Silence Shrouds New Egyptian Security Agency

CAIRO – In mid-March, Egypt’s transitional government formally dissolved the hated State Security Investigations (SSI) apparatus, meeting a longstanding demand of the opposition. But in the month since, authorities have remained tight- lipped about the SSI’s planned successor agency, raising fears that the transformation will be in name only.

"There has been an inexcusable lack of information until now about the new security agency’s precise role and activities," Amr Hashim Rabie, expert in political affairs at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS. 

On Mar. 15, Egypt’s newly appointed interior minister Major-General Mansour al-Essawy formally announced the dismantlement of the SSI. The minister, an official spokesman declared, "has decided to disband the SSI, including all of the agency’s various administrations, branches and offices." 

The spokesman went on to say that al-Essawy had also decreed the establishment of a new security apparatus, to be known as the National Security Bureau (NSB). The role of the new agency, he noted, would be limited to "safeguarding national security and coordinating with state agencies to protect the domestic front and combat terrorism." 

The NSB, the spokesman added, would operate "in conformity with the constitution, the law and principles of human rights." It would not, he stressed, "trespass on the everyday lives of citizens or violate their political rights." 

Five days later, the interior ministry named Major-General Hamid Abdullah the new agency’s first director. A police academy graduate, Abdullah had formerly served as security director for Egypt’s Helwan province before becoming assistant interior minister for the northern sector of Upper Egypt. 

The abolition of the SSI had represented a chief demand of leaders of Egypt’s recent January 25 Revolution, which ultimately led to the Feb. 11 ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak. Since Mubarak’s removal, the nation’s affairs have been run by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which appointed al-Essawy early last month. 

Over the course of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the SSI had been frequently accused of committing the worst kinds of human rights abuses. According to its critics, the SSI’s chief function had been to protect the ruling regime, suppressing dissent by torturing – even murdering in some cases – regime opponents and critics. 

The SSI had also been known for closely monitoring political dissidents and for playing a role in the rigging of national elections in favor of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. In the first two weeks of March, SSI offices in several Egyptian provinces were stormed by protesters who attempted to save potentially incriminating documents from destruction. 

In the immediate wake of the revolution, information emerged strongly suggesting that the SSI had even played a role in the bombing of a church in Alexandria last New Year’s Eve in which 24 people were killed. At the time, regime officials had duplicitously blamed the attack first on "Al-Qaeda" then later on Palestinian Islamist groups. 

Several high-ranking SSI officers – along with former interior minister Habib al-Adli and Mubarak himself – are currently under arrest. They all face charges of, among other things, using lethal force against protesters during the 18-day uprising. 

Regime critics and opposition figures initially hailed the SSI’s dissolution. But the subsequent lack of information regarding the NSB has now raised concerns that the new agency could end up playing the same repressive role as its predecessor. 

"Official statements concerning the new agency have been very brief and entirely lacking in details," Bahy Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies told IPS. "This has led to serious concern on the part of both political figures and the wider public that the NSB will amount to little more than a scaled-down version of the SSI. 

"If the ruling transitional government wants to reassure critics that the SSI has truly been done away with, it must clarify exactly how the new agency plans to operate," he added. 

When Hassan contacted the interior ministry in hopes of obtaining such clarification, he was told by officials that the particulars of the NSB’s role and activities were still "under discussion." 

On Apr. 12, the state press reported that 75 percent of the officers formerly associated with the SSI – namely, those who had been involved in monitoring dissidents – had been transferred to entirely separate state administrations, such as emergency services and local fire departments. The remaining 25 percent, meanwhile – who were untainted by any previous connection with political affairs – would continue to work within the new NSB. 

"This is a positive step, but it isn’t enough to simply change individual officers; there must be a total transformation of the agency’s modus operandi," said Rabie. "We have to be assured that that the new agency will not end up using the same methods and techniques as those employed by the dissolved SSI." 

"Specifically, the new agency’s role should be limited to combating terrorism and espionage – not monitoring activists, journalists and students," he added. "This requires effective judicial oversight over all of the NSB’s operations so as to ensure these are carried out within a legal and transparent context." 

Egypt’s SSI, originally dubbed the "Special Department" was first established in 1913 during the British occupation, with the express aim of keeping tabs on political dissent. Following the 1952 Revolution, President Gamal Abdel Nasser did away with most elements of the colonial administration, but kept the Special Department intact. The agency was renamed the SSI in the 1970s during the presidency of Anwar Sadat.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani write for Inter Press Service.