The rise and fall of Egypt’s notorious State Security

In calling for the dissolution of Egypt's notorious State Security, the country’s pro-democracy movement has waged its fiercest battle since toppling former President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February.

Since Friday, scores of protesters have been storming branches of the State Security Investigations Service (SSIS), including the Nasr City complex.

For years, the SSIS has been slammed by opposition to the toppled regime as “the capital of hell, where massive violations of human rights take place.”

Merely initiating the fall of this secret police apparatus has been considered a landmark political achievement. However, dismantling the incumbent and powerful apparatus will not be achieved easily, activists observe.

Fears loom that the organization–which is capable of penetrating different sectors of society–is mobilizing their 100-thousand strong workforce to wage terror among Egyptians in an effort to preserve their power.

On Wednesday, violence erupted throughout Cairo as groups of thugs attacked a women’s protest in Tahrir Square and a Christian community in Moqattam, north Cairo. While the identity and motivation of those groups remain unclear, activists have expressed worries that it might constitute yet another SSIS orchestration.

The rise of SSIS

Since 1952, the internal political scene was monitored by various bodies such as the department of General Investigations–which was created in August 1952–within the Ministry of Interior.

One of its main tasks was to control and suppress labor activism, especially after worker strikes broke out in the village of Kafr al-Dawwar less than a month after the “free officers,” led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power in July 1952’s military coup.

Hassan Talaat, head of the General Investigations department in the late 1960s, defended the department’s mandate on patriotic grounds.

“My approach in dealing with these issues (labor strikes) is to assure that we are a patriotic apparatus that doesn’t aim at anything except defending the nation’s interest and solving roots of conflicts among workers and entrepreneurs,” Talaat wrote in his memoirs.

However, General Investigations was much weaker than other intelligence bodies associated with the military at the time.

Experts point to the era of late President Anwar Sadat as a time when the power of secret police began to rise dramatically.

In February 1974, the late president issued a decree creating a highly influential position within the Ministry of Interior for the head of State Security.

According to historians, this move formed the cornerstone of a robust police body intended to monitor Egypt’s internal politics.

Giving a green light for State Security to dominate the politics, Sadat also ordered that the entire Ministry of Interior be restructured.

The late president was surrounded by politicians who were once police officers. This reality gave supremacy to the police apparatus as opposed to the military which was closer to Nasser, his predecessor.

For example, Prime Minister Mamdouh Salem, the second most powerful man in the country during the 1970s, previously served as a police officer for State Security.

With time, the SSIS garnered more powers and weight, with increasing budgets and freedom to act, especially after the notorious Emergency Law was activated in 1981. The law continues to remain in force to this day.  

The SSIS in the last decade

“Beginning from 2004, the SSIS was literally everywhere and their job was not to protect the nation but rather to protect Mubarak and his regime,” said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since that time, especially with the inception of the opposition movement “Kifaya,” or the Egyptian Movement for Change, in late 2004, SSIS has launched campaigns to put the lid on political activism.

Kifaya, Arabic for “enough,” was considered the first movement to publicly demand an end to Mubarak’s rule.

However, the SSIS failed to control the 2005 parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 20 percent of the seats. The election was conducted under full judicial oversight.

In the following years, the SSIS combated the rising opposition by sponsoring divisions within political parties. In the Ghad Party, leading member Moussa Mostafa, allegedly associated with SSIS, tried to remove its prominent founder Ayman Nour and take his place as head of the party. Nour had challenged Mubarak in the first multi-candidate elections in 2005.

In addition, the SSIS, through the government’s Political Parties Commission, denied parties the right to exist. The moderate Islamic Wasat Party applied for licenses to operate four times since the 1990s.

Furthermore, the SSIS was responsible for shutting down rights groups. In 2007, it caused the closure of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services, which provides legal assistance to workers.

The SSIS also played a role in eliminating opposition candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Moreover, the SSIS has allegedly played a prominent role in appointing loyal editors for state owned newspapers in order to smear the opposition and defend policies of Mubarak’s regime.

The SSIS has played a role in obstructing political life on a day-to-day basis.

“Security services pose the more difficult near-term problem because they permeate and distort everyday life and political activity to an extent inconsistent with a democratic system,” wrote Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Egyptians are regularly required to inform security officers about political activities and discussions in which they have participated, leading to a climate of mutual suspicion.”

Documents leaked after protesters stormed SSIS premises show how the apparatus collected profiles of journalists and human rights activists, CVs of businessmen, and recordings of private conversations between public figures. They also show how it infiltrated Salafi and other radical groups with agents. Memos about churches' activities and worshipers were also found, as well as information about universities.  

Universities are considered a main area of interest for the SSIS, which has closely monitored campuses for both faculty and student activity.

Iman Yahiya, who was a student activist in the late 1970s and now professor of Urology at Suez Canal University, recalled her experience with SSIS.

“After finishing my PhD thesis in Russia in 1987, I came to Egypt and tried to apply for an academic post at the Suez Canal University in 1988. And because of my previous political activism, I had to struggle for 11 years in order to get the post because of objections made by the SSIS.”

For Abdel Monem Mahmoud, a blogger who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, “SSIS was a main obstacle for freedom in Egypt.” He recalled his prison experience to Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“In 2003, I was arrested among other students from the Brotherhood as we were preparing for demonstrations against the US-led invasion of Iraq. I was sent to the SSIS headquarters in Nasr City where I was brutally tortured. I cannot forget the voice of the SSIS officer who was insulting us,” said Mahmoud.

“You are nothing,” Mahmoud recalls the SSIS officer telling him. “We had here the terrorists of Al-Qaeda,” he added, before welcoming him and his fellow prisoners into the Egyptian Guantanamo.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the SSIS was involved in the US funded rendition program, in which persons with alleged links to Al-Qaeda were transferred to Egypt to be tortured.

Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, is one of the suspects who was kidnapped by CIA agents in the Italian city of Milan and deported to Egypt.

In Egypt, Abu Omar was subjected to various means of torture by SSIS officers.

Scenarios for the future

Analysts argue that the secret police has little role to play in Egypt now that Mubarak’s dictatorship has ended.

But the lack of information about the legal and political functions of SSIS makes it difficult to dismantle.

“State Security is a dubious apparatus. We don’t know how it thinks. The days ahead will reveal a lot of things, and show whether the leakage was on purpose,” said opposition figure George Ishak.

For some, the secret police should be maintained, “The apparatus can’t be dismantled but it has to restrict itself to collecting information and not running the whole country,” argued Nour. He added that the apparatus needs to work independently of the Ministry of Interior.

For Emad Gad, a political expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the apparatus has to “be restructured to handle terrorism only and stop spying on people.”

But he added that the apparatus in its current form has been completely delegitimized and should be replaced. “A new apparatus must be formed and it has to be subject to judiciary supervision,” he said.

Mahmoud al-Khodeiry, former vice president of Egypt’s court of cassation, agreed with Gad.

“The apparatus is necessary and has to remain but it has to be restructured and limited in a way that doesn’t allow it to interfere in matters outside of its specialty. It must serve the country and not the regime,” he said.

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