The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Human rights and Egypt's transition

One of the big questions for the future of Egypt is how to change the culture of police enforcement, security agencies and the army when it comes to accountability, respect of the rule of law, human rights practice and more generally attitudes towards public freedoms. It was always unrealistic to expect to change this overnight, and there are several problems to tackle — to start with: 

  • deeply ingrained institutional practices (sometimes codified in laws, regulations and procedures that have their origins in the days of British rule in Egypt, as well as the security state established by Nasser);  
  • the need for a shift away from a culture of entitlement, paternalism, sexism, and authoritarianism;
  • a structural adjustment to end a micro-economy of corruption that made police officers, for instance, resort to accepting bribes because their basic salaries are low and they were practically encouraged to be on the take to compensate. This of course benefited more senior officers who were engaged in more serious corruption (and were paid adequately) and shielded them from criticism, since everyone was on the take. 

The problem of military police having supposedly set up a torture room at the Egyptian museum, its use of beatings, electrical prods and other methods reveals the first two problems. The MPs have denied torture is taking place but activists have documented it fairly thoroughly. A quite worrying development is that newspapers are said to be spiking reporting on military torture, so information about this, while online, has not been propagated through the print and broadcast media inside Egypt.

The latest scandal, involving forcing female protesters  to take ‘virginity tests’, is pretty outrageous:

Amnesty International has today called on the Egyptian authorities to investigate serious allegations of torture, including forced ‘virginity tests’, inflicted by the army on women protesters arrested in Tahrir Square earlier this month. 

After army officers violently cleared the square of protesters on 9 March, at least 18 women were held in military detention. Amnesty International has been told by women protesters that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to ‘virginity checks’ and threatened with prostitution charges.

Over the last day or so the military's announcement that it sought to pass a law criminalizing protests has shocked a lot of people and been taken as a sign of the beginning of a slide back towards the old authoritarianism — particularly at a time when labor grievances are rising and new independent unions are forming. It is unclear whether the law has been decreed yet as far as I understand, and its announcement reflects the military's ongoing concern about labor unrest and returning economic activity to normal — as well as, I suspect, the fact that it can probably do little for now to answer the demands for higher salaries of strikers. In some sense this law is likely to be only very selectively enforced, even if it is reminiscent of the post-1952 crackdown on the labor movement. 

Another issue is that of the rehabilitation of human rights abusers from State Security. Hossam at 3arabawy has been doing a great job is providing context to the stash of pictures of State Security officers he found when the service's headquarters were raided by protesters a few weeks ago. He's compiling them at Here's a recent example:

SS General Mortada Ibrahim لواء أمن دولة مرتضى إبراهيم

General Ibrahim was promoted in 2004 to become the Interior Minister’s Assistant, heading إدارة المساعدات الفنية the “Technical Assistance Department.” This department is in charge of surveillance, phone tapping of citizens, dissidents and government officials alike. The infamous reputation of this department reached the extent that the state-run Akhbar el-Youm reported (after the revolution of course) a conversation between General Ibrahim and another senior police official, whereby General Ibrahim said: “I listen to your breathing, even when I’m asleep.”

From SS Officers

Instead of putting him on trial for running this fearsome apparatus that invaded the private lives of millions of Egyptian citizens a day, General Ibrahim has been rewarded by Essam Sharaf’s cabinet a new post in the “revolutionary government” as the Interior Minister’s Assistant for Research and Planning.

This kind of thing is exactly the reason I have been advocating a truth and reconciliation commission of some kind — there is a risk of glossing over the role State Security has played and not getting full accountability, which consist of an airing of grievances by its victims, an admission of guilt by its officers, and an official recognition of the state of these crimes. I don't see how you can reform the security services or turn a page without that. 

A piece at al-Masri al-Youm also shows some of the issues at stake in reforming State Security, which was recently renamed as part of what looked like more a rebranding effort rather than a real overhaul: 

Reform security, secure reform | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt

The path chosen by General al-Eissawy to reform the SSI suggests he is familiar with Joffe’s conclusions. Al-Essawy's restructuring process has largely been a game of musical chairs, where some officers have been given forced leave, others have been moved to different departments within the Interior Ministry, while a new National Security Agency has been newly established to absorb the remaining ex-SSI officers and take up duties that deal with internal securities.

So is SSI merely being re-branded as NSA?

Until now, the answer is yes. Al-Essawy had told the press this new security body “will only monitor terrorist threats and threats to national security, without impeding citizens’ lives.” Thus, Egypt’s notorious security apparatus may follow the path of the Soviet KGB, rather than the East German Stasi.

Unlike the Stasi that was effectively dismantled, the sprawling KGB underwent a cosmetic name change after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was first broken up into five agencies, one of which became the Russian Federation’s internal security agency, the FSK – Federal Counterintelligence Service. Under ex-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the FSK was merged with other KGB spin-offs to become the ever stronger FSV – Federal Security Service. This was done under the pretext of confronting the rising threat of Chechen terrorism.

There are however cases of genuine security reform — in Chile, Indonesia, East Germany, and, to an extent, South Africa. But success takes time, an engaged public and a real democratic process that upholds human rights. Of course there are no prototypes. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that may have worked in South Africa, might not work in Egypt where the SSI has operated largely in contravention of Egyptian laws. Following East Germany's example, granting victims and researchers access to security files kept hidden from the public may help ease the pain of families who don’t know why and how their loved ones disappeared.

Most importantly, Egypt’s new and reformed security agencies must be under organized judicial, parliamentary and ministerial supervision. That’s the only way to ensure the security apparatus’ subordination to the will of the people. Without commissioners appointed to monitor human rights, legal compliance and budgetary transparency, the newly founded NSA might just as well be a reincarnated SSI.

One debate now taking place is whether political forces and activists can/should pressure the military and government to put this on the agenda immediately, or whether it's something that can be handled by the new parliament when elected later this year. Many prefer to get the momentum going now, and the issue is likely to stay topical till the elections and after. The military, however, appears to want to stabilize matters first after the referendum, and may become less likely to give in to political pressure than it has in recent weeks.