By William Fisher
While the leaders of Egypt’s revolution argue with the ruling generals about when to hold elections and when to rewrite the Constitution, many Egypt experts are saying that the problem central to the success of the revolution is being cosmetisized or irnored altogether: Overhaul of the government security apparatus.
“Comprehensive reform of the security state -- and specifically, the Ministry of Interior and its sub-organizations, the ‘bowels’ of Mubarak’s repressive state apparatus -- is crucial if Egyptians are to establish a democratic society based on the rule of law,” says one such expert, Samer S. Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University.
Shehata charges that during the Mubarak administration, “ensuring the regime’s survival, not protecting the citizenry or upholding the rule of law, was its primary function.”
Speaking at a conference organized by Jadaliyya magazine, Shehata said, “Absent was the understanding that the police and the security forces more generally, are not above the law or immune from accountability. In fact, Habib El-Adly, the despised former Minister of Interior, now on trial, changed the police’s motto several years ago. The motto had long been -- somewhat ironically -- “the police in the service of the people.” Adly replaced this with an Orwellian-sounding slogan, “the police and the people in the service of the nation” (the old motto has since been readopted).
He explained: “Abuse by security personnel took both small and large forms: in daily interactions with the police, on the street, at traffic stops, and police checkpoints, to more serious cases involving torture and human rights violations. The arbitrary exercise of authority was widespread. In the absence of any real accountability, security officials acted with near impunity. Suspected criminals were routinely mistreated, especially those accused of petty crimes. Heavy-handed techniques were the norm. Police stations were feared by many. Few rights or protections were afforded, especially to those without connections or money. And corruption was endemic.”
Bahey el-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), recently declined the newly-created position of Deputy Interior Minister for Human Rights. He said he was not optimistic that the political context in which the post was created would allow it to have a real impact on the situation inside the Ministry of Interior. “On the contrary, it may only serve to cover up a still ugly reality that must be changed, a task which is beyond the capabilities of the deputy - and perhaps even of the Interior Mnister himself - to accomplish.”
He added, “The chronic human rights problem of the police and security establishment is too complex to be solved by the creation of a deputy human rights post in the Interior Ministry. Indeed, the problem is closely linked to the extent to which people realize the need for radical, far-reaching reform in the Interior Ministry and other state institutions and ministries. The experience of the last few months contains little to indicate this realization among the Interior Ministry, the Prime Minster, or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”
If Egypt’s “January 25 revolution” is to succeed, comprehensive security reform is required, he said, adding that making minor changes around the margins is unlikely to produce any positive change.
Unfortunately, he said, “there is little indication that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or the current Minister of Interior is interested in undertaking such reforms.”
So far, he concluded, “The SCAF has only changed the name of the SSIS and made promises of further reform. More recently, the government announced the dismissal of several hundred high ranking officers, and the commencement of trials against officers suspected of murdering protesters. None of these steps address the structural aspects of the problem at hand.”
He told The Public Record, “Renaming the agency and promising some reforms is not enough. It needs to be disbanded.”
“The Ministry of Interior must be placed under civilian control, as has already been suggested by a number of activists and civil society organizations. This could entail replacing the current minister (a basic demand of many of the July 8 protesters) with a civilian, preferably someone with a legal and human rights background.”
“Reform must also entail drastically curtailing, if not eliminating, the role of the security services in many aspects of public, private, and political life. The Ministry of Interior’s (and particularly, the SSIS) surveillance and authority was pervasive and extended to universities (overseeing academic appointments, research, and student groups and activities), media whether private or state-owned, business, labor (through the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation), syndicates, and civil society groups, not to mention political parties, activists, Islamists, and elections.”
“In addition to the measures outlined above, clearly established and effective institutional channels for citizen complaint must be put in place, to ensure accountability. Achieving greater transparency and oversight, particularly when it comes to budgetary matters, must be the guiding principles of any security sector reform initiative in Egypt.”
Finally, Prof. Shehata observed: “The primary benefit of democratic governance is not the right to place a ballot in a ballot box every few years. It is to live in a society governed by the rule of law, and characterized by citizenship, accountability, and the protections of basic freedoms (both, of course, are related). The ballot box is one particularly important mechanism for establishing and preserving such a society. This reminder could not be more relevant to ongoing efforts to advance democratic change in Egypt.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, agrees. He said, “The government also needs to reform the interior ministry to make sure it does not repeat past abuses by security services under its jurisdiction, and to initiate investigations of torture and other abuses by leading security officers. The need to move forward with investigations into the actions of officers from the now-dissolved State Security Investigations (SSI) division of the ministry is especially urgent -- the division was notorious for using systematic torture and enforced disappearance to obtain information.”
To prevent torture, government officials should establish civilian oversight of the police force, permit independent monitoring by civil society groups of detention sites, and create an internal unit to investigate torture complaints transparently.
“The justice ministry also should reform the process used by the public prosecutor to investigate police abuse, Human Rights Watch said.The vast majority of torture complaints never reach court because of police intimidation of victims and witnesses who file complaints, an inadequate legal framework, and delays in referring victims for medical examination. The government also should end the practice of relying on police from the same unit as the alleged torturer to gather evidence and summon witnesses. Instead, the prosecutor's office should control all aspects of these investigations, and bar police involvement in gathering evidence and summoning witnesses.”
It has been seven months since strongman Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency. While the interim military rulers have made some progress in some areas, it has to be said that their performance has been less than distinguished – a lot less. It appears that those invidials and groups responsible for Mubarak’s downfall have had to pull the military rulers by the hair, literally every step, to achieve even the most basic reforms.
Meanwhile, people are still being arrested and detained without charges, legal representatation or trial. Civilians are being tried in military courts. Prof. Shehata reminded The Public Record that in March hundreds of people entered State Security offices in Cairo and Alexandria and found thousand s of files about all of their activities ... spying, "intelligence," surveillance and other bad things. There were reports of finding torture rooms. Men who were arrested duiring that period were abused, not by civilian law enforcement but by military police, who also subjected wwomen detainees to “virginity tests.”
And the so-called Emergency Laws are still in effect after 30 years. These laws, passed just after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, give the government sweeping police powers to arrest, detain, prosecute and imprison with virtually no due process.
(It comes as good news that Ali El-Selmy, Deputy Prime Minister, has told Al Ahram newspaper that the cabinet is planning to repeal the emergency law soon; in a meeting held on July 25 the Cabinet allegedly discussed laws and mechanisms to replace the law. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has promised to eradicate the emergency law, but it may be worth noting that such undertakings have been proposed a number of times by the ruling regime.)
Now, all this should come as no surprise to those who follow revolutions and their aftermath. Most don’t work. The euphoria of victory is slowly and painfully transformed into frustration and anger with the glacial pace of change and then disputes among revolutionary factions that divide and weaken the opposition.
But think about it: The generals who rule Egypt now are all, for one reason or another, associates of the fallen dictator. In many cases, the older generation of ruling officers went to school and up through the ranks with Mubarak, looked up to him as the picture of the ideal leader, and accepted from him the doors he opened to become not only powerful, but wealthy. And while the younger officers may have shared less, they shared nevertheless, and learned lessons from their superiors.
But what they never learned was about governing. They learned about commanding. And If all you know is commanding, obviously you will get a command economy and a vision of government based, not on the chaos of democracy, but on the button-down, salute-and-accept traditions of military establishments everywhere -- and the disciplines that go with those traditions.
That makes the education of the generals the toughest short-term problem Egypt faces.