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Published: April 2012
Is it not remarkable when a stranger knows about a private trip to Israel you had planned only a few days ago? And is it not remarkable when somebody tells you about this trip, even though, that person should not be supposed to know? What if you are absolutely sure that there is no person in your neighborhood that could possibly know about your travel plans only to find out that this was not the case? Matthias Richardt looks closer on such a mystery in the Egyptian security state.
Well, then the following argument may not appear to be unreasonable given that somebody is not only aware about your trip to Israel but may have even gathered some additional information on your daily life, habits, routines and whereabouts as well. Suddenly you remember that upon your arrival in Egypt at Cairo International some time ago, your passport had disappeared in a somehow mystifying manner when trying to make it through customs and security checks. In fact, the officer that took your passport to stamp in your tourist visa must have simply forgotten to hand your papers back to you. Another reminder: a few weeks later you had to pay your local police station in Bab el Louk, Cairo a visit as the attempt at peaceful settlement of disputes with your landlord basically led to nothing. The guy has yet to fork out your caution money. However, your experience at the police station trumps your expectations on getting back your rent deposit as you find out about the existence of a monstrous state dossier on your own personality; a Single Egyptian Act on your profile, so to speak.
Photo: Maximilian M. Meduna
Now put together the dossier, the passport, and the whistle-blowing neighborhood and get a distinct example of how state security may work in a country that is perceived to have developed one of the most effective systems of state security in the world. We are talking Egypt now, Cairo in particular. Egyptian state security, i.e. an institutional construct of three pillars, which are based less on Maastricht but rather on the ministry of the interior and its agents, various secret service agencies and the institution of the National Democratic Party. A quick overview will help to clarify their dimensions. The first pillar, the interior, draws its strength from a brutalizing police force, three hundred and fifty thousand central security forces, and a legion of arguably more than two hundred thousand secret and public agents, spies and snitchers, who penetrate Cairo’s urban spaces and population like a thin cobweb that has been spanned across the entire city making it hard to catch and even harder to grasp.
The secret services formerly known as el mukhabarat form the second pillar of Egyptian state security, which is obviously interconnected with the former. Their overall leader Omar Sulayman, who happened to be a close ally of the ancient Egyptian long-term Pharaoh, has somehow fled the scene after police forces struck back against the revolting population in early 2011 making Sulayman’s counterfeit an unacceptable promise for the future. After the interior had released the hungry hounds of hundreds of hoodlums to fight the revolution and support the retreating fellow police forces, the renowned king of torture has finally lost his last whit of credibility among the citizens. Whereas it remains unclear whether Mr. Sulayman will return as presidential candidate or not if one believes our current issues.
The third pillar comprises the former most popular state party, the ubiquitous National Democratic Party, which was supported by a political system that ensured solid majorities for its ruling at all levels of government. Dissolved or not dissolved, this appears to be an entity of uncontested power in Egyptian domestic politics resembling the authoritarian characteristics of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party during the times of Ulbrecht and Honecker. In order to tailor a foolproof package of state security Egypt has added the icing on top of an already excellent system of oppression and fear: the rule of “state emergency”. Egypt has been ruled under a state of emergency since 1967 with only few exceptions in time. This condition allowed the Pharaohs to outlaw demonstrations, hold detainees indefinitely without trial, and issue law by decree, to name only a few measures of securing the state. Most recently in the aftermath of 9/11, the emergency law has also helped to grant the state apparatus the right to welcome lucky terrorist suspects, formerly held in Baghram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the like, on Egyptian soil, in order to apply measures of questioning, interrogation, and sometimes torture and killing. As the Saudis recall, the desert is a wonderful silent outhouse for the abducted and the ones that ought to be socially treated.
So now you know that there was good reason why under the Bush administration Egypt was a favored destination for “rendition” of terrorist suspects. Turning back to the essentials of the particulars, please bear in mind that the emergency law provides any government with the authority to control every level of political activity. One might be surprised but this continues to do so in a lighter version in Egypt even after our trustworthy media had reported that the emergency law was declared dead. We ask ourselves what has been achieved since the famous Egyptian revolution? Where is the state security? Has it transformed into the ruling supreme council of the armed forces? Has Sulayman metamorphosed into a field marshal named Muhammad Hussein Tantawi?
The NDP was dissolved in 2011. As new and old parties have popped up on the party floor, supply should meet demand for the unemployed NDP apparatchiks. And this should not worry Western policy-makers too much in the light of evil Islamic forces that have gained a large parliamentary share and might take over the military council soon. Apart from re-loading the Iranian revolution in Egypt, the question of how the pillars of state security will integrate in a new Egyptian state without former Stasi-elements of the last three decades?
Recent events in Port Said reveal that it is the interior, which is struggling to re-establish itself in ways, that citizens will be granted the rights they need to live healthy and prosperous lives. The threat does not lie in shady and nebulous so-called fundamental salafy movements or gruesome Muslim brothers but rather in the system of secular state institutions and instruments that have produced and will continue to produce such movements in the first place.
The transition of Egypt must come along with a solution to end the penetrating system of state security and fear, which has brought Egypt’s society to a point where civil obedience has turned into anger and violence against the regime. By the way, for all those Western islamophobes and non partisans, did you know that Egypt is leading the world in hepatitis C infection rates since a 1970s campaign to combat another chronic malady, bilharzia, inadvertently spread hepatitis C through the reuse of needles? But let us not care too much as other factors might compensate for this: Egypt has very low crime rates, and it is the poorest who feel most secure in their homes. With their street life and intimacy under year-round sunshine, they turn Egypt’s slums into often less grimmer urban spaces than those in other countries.