Friday, March 18, 2011

Egypt: Hated Security Service Dismantled

By William Fisher

Egypt’s State Security Agency – responsible for the unspeakable torture of thousands and the deaths and disappearances of thousands more – has been

Arguably the most hated and feared symbol of the corrupt three-decade rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak, the agency, in the words of one of the leaders of the pro-democracy uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule, "invaded the life of every Egyptian."

The announcement of the agency’s end was made by the country’s new Interior Minister, Maj. Gen. Mansour el-Essawy, and was greeted with cautious glee by pro-democracy forces. Their delight was tempered by questions about what would succeed the security service and whether any of the service’s officials or operatives would be prosecuted.

The Associated Press reported that El-Essawy said the government plans a new agency that will be in charge of maintaining national security and combating terrorism. He said the new agency would operate according to the constitution and laws of the country and would respect human rights.

The end of State Security was one of the leading demands of the pro-democracy movement. After Mubarak stepped down on February 11, Egyptians forced their way into the agency’s Cairo headquarters and other provincial offices and took documents that they say were being shredded or burned to conceal evidence of human rights violations.

Some of those documents have been shown on State TV and posted on Facebook and Twitter. Several members of the pro-democracy movement said they found documents containing information regarding “disappeared” loved ones.

Reformers have complained that several of their group were detained and roughed up by the Army on their way to the Security Services headquarters. While the government has apologized for this behavior, protesters are demanding that these soldiers be held accountable.

Due to the so-called Emergency Law, the state security agency was subject to virtually no legal restraints. It had the power – which it frequently used – to arrest and detain without cause, and to deny detainees access to family or lawyers.

Egypt’s once-powerful and feared interior minister, al-Adly is currently on trial for brutally crushing the peaceful protests that led to Mubarak’s downfall.

Four senior Interior Ministry officials and three security officers have been arrested in connection with the deaths of demonstrators during the January 25th revolution. The former head of Cairo security, and the former head of public security affairs, and two others, are accused of attempted murder and misuse of public funds. Officer Wael Komy is accused of killing 37 protesters, while two other officers are accused of killing tens. The exact numbers have not yet been confirmed.

International and local human rights watchdog groups have traditionally condemned al-Adly, who served as minister for 14 years, for using torture against political opponents in a systematic manner

According to the Associated Press, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who worked on a Facebook page that rallied hundreds of thousands of Egyptians behind the protests, tweeted, "As much as we are happy that State Security is now dissolved, National Security, the new entity, must be under real judicial supervision."

Meanwhile, Egyptians were preparing to participate in a referendum on Saturday to decide whether to accept or reject the constitutional amendments proposed by the interim military government. The amendments would make it easier to form political parties and enter political campaigns, but many observers think the amendments don’t go nearly far enough, while others believe the country needs a new constitution, not an amended one.

A number of leading players in the pro-democracy movement are urging their followers to stage protests in Tahrir Square after Friday prayers to oppose the referendum and call for a new constitution.

The National Association for Change, the organization founded by Presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, is urging rejection of the amendments.

In general, groups supporting the referendum and the amendments tend to be those that are best organized, including the Muslim Brotherhood and what is left of Mubarak’s party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). Opposition is coming from the pro-democracy movement.

In what has been described as “a sign of hope” for improved relations between the police and human rights watchdogs, the newly appointed Minister of Interior met with a leading Egyptian human rights activist on Monday.

Bahey al-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), said he met with al-Essawy for an hour and described the meeting as “very positive.”

"The minister was clear and sincere in his criticisms for the approach of former minister [Habib al-Adly],” Hassan told the newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm.

During the meeting, Hassan suggested that the ministry conduct an internal investigation into abuses alongside criminal investigations that are already taking place.

“I also proposed the establishment of permanent institutional channels for dialogue between human rights organizations and the minister’s office, as well as horizontal communication channels with district security offices in the provinces and police stations that do not involve the minister’s office,” added the CIHRS director.

A human rights activist meeting with the minister of interior is a rare sight in Egypt.

Hassan added that he would soon present a memo to the minister containing CIHRS proposals for security reform and ideas on the institution’s relationship with human rights groups.

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now in Egypt and planning to travel to Tunisia later this week, a prominent human rights advocacy group is urging her to “make clear that the United States is committed to ensuring a peaceful transition to democracy in both countries and that the success of these transitions is a high priority for U.S. policy despite other problems in the region and around the world.”

The New York-based Human Rights First (HRF) said, “A peaceful and democratic transition of power in Egypt and Tunisia is far from a foregone conclusion.”

“Secretary Clinton must demonstrate that America plans to remain engaged in these developments despite other events throughout the Middle East and that it is invested in working with the people of Egypt and Tunisia toward a successful transition,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks.

“During this visit, she should pledge America’s willingness to provide economic and diplomatic support toward that end. She should also reach out to independent civil society activists to indicate the United States’ support for their vital role in producing governments that will govern to serve the best interests of the people.”

HRF’s specific recommendations for Secretary Clinton include:

•Reiterate the strong support of the United States government for peaceful, democratic change in both countries and praise the progress that has been made towards that end.
•Commit to providing short-term economic assistance to compensate for the losses suffered during the uprisings.
•Meet with interim authorities, as well as a broad range of opposition political forces. During these meetings, deliver a consistent message to all that the United States will respect the outcome of a peaceful, transparent democratic process and work with any elected government committed to upholding the rule of law, respecting the human rights of all and responding to the needs of the people.
•Meet with independent civil society organizations, especially human rights and democracy promotion organizations, and encourage their role in monitoring the performance of state institutions. Pledge enhanced U.S. support for their work.
•Commit to developing a substantial package of favorable trade agreements, debt forgiveness and other long-term economic support to be negotiated with responsible government officials and private sector representatives.
•Pledge assistance in tracing and repatriating funds unlawfully expropriated by former leaders.
•Urge that transformation takes place in an atmosphere of peace, transparency and respect for the rule of law.
•Support efforts to hold to account those responsible for serious violations of human rights under previous regimes or during the transitional period; recent reports of the involvement of military personnel in detaining peaceful protesters and beating and abusing detainees should be investigated, and those responsible held to account.