The state security apparatus that secretly exerted control over much of Egyptian society during the Mubarak regime is firmly back in command.
CAIRO — During the last decade of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, a popular chant among anti-regime protesters went like this: “State Security, State Security: you are the bullies, thieves of the state.”
The call for the end of the decades-old security body, which was first established to crack down on anti-colonial dissidents, came to relative fruition when State Security Investigation Services (SSIS) was abolished in March 2011, after the outbreak of the Jan 25, 2011 revolution.
But what was termed an abolition was nothing more than a replacement of SSIS with the National Security Agency (NSA), the Interior Ministry’s new powerhouse. Throughout its four years of existence, this new body has been testing its strength within the security apparatus.
Sherif Mohie Eddin, counter-terrorism and human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says that it is impossible to have a clear idea of what goes on within the NSA. “National Security is a big black box within the Ministry of Interior,” he says.
Following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, the ministry began restoring its apparatuses, including its National Security and General Security agencies.
He credits former Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim for the revival.
While recognizing Ibrahim’s role in the reform of the ministry, General Abdel Latif al-Baddini, who served as the former deputy minister of interior, argues that the need for a more powerful national security apparatus is now stronger than ever.
“Political crime and opposition to the regime is far greater nowadays,” he says. “The more animosity toward the current regime increases, the greater the need for national security. It’s directly proportional.”
Son of security
It’s believed that one of the reasons Ibrahim was replaced by current Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was because the latter came from an SSIS background, while the former had only worked in General Security.
Abdel Ghaffar was appointed as the director of the NSA in 2011, following the dissolution of the SSIS, where he'd worked since the beginning of his career. He retired in August 2012. He was referred to as the “son of national security” by privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper following his appointment.
“This is Abdel Ghaffar’s time,” says Gamal Abou Zekry, a former assistant interior minister with over 40 years of experience working for SSIS. “You need an inclusive, comprehensive national security apparatus with a focus on political security.”
“Abdel Ghaffar has a background in political security, therefore he fits this current phase — that of terrorism and political security,” he adds.
Just two days after the cabinet reshuffle that saw the appointment of a new interior minister, media outlets reported that an explosive device was planted near Abdel Ghaffar’s home in Nasr City, in addition to 33 other bombs that either exploded or were defused nationwide, in response to his appointment.
Local press vowed that Abdel Ghaffar would bring an end to these types of security threats, with headlines reading, “Minister of Interior defies terrorist organizations.”
But Abdel Ghaffar was not going to defy them on his own. Following his appointment, there was a massive overhaul of leading positions within the ministry, with the reshuffle of over 20 different ranks. Like the minister, the majority of those moving up the security ladder came from a NSA background.
The new minister appointed Major General Salah Hegazy, who had served as an officer in the SSIS, as the new director of the NSA, and transferred former NSA Director Khaled Tharwat to the position of assistant minister for the Social Security Agency.
Hegazy was the director of the General Administration of Cairo at the NSA until 2012, when former President Mohamed Morsi was appointed. He was then moved to the Civil Status Department when Morsi appointed Tharwat in his place. However, the new minister, Abdel Ghaffar, returned Hegazy to the NSA following a seemingly intentional effort by the Brotherhood regime to keep him away from the agency.
Meanwhile, in its crackdown on the Brotherhood, the agency has acquired new weaponry and deployed masked policemen nationwide, Mohie Eddin says.
“Abdel Ghaffar comes from a background related to national security, so he is capable of running the NSA in a way that gives us information. We need this intel at the moment,” says Ihab Youssef, who has over 20 years of experience with the Ministry of Interior under his belt, working for the NSA and as a counter-terrorism official.
Following his appointment, one of the first things Abdel Ghaffar did as minister was to meet at length with officials in the Officers’ Affairs department to look over the ministry’s database of officers.
This is exactly where Ibrahim was seen as a failing. Youssef argues that Ibrahim had been unsuccessful at cracking down on ministry officials responsible for leaking information.
Under the former minister, there had been several reports suggesting that attacks on security personnel or institutions were an inside job. One example is the assassination of Colonel Mohamed Mabrouk in November 2014, where it was later revealed that a police officer was allegedly behind leaking the whereabouts of Mabrouk to his assailants. Prior to his death, Mabrouk had been involved in investigating and arresting several members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In light of Mabrouk’s assassination, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assigned his security adviser, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, to look into files of police personnel at the ministry accused of collaborating with terrorist groups.
For Mohie Eddin, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, state institutions such as the police and the military were united in their fight to protect national security. However, as that begins to wear off, he believes that internal conflicts among different state bodies, as well as within the ministry itself, will become more apparent.
Meanwhile, former Colonel Mohamed Mahfouz, who has been involved in a number of initiatives for police reform following the 2011 uprising, says that while the new minister is better equipped to deal with present dangers, an increased focus on political issues could lead to more imbalance at the Ministry of Interior.
“All of the ministry’s resources will go toward the war on terrorism,” says Mahfouz.
He recalls that Mubarak-era Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly was focused solely on political security, which, in his opinion, eventually led to the regime’s demise.
“The danger of this is that it negatively affects other forms of security, such as social security or economic security,” Mahfouz adds.
Additionally, an intensified war on terror could also mean easily justifiable violations of human rights. “A lot of police violations will be dismissed using the excuse that we are fighting terrorism," says former interior ministry official Youssef. "The police will be ‘under pressure,’ so people will be forced to put up with them.”