 20 years,” Aswany told me.

They are thinking "Am I going to do my job sincerely and smooth the path to elections so you can jail me? Of course, I’m going to cause trouble and spark problems between Muslims and Christians and set fires here and there and ruin the elections. I’m fighting for my life here.”

One mid-level police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to speculate about the security services actively participating in destabilizing the country. But he admitted police had “morale problems” and many were ambivalent about doing their jobs.

The Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Last spring, the National Initiative for Police Reform brought together human- rights activists like Ennarah and others with a handful of current and former police officers in the hopes of pushing forward sweeping change. But Ennarah said a crucial window of opportunity was lost in those first few months after the revolution, when the ministry was briefly brought to its knees; dozens of police stations had been burned down and thousands of officers feared coming to work. The remnants of the security apparatus were essentially begging the Egyptian people for a second chance and pledging to reform their ways.

Egypt has been through two interior ministers since Mubarak’s ouster. The current one, Mohammed Ibrahim, looks likely to leave soon, once a new president takes office. Habib Al-Adly, Mubarak’s longtime interior minister, was arrested immediately after the revolution and has already received multiple jail sentences with more potentially pending.

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Those promised post-Adly reforms, however, have proved cosmetic. A few senior officers were shuffled around and the despised State Security Investigations Service was renamed National Security. To date, only a small handful of low-ranking officers have been convicted of crimes committed against civilian protesters during the revolution. Most recently, five policemen were sentenced earlier this month to 10 years in prison each for their actions during the revolution. But no senior officers—other than Adly’s inner circle—have been convicted.

What’s worse, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the collection of senior generals that has controlled the country since Mubarak’s ouster—proved either unable or unwilling to take on the ministry. This became clear within a month of the revolution when the military turned a blind eye to systematic evidence destruction by state security—prompting civilian protesters to forcibly overrun the service’s strongholds in several Egyptian cities.

Last summer, as a growing number of citizens began calling for law and order, and as state media cast the remaining protesters as radicals, the Interior Ministry quickly regrouped and reorganized. The Central Security—the black-clad riot troops who were defeated by protesters at the start of the revolution—reappeared. The ministry’s pleas for forgiveness ceased. And over the past year, police and riot troops have fought and attacked protesters alongside their military counterparts.

“The ministry is incredibly adamant and obviously feels comfortable being backed by SCAF,” Ennarah said. “They don’t want to accept the reality that [the revolution] didn’t end with the toppling of Mubarak.”

Thus far, the ministry has proven resistant to both external and internal pressure. Shortly after the revolution, a group of officers formed the Alliance of Honorable Police Officers to campaign for sweeping internal reform.

But this reformist contingent is short on active-duty officers willing to step forward. Analysts say those among its ranks are generally low-status and a tiny minority within the ministry. Strikes among lower-ranking police officers have spread around the country, but these tend to focus on quality-of-life issues such as pay increases and better work conditions.

Now after more than a year of SCAF rule, it looks like the job of reforming the Interior Ministry will fall on Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The SCAF has pledged to turn over executive power by July 1 to the winner of Egypt’s election, which is still in progress. The first round of voting last week produced a mid-June runoff vote between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Moursi and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander and Mubarak-era minister.

Shafiq, in particular, seems less likely to enact any kind of meaningful Interior Ministry reform. He has run on a law-and-order campaign promising a return to Egypt’s strong-man days. Shafiq’s performance in the elections so far proves that a healthy percentage of the country is pining for a return to stability—even if it means a return to authoritarianism. Moursi would certainly seek to change things in the ministry, but the risk is that the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn’t change the culture so much as swap in their own loyalists.

For many Egyptian activists and reformers—the idea of fixing the internal culture of the Interior Ministry starts at the top. Reformist forces continue to campaign for the installation of a civilian minister—rather than the usual retired general who owes 30 years of favors to his fellow generals.

But the issue of answering to a civilian minister has so far proven anathema to rank-and-file police. The anonymous mid-level police officer immediately dismissed the idea, saying: “It’s impossible. Would you want a minister of health who wasn’t a doctor?”

Even among some activists, the idea of forcing a civilian minister onto an unwilling security apparatus is still regarded as implausible and unworkable in the short term.

“You’ve moved from a dictatorship to a free country. But you’re not yet a democracy and you’re going to take years before you become a democracy,” said Hisham Kassem, an independent Cairo-based newspaper publisher and longtime human-rights activist.

“And a civilian Minister of Interior is something that works more with a democracy, so it might not be a possibility for five years.”

The main concern with a civilian Interior Minister is that the ministry’s senior clique of powerful officers would simply refuse to go along with it—either through foot-dragging, open defiance, or destabilizing plots.

“If you appointed one of the tough cookies from the human rights world, [the officers] would drive him crazy,” Kassem said. “They know all the tricks in the trade. By the time he knew the game they were playing, there would be protests in the street demanding his head.”