Post-uprising: what to do with secret police files?

This year’s uprisings have, in several countries, defeated the domestic spying apparatus, but there is yet little idea of how not only to reform these agencies, but what to do with all the data they collected (or indeed reveal the extent of this data collection).

In Libya, the chaos and sudden fall of Tripoli allowed, temporarily, access to files that revealed not only surveillance but collaboration with Western intelligence on various issues. The state of the intelligence apparatus in unknown, but it is likely that much of it collapsed alongside the Qadhafi state.

In Egypt, the very first days of the uprisings saw security agencies move to destroy many documents and recordings (this was seen in safehouses in different parts of Cairo, as well as in the offices of State Security), some capture of documents by protestors during the (possibly manipulated) break-in into State Security HQ in Nasr City, but no fundamental reform — indeed it appears that not only State Security is still operating as National Security (and lately returning to the streets), but General Intelligence is now at the peak of its powers, even without Omar Suleiman.

In Tunisia, in-depth police reform has yet to begin but the surveillance state has been partly dismantled already. They are now beginning to deal with the many years of work full accountability will take, as this fascinating post at Unredacted on the Tunisian debate of what to do with the former regime’s secret police files shows:

Operating out of the Interior Ministry and other federal agencies, the intelligence and security forces known collectively as the secret police, or political police, excelled in spying on citizens, infiltrating civil society groups, trolling emails and social media sites for information, and harassing, intimidating and torturing suspected opponents of Ben Ali’s regime. Conference participants agreed that no space, public or private, was safe from the surveillance state. As Farah Hachad, a lawyer and president of Le Labo’, recalled at the start of the conference, “Since I was born, even conversations inside our house would be silenced because of the fear inside our hearts that we would be heard and punished.”

Presenters at the conference and audience members had their own memories of the repressive power wielded by the political police. One man recounted how an agent showed up at his door to detain him, “And when I asked, do you have an arrest warrant?, he pulled twenty blank arrest warrants from his pocket, all signed by the Interior Minister, and said, I can have as many as I want.” Taieb Baccouche, the interim Minister of Education and president of the Arab Institute of Human Rights, remembered signing his name to a petition for democracy in the late 1960s along with dozens of other activists, artists and scholars. “That was the beginning of surveillance: they controlled my phone, my mail and all my movements from then on.” Everyone agreed that the political police still existed and still posed a danger to democratic change, despite the advances of the revolution.

More than the issue of disbanding the secret police, however, the conference was focused on how to seize their archives as a way of preserving collective memory and permitting informed public debate about the repressive past. There were strong differences of opinion about how to manage the archives. Some feared the impact on people’s lives of the release of personal information, whether true or invented by the regime. Others felt that Tunisia’s democratic transition could not be complete without access to the archives. As artist and activist Zeyneb Farhat put it, “These political archives were designed to devalue and damage the credibility of activists by spreading lies about them… They have to be opened now in order to create a justice-based relationship between police and citizens and to build trust, so that people understand the police are for protecting security, not for undermining change.”

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.