Thursday, March 17, 2011

Egypt's dreaded State Security agency has been dissolved, but many doubt the power of the secret police has really been broken after decades of using torture, intimidation and spying to intervene in almost all aspects of life. Egyptians fear some of its 100,000 members are still working underground to derail the country's bumpy transition to democracy.

Under Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, State Security was above the law. It spied on anyone suspected of dissident opinions, oversaw media, disrupted political activity and had the final say on who filled posts from government ministers to university professors.

It was notorious for torturing dissidents and for involvement in rigging elections, including working with ruling party members to gather bands of thugs who were used during elections to attack people suspected of voting for regime opponents.

Getting rid of the State Security Investigations agency was a key demand by the youth groups behind the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11. On Tuesday, Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy abolished the agency, saying he would replace it by a new one in charge of national security and combatting terrorism.

But that doesn't mean its members are gone.

"There is a consensus that it is dangerous to leave former members of the State Security unemployed," prominent rights activist Hossam Bahgat told The Associated Press. "The agency was the backbone of the regime and there is credible fear that its former members could easily spoil or even derail the shift to democracy."

Columnists in Egyptian newspapers and youth activists who led the protest wave accuse State Security agents of fomenting Muslim-Christian riots that erupted last week and killed more than a dozen people in an attempt to stir up instability. Others say the agents are fueling a crime wave that has hit the country since Mubarak's fall by releasing criminals from prison or even propagating labor strikes that have raged around the country the past month.

So far, no direct proof of a State Security hand has emerged. But Egypt's new political leaders have suggested they share the suspicions.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, named to his post in early March, said sectarian conflicts and spiraling labor strikes "are something organized, aimed at shaking the nation."

His deputy, Yahya el-Gamal, went further, warning, "We are now facing a counterrevolution, led by forces from the former regime along with hidden hands."

Activists and rights campaigners warn that the new agency replacing State Security Investigations could slip back into the same way unless drastic changes were introduced to change the deeply entrenched culture of impunity.

They propose close civilian supervision of security agencies, doing away with the appointment of police officers to the job of interior minister, who is in charge of the country's 500,000-strong security forces, and instead installing judges or legal experts.

Pent up for years, popular hatred for State Security came to a boil earlier this month when hundreds of activists and former detainees stormed its offices in several cities, including its main headquarters in Cairo. Their action was prompted by reports on Facebook and other Internet social networks that agents were shredding and burning of documents.

"This agency has humiliated Egyptians for so long," said Ahmed Fath El-Bab, who was among the crowds. "Now I feel that a bastion of the corrupt regime has fallen."

Of Egypt's multiple security bodies, State Security Investigations was the most powerful in the police state that arose in this nation of 80 million during Mubarak's rule.

Its agents were able to work with impunity under emergency laws that gave authorities far-reaching powers of arrest and detention - in force since Mubarak took office in 1981 - allowed State Security agents to operate with impunity.

Many pro-democracy activists have reported being tortured and beaten while in the agency's custody. One State Security member anonymously told the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper last week that he witnessed officers shoot to death terror suspects in extrajudicial executions during the crackdown on Islamic militant insurgents in the 1990s.

The agency helped orchestrate the widespread fraud that marred every election in Egypt to ensure ruling party victories. It also spied extensively on anyone even marginally involved in politics.

In one document - discovered by activist Mohammed Rifaat, who was among those who stormed the agency headquarters - agents had collected personal information on a woman who came to their attention when she called in with a political view to a popular TV chat show.

Rifaat said other files he saw had information on Muslim Brotherhood activists and aides to Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's leading pro-reform leader and a possible presidential candidate.

The agency interfered with and sometimes disrupted the work of civil society groups and international organizations operating in Egypt. Trade and student unions, social groups and sports clubs were not immune.

Security officials familiar with how the agency worked said the organization answered only to Mubarak and had the final word on the appointment of ministers, faculty deans, ambassadors and newspaper editors.

"A state security officer could tell a provincial governor what to do," said one security official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Junior State Security officers had much more prestige than regular police officers with a much higher rank."

The case of Ahmed Gamaleldin is a good example of the agency's power.

Gamaleldin was named education minister in the mid-1990s, but he was sacked a year later when State Security determined that its initial background check was incomplete and claimed that in fact he sympathized with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak's top opponent.

Gamaleldin is back as education minister in Sharaf's government.

The military is widely believed to have been uncomfortable with the State Security agency - perhaps explaining why troops stood by as the crowds stormed the agency's offices.

The military later ordered the arrest of the agency's head, his predecessor and up to a 100 officers suspected of deliberately destroying documents. The agency's head is also under investigation along with several other top security officials on suspicion they ordered police to open fire on protesters during the anti-Mubarak marches.

Rifaat, like other activists, insists more have to be prosecuted.

"Unless they arrest its agents and try them they will form criminal gangs or become guns for hire," he said. "They can carry out assassinations for the benefit of the old regime or some of the businessmen linked to it."

It is equally important to conduct a "political probe" into how Egypt became a police state, says Bahy Eddin Hassan, a rights activist.

"We need to take a deep and inclusive look at what happened in Egypt over the past 30 years and how the Interior Ministry and its security agencies became the country's most powerful institution," he said. "What we have now is that a president has been removed but his regime stayed."


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