Pessimistic thoughts about the Ministry of the Interior

The issue of Ministry of Interior (MOI) reform has been on the agenda for say, about 30 years but (like everything else) only became a possibility after January 25 (or to be more precise January 28 when security forces were shown what decades of abuse will make people do).

Yesterday I went to an excellent talk on “restructuring the entrenched security apparatus” given as part of conference about the transitional process in Egypt and democracy and all that. I left more convinced than ever that putting the MOI’s house in order is an absolute priority up there with ensuring that the next elections are democratic and representative and banishing Tamer Hosny from public life.

It’s a gargantuan task, and seminar moderator Bahgat Korany explained in very simply terms why: state security investigations (SSI) were, in a sense the state. An attempt to dismantle SSI is thus an attempt to dismantle a state.

This isn’t over-stating matters: the state of SSI had a king (Mubarak), chieftans (El-Adly and friends) henchmen (junior officers and legions of plain-clothed men) and a population (anyone connected to the regime). Legally speaking it came under the jurisdiction of the MOI but enjoyed almost complete autonomy. A bit like Quebec’s relationship with Canada.

The state of SSI’s main preoccupation was protecting the king’s interests. It was allowed to do this because its officers enjoyed a sort of diplomatic immunity from any sort of legal retribution; the public prosecution office regarded SSI offices and officers as off-limits (with one recent exception when district attorneys last year attempted to inspect an SSI office and were attacked by armed SSI officers).

There are parallels with East Germany here of course, and a German member of the panel Heinz-Werner Aping told us that after the wall came down the reunified Germany had to decide what to do with East Germany’s hundreds of thousands of SSI officers (many of whom were employed informally).

Aping said that a major issue was the absence of a clear distinction between intelligence bodies and ordinary police i.e. intelligence bodies should not have police powers of arrest and interrogation etc. The effects of the blurring of this distinction are disastrous, as Egypt demonstrates and director Hossam Bahgat explained.

Egypt is a classic example of what Hossam described as the “slippery slope”:  the green light is given to SSI to fight one group (in the late 1980s/early 1990s it was terrorists) and these powers then leak into the MOI as a whole, because after all it doesn’t make sense to have one area of the MOI beating and electrocuting confessions out of people kept in incommunicado detention while elsewhere officers are sweating out confessions using the less “effective” methods of legal interrogations and proper police work.

By 2011 suspected terrorists, activists, ordinary criminal suspects and in fact any Egyptian national was at risk of falling into the black hole defined by these exceptional powers. Not only that, it became common practice for suspects’ relatives to be arrested i.e. taken hostage, in order to force suspects at large to turn themselves in.

This was in addition to the “chilling” effect of other ostensibly more benign tactics the SSI used. SSI had desks covering every area of Egyptian public life: civil society, political groups, religious (Christian and Muslim) groups. When people stormed the Nasr City SSI headquarters in February they found files on just about the whole world.

Hossam said that during the nearly 10 years he has been director of EIPR he received periodic phone calls from an SSI officer who would ring him up and introduce himself as “officer so and so”, inform him that he is responsible for monitoring EIPR’s activity and then ask him “what his plans are for the coming year”.

I remember when SSI kidnapped Philip Rizk the paper I worked for getting a “friendly” call from an officer who said that he was covering the foreigner (European languages) desk for his colleague who was on holiday and that he usually manned the foreigner (African) desk.

After kidnapping my friend and sending officers round to the houses of several of the people who were there when he was kidnapped the SSI officer I spoke to on the phone explained “he only wants to get to know me so he can better protect me”.

Hossam says that EIPR has been unable to get NGO registration because he was classified as “non-cooperative” – simply because he refused several invitations to go and “drink coffee” at the SSI headquarters.

The army is currently using the same coffee technique, Hossam pointed out.

Hossam El-Hamalawy, Reem Maged and another journalist Nabil Sharaf Eddin received phone calls last week “inviting” them to drink coffee with military officers after El-Hamalawy listed army abuses on Maged’s TV show. They went and had the friendly chat and nothing happened to them but the encounter was designed to send a message to other journalists. It worked, as Mahmoud Saad demonstrated.

MOI reform is now crucial for two reasons. Firstly, the security situation is a major concern as this survey confirms and, unsurprisingly, the police don’t seem to know how to police without violence and abuse. Also they are still sulking. The army is currently exploiting the fear of crime, together with the general mood of uncertainty, to suggest that peaceful political dissent and labour strikes are contributing to the “chaos” in the country.

Secondly, if the MOI is not reformed, its powers left unchecked and its activities not subject to oversight it will do the same all over again. The state of emergency is still in effect, SSI has undergone a name change and theoretically a change of mandate but this process is marred by a lack of transparency and there has been no genuine attempt to restructure the MOI and rehabilitate its officers: El-Badeel reports five cases of torture, one fatal, within a period of 14 days.

The MOI propped up the old regime, Khaled Said’s murder was one of the sparks that ignited the revolution. The MOI still has the capability to smother it.

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