“Security restrictions, iron gates and thorough inspections did not succeed in preventing student rioting, but contributed to its increase,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm in the aftermath of October 11, the day after public universities began the new academic year, against the backdrop of protests and chaos that broke out at various universities.
Meanwhile, Al-Watan wrote, “The security procedures system imposed by the state has failed in its first true test against Brotherhood violence at universities, and Falcon Security Company was defeated by the Brotherhood’s terrorism and hired thugs who broke into university campuses.”
The showdown of Falcon, the security firm hired by the Ministry of Education to stand guard at the gates of 14 public universities, raised the debate of the success of their entrance into the turbulent campus scene. Universities saw an eventful year of protests in 2013/14, with clashes breaking out on an almost daily basis between mostly pro-Muslim Brotherhood students and security forces, leading to the death of a number of students and the injury of hundreds.
This academic year looks less different. And the proposed solution of including the private sector in handling another difficult academic year seems laden with challenges.
The idea of expanding the scope of private security companies to cover public establishments has been in the works for the past three years, as a result of the security vacuum that followed the uprising in January 2011. However, it was only recently that this idea was put to the test with Falcon taking on the task of securing universities.
But with the experience being dubbed as a failure by the media, some are questioning if Falcon had bitten off more than it could chew and whether private security companies have room to grow in Egypt.
Despite all the hype that has surrounded the company in the past month, Falcon Managing Director Sherif Khaled downplays the situation and shows no sign of regret for agreeing to secure public universities.
“The experience has been successful,” he told Mada Masr, from his office at the company’s headquarters in New Cairo. However, he explains that the protests and violence in universities are occurring all over the country and, this, are a national phenomenon not specific to universities.
According to Khaled, what is challenging about securing universities for Falcon is the large number of students at the gates, where the company’s security personnel check their student IDs, force them through a metal detector and search them for banned items.
Falcon was contracted by the Ministry of Education to secure the universities, acting on behalf of the universities’ administration. According to Ihab Youssef, who has worked at the Ministry of Interior for over 20 years and now owns his own risk management and private security company, Risk Free, no other private security company was approached for the job.
Falcon started off in 1974 as part of the Commercial International Bank (CIB) security and safety department responsible for transporting money, and branched out as its own private company in 2006 with CIB as its main investor.
The company was in charge of securing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during the presidential elections and stood guard outside of his elections headquarters in New Cairo, where the company’s own headquarters are also located.
Numerous reports have come out linking Falcon to prominent businessmen and former military intelligence officers, but Khaled strongly denies them.
“It’s one of many private security companies in Egypt, there is no sovereign body or businessmen involved,” he says.
Although it is known that most private security companies in Egypt operate under the leadership of former police or military officers, Khaled also denies that he himself was ever a member of the Ministry of Interior or the Armed Forces, saying that he was the general manager of public relations and security at CIB at the time when the bank decided to establish Falcon.
Falcon currently serves as one of the three biggest security companies in Egypt, along with Care Services and G4S, out almost 100 private security companies in Egypt.
Although the company’s managing director insists that it is like any other company, its three story headquarter building is heavily guarded with barbed wire and iron gates, and the street on which it is located is almost off-limits unless you identify yourself to one of the guards standing outside.
In reviewing the company’s experience on campus so far, Khaled says that the political dimension of the conflict in universities has rendered their job more challenging.
“An extremist minority is trying to take advantage of the universities and of the youth to hinder the education process and break the state’s stature,” he says, before quickly clarifying that this is the concern of the administrative security inside the campus, and not Falcon, whose presence is restricted at the gates.
Commenting on Falcon’s experience in public universities, Youssef says, “Private companies are not supposed to enter the scope of politics, they’re supposed to have an organizational role. If private security begins to differentiate who is with the regime and who isn’t then it’s going to be a disaster.”
“I’m supposed to know how many people are coming in and out, the peak times, the rate at which they come in. Regardless of their political affiliations, I’m concerned with what they are carrying when they are coming in,” adds Youssef.
But Falcon’s Khaled has clearly identified a group of people behind recent acts of violence. “There is moral and behavioral breakdown that is being fed by an extremist thought, not just religious, but other people also have personal gains to destroy the country, and they are taking advantage of the youth, it’s a group of people that do not know each other but all corroborated on one goal,” he says.
In the end, he claims that the work of his security personnel is not influenced by the beliefs or affiliations of the students.
Youssef, on the other hand, sees it differently. “They’re students at a young age, maybe they’re late to their lecture, they’re at an age where they want to prove that they’re no longer young boys, you have to absorb all of this and go back to your primary role which is organizing, not enforcing, because enforcing has a whole different set of people,” he says.
One of the challenges Youssef points to in the public university experience is the confusion between private security and public security, which may lead to blaming the government on private security flaws and vice-versa.
“The negative result of this experience was combining private security with public security; Now people will think that private security companies are affiliated with the government, which is wrong,” says Youssef. “We’re harming the reputation of the companies, and we’re minimizing the potential for cooperation between the students and the private security companies.”
Instead, Youssef suggests that public security should have been replaced all together by private security and says that securing the gates alone is not a big enough scope to hire a security company for.
On the other hand, Mohamed Nagy from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE,) who works closely on the rights of students at universities, believes that neither the police nor private security belong at public universities.
According to Nagy, the reason violence at universities escalated during last year and continued on this year was because the police forcefully entered Al-Azhar University last year, instigating clashes between students and security forces. Therefore, he believes that the solution to the issue of violence at universities should be political rather than security-related.
“There was supposed to be a different train of thought because the issue is more political than it is about security,” he says.
Therefore, Nagy says that he sees no difference in the situation at universities this year with Falcon at the gates versus last year when they were not present on the scene.
“We don’t want neither the police nor Falcon,” adds Nagy.
However, former Colonel Mohamed Mahfouz, who has worked on initiatives calling for police reform, argues that under the current circumstances, it is necessary to have public security at universities as well.
“Private security does not cancel out the necessity for police presence at universities, it only minimizes their interaction with the students,” he says.
“In normal circumstances, there would be no police outside of the campus gates,” adds Mahfouz.
Ideally, Mahfouz says that only private security personnel would be present at universities, while the police would only secure public spaces.
Mahfouz is for expanding the role of private security companies in Egypt for preventative security jobs such as securing private companies, banks, electricity companies and other tasks, which he says, use up the financial and human resources of the Ministry of Interior.
Mahfouz goes on to say that security administrations should be formed within various institutions, including ministries, with only public streets being left to the police.
Meanwhile, Youssef believes that private security firms’ involvement should be based on clear lines that define the responsibility of the company.
“I’m not against private security securing universities, or for private security to expand its role, but I’m against private security expanding its role when it is not ready,” he says.
“They are managing the situation like any other situation in Egypt, based on trial and error rather than following a scientific method,” he says. “If you are responsible for these universities and you’re bringing in a private security company then put in the effort to lay out the rules and regulations.”
He gives the example of Britain, where there is a deputy minister who specializes in regulating the work of private security companies by reviewing their policies and procedures, providing them with certification and supervising their training.
On the other hand, ATFE’s Nagy says that even with increased regulations governing private security companies, the issue at universities will not be resolved as it needs to be addressed from a political standpoint. He suggests that the government launch investigations into the cases of students who died at universities, and release the students who are still detained in prisons.
Additionally, Nagy suggests that the universities reinforce administrative security with better equipment and larger numbers instead of hiring private security companies.
“The current circumstances at university are only encouraging other students to join the protests of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood students,” he says. “This way of thinking of enforcing security solutions alone will not work.”
But Youssef sees a role for private firms from a broader national security lens. “The minister should have a bigger scope vision of how he wants the ministry to be in 2020, private companies have to play a big role in the future, they have to expand, but it’s not one guard in the place of another,” says Youssef.
“I’m for private security taking on more in the coming period, because the more you expand on private security, the more public security will be available for more important things,” he concludes.