No real freedom without dismantling the secret political police

In Egypt, police officers are needed back on the streets, protecting civilians from thugs: not the SSI back in full force again.

Mariz Tadros
22 February 2011

President Zine el Abbidin of Tunisia and President Mubarak of Egypt may have been ousted, but the terror and control of the secret political police continues unchecked and invisible to the eyes of the international community. Unless the domestic intelligence agencies: the state security investigations apparatus (SSI) in Egypt and its counterpart in Tunisia are immediately dismantled, not only will repression continue, but an underground witch-hunt against citizens who continue to press for genuine democracy will follow. There are signs that this is already happening in Tunisia where politically active citizens have once again felt the secret police force breathing down their necks.  

Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent activist who was harassed under Ben Ali's rule over attempts to set up an independent Internet newspaper and a satellite television channel, said that recently she has been again subject to surveillance by the secret police. Prior to the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, the president’s party established a very complex and pervasive regime for monitoring ordinary citizens through the secret [political] police. According to Nadia Marzouki, a citizen had to avoid entanglements with the authorities, otherwise officials may “interfere with her enrolment at a university, her exams, her wedding or her desire to open a restaurant or shop, buy property, give birth in a hospital, obtain a passport or even buy a cellular phone: After 23 years of internalizing fear, Tunisians became their own censors.” 

In post-Mubarak Egypt, the fear barrier over mentioning the SSI is now almost fully breached, but activists affirm that the officers are still in full force. The state security investigations apparatus has, since its establishment under British colonial rule, systematically served to protect the ruling regime by collecting intelligence information and using soft and brutal power against real, virtual or potential sources of dissidence. Since former Minister of Interior Habib al Adly came to power in 1997, he has worked to transform the apparatus into a parallel governance structure that uses repression, coercion and control mechanisms to remind citizens that the big SSI brother is always watching. When Mubarak announced the resignation of the government on the night of the January 28, Habib al Adly was removed from power. Technically, the SSI is supposed to be answerable to the Minister of Interior and it was assumed that the SSI would become redundant once Habib el Adly resigned. Yet what happened next suggested otherwise. Wael Saeed Abbas Ghoneim, one of the youth bloggers, was kidnapped by the State Security Investigations apparatus on January 27 and detained blindfolded for 12 days while everyone was oblivious to his whereabouts. It was assumed that he would be released shortly after January 28; but this was not the case. 

Recent investigations with Habib al Adly over his use of brutal force against the demonstrators carried out by the Security Prosecution in Egypt have revealed that the SSI had long ceased to report to the Minister of Interior. They had become an apparatus enjoying full autonomy and reporting directly to the President. General Hassan Abd el Rahman, head of the SSI said that the apparatus does not send any reports to the Minister of Interior but to the presidential office directly, from whom it receives its orders[1]. Now that the President has gone, to whom is the SSI answerable? 

Under the previous Mubarak regime, the SSI exercised their powers over every aspect of public life. They had infiltrated with officers and informants all active civil society organisations, be they engaged in advocacy,  distribution of microcredit for income-generating purposes, or provision of free-of-charge cars for the burial of the poors’ dead family members. Churches, mosques and religious organisations were no exception. The political parties and forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood were of course infiltrated, with regular reporting of activities to the officers becoming the norm. Recent documents retrieved from one of the SSI premises which residents had sought to burn to the ground in one of Egypt’s delta governorates, publicised by an Egyptian newspaper, showed the scale of such operations with respect to political parties and churches[2]. Officers also controlled the organisation of resources, on a macro or micro level, be it a foreign grant to a development organisation or the amount of flour allocated to the bakeries that sell subsidised bread. Every minute aspect of public life had come under the surveillance of the state security investigations apparatus. Polite, sophisticated and highly educated SSI officers would approach you and invite you to “come and have a cup of coffee with me at the premises”. The invite for coffee would be at odd hours of the night, 2am, 3am and so forth. You were expected to “share” with the officer the activities of your company, organisation, party, conference, whatever it was you did that involved engaging with people, no matter how seemingly apolitical. Holding a workshop in a local youth centre or a conference in a hotel required the permission of the SSI, who attended as a matter of course, even if the subject matter was the need to introduce sex education at school. As Egyptian citizens we experienced the SSI as an all powerful actor exercising power in the visible, formal spaces and in more opaque forms. The SSI was a force to be feared at all times, no matter how pleasant and ‘decent’ their personal manner (though of course their record of torture, brutality and responsibility for “disappearances” was widely known to all). We had become accustomed to the normality of living with the SSI and the SSI living within us. 

The SSI’s infringements on civil liberties (such as arrest without warrant) have often been committed in the name of the State Emergency Law which has been in effect in Egypt since 1981. On February 11, Egypt’s military council promised to lift the country's 30-year state of emergency when the "current situation has ended". The communiqué also promised that “it will not pursue the honourable Egyptian people who have rejected corruption and demanded reform”. However, to this day the Emergency Law has not been lifted. It was hoped however, that in view of the demise of the Mubarak regime, the illegitimacy of the SSI would be declared and the anatomy of the apparatus exposed. While Ministers and famous businessmen have been called to account for their policies and actions, the current political order has gone quiet over the SSI and its officers. No actions have been announced, despite the fact that when Egyptians took to the streets in protest, in particular on January 28, they specifically sought to set fire to police stations and the premises of the SSI because these symbolise the principle agents of the dehumanisation of the citizenry. Egypt is currently facing a severe security crisis, with a pressing need for police officers to be back on the streets protecting civilians from thugs and gangs that have been formed and are terrorising citizens: yet we don’t need the SSI back in full force again. What we are experiencing right now is the reversal of this.   

It is no longer acceptable for international actors to turn a blind eye to the invisible powers of the domestic intelligence agencies ruling over countries as parallel governance structures. They need to be named, shamed and called to accountability. Every country needs an intelligence agency for national security purposes, but that is very different in size, objective and identity from that which exists in authoritarian regimes. We need to take collective responsibility for saving the evidence collected on the scale and immensity of their role, and the profile of their perpetrators, both so essential for any future initiatives in securing transitional justice. The international media needs to widely publicise any incidents of assault, disappearance and detentions as well as the day-to-day “harassments” of regular citizens at the hands of the state security investigations officers.  As Egyptians, we need to start a national campaign calling for the dismantlement of the SSI and holding it to account. Any policy dialogue between international actors and the Egyptian government should raise the status and role of the SSI. It cannot be kept conveniently in the closet anymore.



A more detailed discussion of the role of the state security investigations apparatus in Egyptian civil society appears in the forthcoming issue 11.1 of the Journal of' ‘Conflict, Security and Development'.


[1] Al Youm al Saba’e newspaper, February 17, http://www.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=353614&SecID=12 [accessed 18.2.2011] 

[2] Al Dostour, February 17, 2011. http://dostor.org/politics/egypt/11/february/17/36452

Accessed on February 18, 2011

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