Lessons From East Germany's Stasi Files For Post-Revolution Egypt

Pro-democracy leaders from Egypt have traveled to Berlin to learn how former East German dissidents peacefully managed revelations of the explosive files of the Stasi, the brutal secret police. Can Egyptians unearth the same details about its past? Do the

Lessons From East Germany's Stasi Files For Post-Revolution Egypt
Géraldine Schwarz

BERLIN - Basil Al-Adel suffered no illusions when he decided to enter Egyptian politics in 2005. By co-founding the opposition Al-Ghad political party, Al-Adel knew there would be a price to pay. Up until that point, the then 32-year-old engineering graduate had led a relatively tranquil existence. Overnight, he landed on the radar of the secret police of President Hosni Mubarak's regime, under the code name "a-Muhandis," The Engineer.

"I always knew they spied on dissidents," says Al-Adel. But just how closely? Will we ever know?"

In an effort to answer these questions, Basil Al-Adel traveled last month from Cairo to Berlin to visit the office in charge of managing the files of the Stasi, East Germany's infamous former secret police network. Other representatives of Egyptian democratic parties also came with him at the invitation of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation to explore this temple to the memory of totalitarianism, located in the Stasi's former headquarters.

As East Germans did 21 years ago, Egyptians should look to the memories of the past to create a healthy foundation for their transition to democracy. The Federal Office for Stasi Archives in Berlin, the most accomplished in the world in terms of protecting and allowing access to the archives of a deposed, repressive regime, has offered to advise them.

"After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we asked ourselves: Should we open or prohibit access to the files?" Joachim Förster, a senior official from the Archives, explained to his Egyptian guests. "In the east, the same as the west, several politicians were reticent about the idea of opening them up. We were afraid this would be a hindrance to democratization and the unification of Germany. But civil society won out."

The German Parliament voted in the summer of 1990 to approve a law allowing anyone who had a file with the secret police to access that information, and to learn the identities of those who had spied on them – some strangers, but often people known to them. To date, 1.7 million people have consulted their files, and though demand slows down, the Archives continue to receive 18,000 requests every year.

"If people learn the names of informers, those who betrayed you, it will create tension. This risks dividing the Egyptian people – how can we prevent that?" asks Anwar Sadat, 55, founder of the newly formed Party of Reform and Development, and nephew of the eponymous former Egyptian president, assassinated in 1981.

Herbert Ziehm, one of the Berlin archive experts, responds to Sadat's question. "We too were afraid of acts of revenge, but it never happened."

Ziehm, 64, was there in January 1990 with the East German citizens who took the Stasi's headquarters by force in Normannen Street -- and occupied it day and night to prevent the destruction of the archives. Upon their arrival, the floors were littered with shredded papers. Stasi employees had begun to make the proof of their collaboration disappear. But millions of documents remained intact.

On March 5th of this year, history repeated itself for Ziehm. From Berlin, he watched on television the dramatic images of protesters storming the headquarters of the Egyptian security services (Amn a-Dowla) in Cairo. Basil Al-Adel was among them. "I saw the news of the assault on Twitter. When I got there, they had forced open the huge metal door," said Al-Adel, who is now the co-president of the Free Egyptians' Party, founded after the January 25th revolution.

On the inside, the building had been hastily evacuated. Protesters discovered bags full of shredded papers, the remainder of the documents blackened by fire. In the labyrinthine underground of the fortress, the shelves were empty. "We were upset that we arrived too late," Al-Adel said. "The archives had disappeared."

Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian intelligence services were dissolved, or more precisely, renamed. The director of the "National Security Services' (Amn al-Watani) was fired. The military leadership launched an appeal on their Facebook group asking protesters in the name of national security to turn in any stolen documents that were looted. These papers, military leaders said, contain highly confidential information pertaining to the government's battle against terrorism.

And the rest? And those reports about the dozens of years of spying on millions of citizens by an organization estimated to have deployed 100,000 agents and 200,000 informers, where did they go? "No one knows," sighs Sadat.

Al-Adel says that the afternoon before the protesters took over the building, witnesses saw trucks stationed in front, being loaded with sacks. "I think that is what sowed doubt and sparked the takeover," he said.

Pasting together shreds -- literally

But not all is lost. In Normannen Street, Ziehm points to a large plastic bag with thousands of pieces of shredded files. In 1990, the Berlin Archives inherited 15,000 of these bags of paper which employees labored to put back together by hand before manufacturing a machine especially designed for that purpose. Ninety miniscule pieces had to be put together to reconsitute a surface of paper the size of a post card.

In the weeks following the takeover of the security headquarters, Herbert Ziehm left for Cairo. At the El Sawy Cultural Center, he gave a lecture to an audience of pro-democracy Egyptians. "I told them that the priority should be locating the lost documents and securing them, then organizing control and access to the archives." One evening, upon returning to the hotel, an invitation from the Ministry of Interior was waiting for him. The director of information, Hani Abdul-Latif, met with Ziehm and questioned him about the machine that puts destroyed files back together again.

"The absence of rational management of these documents could hamper a democratic transition," Förster says. "First and foremost, how to find those who are guilty and judge or rehabilitate those who are suspected of wrongdoing?"

While Hosni Mubarak faces trial, a large part of the elite of the former regime is still in Egypt, going un-prosecuted. Military officers, politicians, businessmen – many of whom profited from the Mubarak regime, during which personal interest trumped that of the public.

"Not to mention the reports on the revolution are very compromising for the police, which bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of protesters," says Daniel Gerlach, the editor-in-chief of the German magazine Zenith and a specialist in the Middle East.

Egypt's secret police was known for using torture, kidnappings and assassinations. "These archives are also essential for historians to analyze the organization of power and its derivatives in Egypt as the study of the Stasi archives allowed us to understand how the totalitarian system of the ex-German Democratic Republic functioned," Gerlach said.

The Stasi exercised its force in psychological terror carried out by a network of surveillance tentacles. Its stunning efficiency rests in the pernicious idea of recruiting informants from a target's friends, colleagues and even family members, resulting in an unsustainable atmosphere of paranoia and back-stabbing.

"Personally I am not for opening up the archives," says Sadat, who failed in his bid for re-election to parliament in 2007, and whose brother spent one year in prison for having criticized the Egyptian military on television. "We have to create an independent entity to safeguard them. But Egyptians are less educated than people in Germany, and we are still too fragile to allow ourselves to add fuel to the fire."

For Basil Al-Adel, a democracy cannot be built on forgetting. During the occupation of the intelligence headquarters, a colleague found a report on Al-Adel's former party, Al-Ghad. "He shouted to me – They're writing about you." I opened the file and was shocked to find email exchanges between me and my wife. They were private, nothing to do with politics. Suddenly, I realized the size of this machine.

Basil Al-Adel hid the documents in a safe. He struggles to find the words: "Imagine… it is as though inside me something is broken, as if I will never feel any sort of privacy in my life gain."

Upon returning to Cairo, Al-Adel says he will focus on creating, along with other victims, an association modeled on the Stasi Archives bureau in Berlin. And he wants to find the man who wrote the reports about him. "He wrote false statements about me, as if he took sadistic pleasure in thoroughly destroying me."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!