Shortly after a car bomb went off at the Cairo Security Directorate on January 24, 2014, footage from a nearby video surveillance camera was released that showed a white car parked outside the directorate seconds before debris filled the frame.
The footage was captured at the height of ongoing attacks by militant groups aimed at security forces in the aftermath of former President Mohamed Morsi’s fall from power. However, it did not help identify the perpetrators of the bombing, nor did it capture the car’s license plate number.
In early February, the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper published more images captured by the adjacent Islamic Museum’s security cameras from the night prior to the explosion. The stills showed six assailants in three different vehicles setting up for the attack. But again, the footage did not provide any conclusive evidence due to its poor quality.
Nonetheless, the government is hoping to rely more heavily on surveillance cameras as part of increased security measures in the country’s urban centers. In late January, news of a nationwide plan to install surveillance cameras along main streets and squares was lauded in local media as part of the state’s efforts to fight terrorism, crime and harassment.
The proposal was first unveiled by former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb in May 2015, when he announced that a committee comprised of officials from the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency and the Armed Forces would spearhead the nationwide surveillance plan.
Mehleb was removed from his position shortly thereafter, but the plan resurfaced in January 2016 under the supervision of Cairo Governor Galal Saeed and the Ministry of Transportation. In its latest iteration, the surveillance was more closely linked with road safety, fighting harassment and regular crime, as opposed to counterterrorism measures.
Earlier this year, Saeed announced that by the end of February, the entire capital would be covered by the new cameras. Aside from the main streets, 5,500 surveillance cameras would also be placed by metro stations and major mosques. Cameras have already been installed in West Cairo, Abdeen, some parts of North Cairo, Heliopolis and Nasr City, according to the privately owned newspaper Youm7.
To implement the plan, the Cairo Governorate contracted with the Arab International Optronics Company, which was founded by the Armed Forces in the early 1980s to provide the military with optronics and other surveillance instruments, in addition to selling their products on the market.
According to the Youm7 report, security footage is managed electronically through two control rooms — one at the Cairo Traffic Authority and another at the Cairo Governorate building.
“When we talk about cameras, their importance is that they give us an image of what is happening live on the ground, and give us a history that we can present to an investigations unit, which can lead us to who committed the crime,” says security analyst Ihab Youssef, a former counterterrorism official for the Ministry of Interior.
Youssef contends that the Interior Ministry should thus be at the helm of the plan, since the collected data will be relevant to the security officials who lead investigations and who are aware of security shortfalls.
It appears that Saeed is striving toward the model of world capitals like London and Dubai, which are prime examples of places where authorities keep their streets under close watch. Dubai has 3,000 cameras in its main airport alone, while a 2013 report estimated that the number of cameras in Britain stands at approximately 5.9 million.
But Youssef believes that in Egypt, the plan is still haphazard.
The plan obliges shop owners to install a camera outside their storefronts, otherwise their licenses won’t be renewed. But Youssef says that because the governorate did not provide specifications for the cameras or how to store the footage, there will not be an integrated, cohesive system.
Along one main road in Cairo, there are at least four or five different kinds of cameras installed outside of shops. A local grocery owner says he installed his camera two weeks ago after governorate officials came around and issued each shop a warning. He claims that nearby stores that did not install the cameras had their electricity cut off.
The grocery store owner says he installed a low-quality camera with no memory storage since that was all he could afford.
Surveillance cameras can range between LE700-20,000 depending on resolution and the amount of memory storage the camera has, if any. Most of the shops are installing cheap cameras with no memory.
“If each camera is a standalone [ie, only provides a live feed], then it’s not very useful,” says Youssef. “The ultimate goal is [to be able to] collect information on anyone that goes back up to a month.”
Sherif Mohy Eldeen, a researcher on counterterrorism and human rights at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, is concerned about the plan’s impact on civil liberties. He says that the general public is not aware of this new surveillance system, and that an issue of this magnitude and complexity should be up for extensive public debate.
“Installing cameras on the streets needs a clear plan and a discussion, as it will violate people’s freedoms,” says Mohy Eldeen. “It needs to be clear who is in charge of this plan, and who can access or use it.”