The resurrection of State Security

“State Security, State Security: you are the bullies, the thieves of the state,” is a familiar chant to anti-regime protesters during the last decade of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The call for the end of the decades-old security body, which was first established to crack down on anti-colonial dissidents, came to relative fruition when State Security Investigation Services (SSIS) was abolished in March 2011, after the outbreak of the January 25 revolution.

But what was termed an abolition was nothing more than a replacement of SSIS with the National Security Agency (NSA), the Interior Ministry’s new powerhouse. Throughout its four years of existence, this new body has been testing its strength within the security apparatus.

“National Security is a big black box within the Ministry of Interior,” says Sherif Mohie Eddin, counter-terrorism and human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). He explains that you can never get a clear idea of what goes on within the NSA.

Mohy Eddin says that following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, the ministry has begun restoring its apparatuses, including its National Security and General Security agencies.

He credits former Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim for the revival.

While recognizing Ibrahim’s role in the reform of the ministry, General Abdel Latif al-Baddini, who served as the former deputy minister of interior, argues that the need for a more powerful national security apparatus is now stronger than ever.

“Political crime and opposition to the regime is far greater nowadays,” he says. “The more animosity toward the current regime increases, the greater the need for national security. It’s directly proportional.”

It’s believed that one of the reasons Ibrahim was replaced by current Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was because the latter came from an SSIS background, while the former had only worked in General Security.

Abdel Ghaffar was appointed as the director of the NSA in 2011, following the dissolution of the SSIS, which he worked for since the beginning of his career. He retired in August 2012. He was referred to as the “son of national security” by privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper following his appointment.

“This is Abdel Ghaffar’s time,” says Gamal Abou Zekry, a former assistant interior minister with over 40 years of experience working for SSIS. “You need an inclusive, comprehensive national security apparatus with a focus on political security.”

“[Abdel Ghaffar] has a background in political security, therefore he fits this current phase – that of terrorism and political security,” he adds.

Just two days after the cabinet reshuffle that saw the appointment of a new interior minister, media outlets reported that an explosive device was planted near Abdel Ghaffar’s home in Nasr City, in addition to 33 other bombs that either exploded or were defused nationwide, in response to his appointment.

Local press vowed that Abdel Ghaffar would bring an end to these types of security threats, with headlines reading, “Minister of Interior defies terrorist organizations.”

But Abdel Ghaffar was not going to defy them on his own. Following his appointment, there was a massive overhaul of leading positions within the ministry, with the reshuffle of over 20 different ranks. Like the minister, the majority of those moving up the security ladder came from a NSA background.

The new minister appointed Major General Salah Hegazy, who had served as an officer in the SSIS, as the new director of the NSA, and transferred former NSA Director Khaled Tharwat to the position of assistant minister for the Social Security Agency.

Meanwhile, in its crackdown on the Brotherhood, the agency has acquired new weaponry and deployed masked policemen nationwide, Mohie Eddin says. 

“[Abdel Ghaffar] comes from a background related to national security, so he is capable of running the NSA in a way that gives us information. We need this intel at the moment,” says Ihab Youssef, who has over 20 years of experience with the Ministry of Interior under his belt, working for the NSA and as a counter-terrorism official.

Youssef adds that the previous duties of Abdel Ghaffar involved evaluating police officers, placing him in a good position to deal with the ministry’s personnel.

Following his appointment, one of the first things Abdel Ghaffar did as minister was hold an intensive meeting with officials in the Officers’ Affairs department to look over the ministry’s database of officers.

This is exactly where Ibrahim was seen as a failing. Youssef argues that Ibrahim had been unsuccessful at cracking down on ministry officials responsible for leaking information.

Under the former minister, there had been several reports suggesting that attacks on security personnel or institutions were an inside job. One example is the assassination of Colonel Mohamed Mabrouk in November 2014, where it was later revealed that a police officer was allegedly behind leaking the whereabouts of Mabrouk to his assailants. Prior to his death, Mabrouk had been involved in investigating and arresting several members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In light of Mabrouk’s assassination, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assigned his security adviser, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, to look into files of police personnel at the ministry accused of collaborating with terrorist groups.

Aly al-Raggal, a researcher specialized in security issues, also believes that Ibrahim was having trouble controlling the Ministry of Interior, particularly under the Muslim Brotherhood’s tenure.

But another reason why Ibrahim might have been let go, according to EIPR’s Mohie Eddin, is that he created a better working environment for police officers, who felt more comfortable under his leadership. His replacement is an attempt to break the spirits of the officers, Mohie Eddin argues.

“The regime is telling them that no matter what they do, they will never be on the same level as the military,” he adds.

For Mohie Eddin, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, state institutions such as the police and the military were united in their fight to protect national security. However, as that begins to wear off, he believes that internal conflicts among different state bodies, as well as within the ministry itself, will become more apparent.

Meanwhile, former Colonel Mohamed Mahfouz, who has been involved in a number of initiatives for police reform following the 2011 uprising, says that while the new minister is better equipped to deal with present dangers, an increased focus on political issues could lead to more imbalance at the Ministry of Interior.

“All of the ministry’s resources will go toward the war on terrorism,” says Mahfouz.

He recalls that Mubarak-era Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly was focused solely on political security, which, in his opinion, eventually led to the regime’s demise.

“The danger of this is that it negatively affects other forms of security, such as social security or economic security,” Mahfouz adds.

General Baddini believes that the correlation is inevitable. “The more there is interest in political security, there less there is interest in social security and criminal security,” he says. “There has to be a balance in distributing power.”

Additionally, an intensified war on terror could also mean easily justifiable violations of human rights.

“A lot of police violations will be dismissed using the excuse that we are fighting terrorism. The police will be ‘under pressure,’ so people will be forced to put up with them,” says Youssef.

This piece has been edited since it was first published. 

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