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Should one expect security sector reform in Egypt?

In the stand-off between the two main political actors, control over the security sector will be a major issue at stake. Both groups are convinced that they will only be able to maintain their domination over the political scene provided that they enjoy control over the security institutions.

Virginie Collombier
16 August 2012

Hosni Mubarak has gone. The State Security – the Interior ministry’s most feared arm – has been dissolved. A new president has been elected and, for the first time ever in the history of the Republic, he is a civilian. Yet is there any sign that the security sector has undergone a significant transformation, that the role of the security services has evolved, or at least that change is under way?

A recent poll conducted by independent researchers shows that for many Egyptians security sector reform is a top priority. They would like to see the reform of state institutions – in particular police and security agencies, which they widely perceive as responsible for committing massive human rights abuses.

However, with a security situation widely perceived as deteriorating throughout the country, a military institution primarily concerned with the preservation of its political guardianship and the protection of its economic interests, and a Muslim Brotherhood eager to assert and consolidate its grip on power, early hopes that a serious security sector reform could be implemented have been dashed. In the current context, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – the two main political actors – have a real interest in pushing for reform.

The police: the only possible target for reform?

Two main issues related to the security sector were at stake at the time Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power: the loosening of the police’s grip on society and the definition of the role of (non-elected) security institutions – primarily the army – in politics. Unsurprisingly, security sector reform proponents chose to focus on the first one.

The reform of the police was considered the sole realistic objective. Egypt's police force was viewed as a significant and legitimate target, since it best embodied the Mubarak regime’s practices of repression and corruption. By contrast, the political role of the military – which, having engaged in the revolution to “protect the people”, had a positive image amongst the general public and was leading the transition process – could hardly be questioned, at least in the first stage.

The police had come to represent the worst face of the Mubarak system. Since the 1990s, as its legitimacy was eroding, the regime had increasingly relied on the security apparatus to maintain its grip on society and power. More than a military regime, however, the system built by former air chief marshal Mubarak could be described as a police regime.

If the army was the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s security, the president had been cautious to use it only as a last recourse, in order not to become hostage to it. Instead, the Ministry of Interior had become the actual backbone of the regime. The Central Security Forces (amn al-markazi) were in charge of keeping public order (they were notably the ones deployed to outnumber and crack down on demonstrators). The State Security (amn al-dawla) was officially responsible for fighting terrorism, but was also used for surveillance and repression of political dissent. Both were known for their savage repression of demonstrations and use of torture against militants. More generally, the various police services with whom the public had to deal were characterized by two main features: brutality and corruption – for instance when ordinary people were arrested without reason and their release haggled over with their relatives.

Abuses by the police forces against ordinary citizens played a major role in triggering the mass protest that led to the ousting of Mubarak in February 2011. It is no coincidence that the Egyptian revolution started on a January 25, the national Police Day. During the upheaval and in the weeks that followed, police stations throughout the country were the target of the citizens’ anger, as well as the State Security (amn al-dawla), whose headquarters were raided in early March.

After the departure of Mubarak, it was therefore on reform of the Interior ministry that political leaders and civil society activists alike concentrated their efforts – and their communication. In early March, the State Security was dissolved. While former Interior minister Habib al-Adly – a close associate of Gamal Mubarak – was being detained and several cases brought against him, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sidelined several of his men in the Ministry, who became the subjects of numerous accusations in the media. The whole operation looked more like a purge, however – a way to be done with Mubarak and his clan – than genuine reform. To date, despite the ideas put forward by civil society organizations and some security actors themselves – notably police officers – the new political authorities have put forward no significant plan for reforming the police.

The military: a political role hardly challenged

From the mid-1990s onwards, the military had accepted a distanced relationship to politics, even though it had a say on foreign policy matters or economic issues that it considered as having an impact on national security (for instance the privatization of important public companies). Yet, the prospect of presidential succession posed a threat that it might be excluded from the decision-making process. By intervening to protect the demonstrators in Tahrir in February 2011, the military behaved in accordance with what it saw was the institution’s ethos. Yet the revolution also provided it with an opportunity to get rid of Gamal Mubarak and his entourage, hence cutting short the succession scenario it was opposing. The direct intervention of the military in politics could have raised questions regarding the role of a non-elected institution – one that holds force – in the political process. This was not the case, however, at least in the first stage.

In sharp contrast to the police’s negative image with the public, the armed forces have always been one of the most respected institutions in Egypt. It has been seen as the most efficient, most modernizing and least corrupt institution in the country. Its economic activities are also popular, as they are seen by many – and presented as such – as a way to provide accessible goods to the general public. The eruption of SCAF onto the political scene on February 10 was therefore welcomed by demonstrators, as was the subsequent leading role assumed by the military council in the transition process. The motto “the people and the army are one hand” have symbolized this “honeymoon” period. In the absence of a credible and organized opposition – and because some feared an Islamist takeover – the military’s intervention in politics was seen as legitimate. For months, the way the SCAF managed the transition process did not raise significant criticism, even though it took place through opaque decision-making procedures, informal consultations and behind-closed-doors negotiations.

SCAF’s immunity to criticism has been gradually challenged, however, and questions have emerged about the legitimacy of its (unchecked) political role. First, the use of excessive violence against protesters – notably during the Maspero events in October 2011 and the clashes of Mohamed Mahmud Street in November 2011 – has dealt a severe blow to the army’s image and its reputation as “the people’s army”. Second, while the issue had not been mentioned previously, activists have started documenting and denouncing the army’s huge economic interests and privileges, something which would have been inconceivable only a few months earlier. Finally, the various attempts by the military to secure and institutionalize its political role beyond the transitional period – the latest episode being the addendum to the constitutional declaration published on July 17 – provoked a fierce reaction in political forces across the board. The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, has just started a trial of strength with the SCAF, whose self-assigned prerogatives seriously limit the power it should have derived from its victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections.

The outcome of this battle – and its impact on the relationship between representative institutions and security forces – remains uncertain, however. The military’s domination of the political system remains difficult to challenge, while the army is the one that holds and can exercise force, is viewed by many as the only credible counterweight to the Islamists and still enjoys the support of a majority of citizens – beyond the circle of political and civil society activists. Moreover, while the newly-elected Parliament’s and President’s capacity to deliver significant change has been questioned over recent weeks, ordinary people increasingly tend to see to the military as a possible last recourse: many still consider that only a military man can get the country out of the current turmoil.

The SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and security reform: the temptation of status quo

The future of security sector reform largely depends on the political will that the two most powerful and legitimate forces – the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF – are about to demonstrate. It is unlikely that either organization will see much interest in pushing for reform in the current context.

Both are concerned by the deterioration of the security situation, the proliferation of arms in the country (a result of the attacks against police stations during the revolution, the war in Libya and the interconnection of trafficking networks from Libya, Upper Egypt and Gaza), as well as by the recent extension of social movements. Initiating a significant reform of the security sector under such circumstances may well prove risky: de-structuring/re-structuring existing institutions and attempting to transform the way they operate could make the situation even worst, at least in the short term. Because they will bear responsibility for this in the eyes of the citizens, both the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood will probably be reluctant to engage in a reform that might cause them to lose control of the situation.

In the face-to-face stand-off that has commenced between the two main political actors, control over the security sector will also be a major issue at stake. Both groups are convinced that they will only be able to assert and maintain their domination over the political scene – and over society – provided that they enjoy control over the security institutions. For the military, the challenge in the coming period will be to prevent the Islamists from penetrating too deeply the state’s institutions: this means in particular the upper and intermediary echelons of bureaucracy, the state media, and of course the security apparatus. For the Muslim Brotherhood, in contrast, the main objective will be to take control over these very institutions. As a matter of fact, a few weeks ago rumours circulated that the organization was trying to impose quotas for its members at the Police Academy. Now negotiations between the Islamists and the military over the formation of a new government are said to be faltering over the attribution of a number of ministries, which include the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Interior.

The Ministry of Interior has become one tool in the competition for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF. A priority for them will certainly be get the police back to work. Yet both have recently seemed more concerned with keeping or gaining control over it than restructuring it. 

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