While ministries shuffled paper and red tape, state security kept tabs on people. This goes beyond the issue of torture, which it certainly practiced abundantly, or the racketeering, blackmailing and other schemes its officers carried out with impunity. What those who gained access to its offices discovered is that, much like the Ministry of Transport might keep an inventory of its buses and trains, State Security maintained an elaborate database on citizens, the threats they represented, their weaknesses, relationships and other every little detail of their lives.
This process that had its own chilling logic, reminiscent of the “banality of evil” Hannah Arendt chronicled in Nazi Germany, Andrei Almarik in the Soviet Union, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in East Germany, or Ariel Dorfman in Pinochet’s Chile. What it boils down to is that a vast bureaucracy existed simply to perpetuate itself and those in charge. Consider the neat categorizations of the population--“Muslim Brothers”, “Communists and human rights activists,” etc.--or the recent allegation that the Ministry of Trade paid a monthly retainer of LE174,000 to its own state security watchers to get them to write positive reports.
Whatever counter-terrorism and other legitimate roles State Security played, this must have been a relatively minor part of what it did: most of its resources were dedicated to the humdrum task of keeping tabs on those Egyptians who, for whatever reason--wealth, political opinion, media influence, foreign connections--posed a potential threat to the regime. In the end, this may have become about more than protecting the president and National Democratic Party bosses: the real power brokers in late Mubarak Egypt were most probably high-level officials at the Ministry of Interior, who ran things even if they weren’t public figures.
To deal with the immensity of this realization (or for many, a confirmation of what they already felt but could not prove), the military will have to adjust its ambitions for the interim period. It is no longer enough to have an adjustment period to a new, hopefully more democratic, regime. There has to be a wider process of national reconciliation and acknowledgement of past crimes if Egypt isn’t to sink into a morass of endless accusations and recriminations.
I have a new column up at al-Masri al-Youm, reflecting on the State Security raids, which made me think that Egypt needs some sort of reconciliation process to deal with the magnitude of what is being discovered and chart a way forward. Every day, more evidence of corruption, torture and abuse is being uncovered. The Egyptian judicial system will take decades to deal with it. While it needs to play a role, there also needs to be something akin to a truth commission to hear people's testimony — both victims and abusers — and then move on to building a better Egypt.