April 7, 2011
Trapped somewhere between revolution and counter-revolution, Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior is facing internal collapse amidst a disastrous leak of intelligence files, mysterious fires in records facilities, suggestions the ministry was running false-flag terrorist operations, a loss of judicial immunity and a dramatic deterioration of discipline and morale. The charges come as many Egyptians fear elements of the security services are inciting political and social chaos as the first phase of a counter-revolution.
As the protests in Egypt grew in strength in late January, Interior Ministry police disappeared from the streets after killing at least 300 demonstrators while Ministry prison guards released thousands of prisoners, leading to a predictable crime wave that angered many Egyptians. The police were ordered to return to work by new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, but large numbers of police and security officials have failed to return to their jobs. Many fear for their personal safety in a climate where the police and security men no longer enjoy immunity. Some point to the fate of a policeman in the upscale Cairo suburb of Ma’adi, who was severely beaten and his vehicle set on fire after shooting a bus driver during a dispute, an act that would have once gone unchallenged (BBC, March 29).
Most important for Egypt’s national security and international counterterrorism efforts is the fate of the Mabahith Amn al-Dawla (State Security Investigations Service – SSIS). Once a relatively small department of the Ministry of the Interior, the SSIS grew steadily under the presidencies of Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and benefited enormously from the wide latitude that governed their activities after the implementation of the 1981 Emergency Law, which is still in effect. Protecting the regime eventually became the agency’s unofficial mandate (al-Masry al-Youm, March 9). The SSIS interfered with the development of political parties, human rights groups and trade unions while approving the appointment of newspaper editors and even imams. The Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafist groups came under close scrutiny. The SSIS enjoyed close relations with the FBI, which offered SSIS members training at its Quantico headquarters, and with the CIA, from whom the SSIS received prisoners for interrogation under the U.S. rendition program.
Protesters Seize Ministry Documents
In early March, protestors acted to stop what they believed was the wholesale destruction of secret documents detailing illegal activity by the SSIS:
- Protesters entered the main headquarters of the SSIS headquarters in Nasr City (a Cairo suburb) on March 5 through an open side door and found shredded documents and torture devices while the army stood back. Some protesters were able to demonstrate how the instruments were used based on personal experience. Despite urging from the army, the protesters refused to leave until representatives of the attorney-general’s office arrived at 9PM to receive documents, tapes, computer hard drives and shredded paper collected in the building (al-Masry al-Youm, March 6).
- Demonstrators in Alexandria entered the local SSIS building on March 4 as SSIS agents were shredding and burning documents. Official reports said 21 security officers were assaulted by demonstrators and had to be escorted out by the army (Middle East News Agency, March 4).
- A fire in the SSIS headquarters in 6th of October City (a satellite of Cairo) on March 5 damaged or destroyed many files and documents. Protesters forced entry to the building after observing fire-fighting vehicles being turned away by state security officers (Ahram Online, March 7). Prosecutors in 6th of October governorate later charged 67 SSIS officers with burning state documents and public property (Ahram Online, March 8; Bikya Masr, March 8).
- On March 6, roughly 2,000 civilians demonstrating at the Lazoghly (downtown Cairo) SSIS headquarters for reform of the security services and access to the building to prevent destruction of documents by the police were attacked by 200 men in plainclothes wielding a variety of knives, swords and gasoline bombs (BBC, March 6). The army fired into the air to disperse the demonstrators and arrested 29 individuals, all of whom were later released (Bikya Masr, March 7, March 8).
State security buildings in Assyut, Minya, Marsa Matrouh, Suez City and al-Arish were also occupied by demonstrators on March 6 (Bikya Masr, March 7). Since then, the files taken from the security offices have begun appearing on Facebook pages, opening the secrets of the long-feared internal security services to all Egyptians.
Meanwhile the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has appealed to Egyptians to return the files to authorities, citing concerns for national security. Though many fear the documents may disappear after their return, it is also impossible to verify their authenticity or use them in prosecutions so long as they remain in private hands. Indeed, by breaking the chain of evidence, the protesters may have unwittingly made the documents useless in judicial procedures.
Materials collected at the security offices showed the regime had thoroughly infiltrated the democratic and Islamic opposition, explaining their relative ineffectiveness in recent years. Included were hacked emails, accounts of opposition meetings, transcripts of private phone calls, lists of SSIS agents planted in opposition groups and even logs specifying in advance how many votes candidates would receive in parliamentary elections (al-Masry al-Youm, March 6). 
Although the main Facebook site for publishing these documents has a rule against publishing the names of informers contained in the records, other websites have been less scrupulous.  The Egyptian media has been banned from publishing details of any of the documents found in Ministry offices.
New Interior Minister Mansur al-Essawy argued, despite the evidence, that it would be illogical for officers to destroy documents they need in their investigations. Essawy claimed that such destruction did not matter in any case, as the originals were kept in the main branch of the SSIS (Bikya Masr, March 7).
The SSIS and the Church Bombing in Alexandria
Eight of the documents suggested SSIS involvement in the January 1 al-Qiddisine (“Two Saints”) church bombing in Alexandria that killed 21 Copts and wounded nearly 100 more Copts and Muslims. One document addressed to the Interior Minister and dated December 2, 2010 referred to the bombing as “Mission no.77” and contained details of the church layout and a plot involving the use of a known Islamist to organize the attack.
Shortly before the bombing occurred, the heavy police presence around the church (deployed in response to threats against Coptic institutions) suddenly melted away. The long list of dead and wounded at the entrance to the church, where police would be expected to be found, contained not a single member of the security services. This ignited street protests by the Coptic community. The release of the document alleging SSIS guidance of the terrorist operation brought Copts into the streets once more.
Then Interior Minister Habib al-Adly announced the ministry had “conclusive evidence” that the church had been struck by a 19 member cell led by Ahmad Lofty Ibrahim of the militant Gaza group Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) (BBC, January 23; al-Ahram, January 25). The small Salafist group issued a prompt denial of any involvement in the bombing. Gaza’s Hamas government expressed surprise at the allegations and called on Egypt to share intelligence on the matter: “Hamas is leading a resistance against the Zionist occupation inside Palestine and will never allow it to move outside Palestine. Egyptian and Arab security is one of our top priorities. We consider the Arab nations our strategic depth and we would not accept anyone to touch their security” (al-Jazeera, January 23; AP, January 23).
Al-Qaeda deputy leader and native Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri denied any al-Qaeda connection to the Alexandria church bombing. Instead, he laid all responsibility for the attack at the feet of Pope Shenouda III and the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church, accusing them of spreading the belief that “the Muslims have occupied Egypt and must be driven out as they were kicked out of Spain” (AP, February 25).
Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, sectarian clashes have dramatically increased. In one street battle in the Manshiyet Nasr shantytown on the edge of Cairo hundreds of Copts and Salafist youth battled until the army intervened by firing on the combatants. Many Egyptians believe these clashes continue to be instigated by state security services (Bikya Masr, March 9; al-Dostour, March 10). Copts have also taken to the streets to protest reports of attacks by the army on the 5th century St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun and the Monastery of St. Makarios of Alexandria in the Fayoum Oasis. The ruling military council has said these actions were necessary to remove newly built walls around the monasteries (AP, February 25).
The Sharm al-Shaykh Bombings – A False Flag Operation?
Some of the documents allegedly seized from the 6th of October headquarters appeared to implicate the former president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly in a “false-flag” terrorist operation designed as retribution for a business dispute – the July 23, 2005 Sharm al-Shaykh bombings in which over 80 people were killed and 200 wounded in the coordinated attacks on two hotels and a market. According to the documents, the bombings against properties owned by Egyptian businessman Hassain Salim were organized by Habib al-Adly. One of the documents says the dispute was based on Gamal Mubarak’s anger with Hassain Salim after the latter reduced his commission in a $2.5 billion gas deal with Israel.  A message appeared after the bombings on jihadi internet sites claiming the attacks on behalf of the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades,” though in practice local Bedouin were blamed and pursued by the security services. A document addressed to the Interior Ministry and entitled “Order 231” gave details of the planning of the attacks. The document is dated June 7, 2005 and is signed by several state security agents (al-Dostour, March 10; Afrol News, March 9; Der Spiegel, March 9).
The Trial of Habib Ibrahim al-Adly
Though there are many allegations against al-Adly, the former Interior Minister was initially charged only with money laundering and unlawful acquisition of public money. Nevertheless, his first appearance in court was accompanied by demonstrators outside the court demanding the death penalty, saying his prosecution on relatively minor charges was insufficient (AFP, March 4). Since then, it has been announced that al-Adly and four other senior security officials (including former SSIS chief Major General Hassan Abdelrahman, public security head Major General Adly Fayed, Cairo security chief Major General Ismail al-Shaer and former assistant to the Interior Minister Major-General Ahmad Ramzy) would also face charges related to the killing of demonstrators (Ahram Online, March 11; Bikya Masr, March 13). Al-Adly’s trial is scheduled to begin in Cairo Criminal Court on April 24.
There are also demands for hundreds of other Ministry officials to be prosecuted for various crimes. Egyptian human rights organizations have compiled a list of 74 SSIS officials (including four Interior Ministry generals) and 264 other police and prison officials responsible for torturing detainees and presented it to the Attorney General (al-Wafd, March 10).
Emptying the Prisons
During the security breakdown that preceded Mubarak’s resignation, thousands of prisoners are believed to have escaped prisons run by the Interior Ministry. Efforts are now underway to find the fugitives or convince them to turn themselves in. As many as 300 of the escapees may be members of organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hamas or Hezbollah.
The Interior Ministry’s prison affairs department announced they had released 904 political prisoners and 755 criminal prisoners from February 1 to March 12 (Ahram Online, March 12). Authorities quickly changed their minds about one release; Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of the al-Qaeda deputy leader, was rearrested on March 19, only three days after being freed by the army along with 59 other convicted Islamists who had served 15 years or more of their sentences (al-Masry al-Youm, March 21). Among those released earlier were Aboud and Tariq al-Zomor, convicted in 1984 for their role in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat (Ahram Online, March 11). Aboud al-Zomor and many other Salafists were accused of using intimidation to press for a “yes” vote (preferred by the ruling military council) in the March 19 referendum on constitutional changes (Ahram Online, March 31).
A New Security Service: Renamed or Reformed?
In taking his new role, Interior Minister Mansur Essawy pledged that he would work to restore security and reduce the role played in Egyptian life by the security services (al-Jazeera, March 7). Essawy is regarded as an unpopular choice within the ministry, which he left ten years ago (Ahram Online, March 23). The SSIS was formally disbanded on March 15, though Essawy has stated many former employees will be rehired for the new National Security Division that will replace it. The Division’s chief will be appointed by the Interior Minister rather than the president, as was formerly the case with the SSIS (Ahram Online, March 17). Hopes for a complete break with the past were dashed when Essawy said the state security apparatus “cannot be dissolved,” though he pledged it would restrict itself to counterterrorism and national security issues (Middle East News Agency, March 12; Bikya Masr, March 12). On March 20, al-Essawy appointed a 39-year police veteran, Hamed Abdallah, as the first director of the National Security Department (al-Masry al-Youm, March 20).
Morale within the Interior Ministry is crumbling with many police taking to the streets to demonstrate for better pay and the restoration of their immunity from prosecution – many fear being brought to trial for their role in abuses committed during the Mubarak regime. A senior Ministry official told a Cairo daily: “Officers go home and decline to come to work; they switch off their mobiles and do not take calls on their home landlines… Hundreds of police officers have already resigned; they just don’t want to be part of the ministry anymore” (Ahram Online, March 23).
Calls for reform and even prosecutions have come from inside the Interior Ministry as well. A new group known as the “Honorable Policemen” has warned elements within the Ministry are perpetuating political and social disorder as part of a growing counter-revolution. The group is preparing a list of corrupt police officials for presentation to the Attorney General (al-Masry al-Youm, March 30).
Other officers have protested outside their own buildings demanding better wages and working conditions. Existing pay scales almost ensure a culture of corruption within the security services. Another mysterious fire began in the personnel department of the downtown Cairo Interior Ministry headquarters as policemen protested outside on March 22. Among their demands was the return of Mahmoud Wagdi as Interior Minister (Ahram Online, March 22; BBC, March 22). An Interior Ministry veteran, Wagdi was appointed by Mubarak on January 31 and was replaced by al-Essawy on March 5. Brigadier General Safwat al-Zayat has claimed the criminal and sectarian violence that swept Egypt after the army’s decision to sack al-Wagdi and former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq was designed to prove the army was incapable of running the country (Ahram Online, March 7).
Greater unrest may follow if Egyptian authorities try to reduce the bloated size of the Interior Ministry, now estimated to have over 1.7 million employees, making it over three times as large as the Egyptian military. The question of whether to continue recruiting policemen through conscription will also need to be addressed, as will the question of how to bring the new security service under effective civilian control and oversight.
The Mubarak regime may have been a victim of its own success in pursuing a long and often brutal campaign against Islamist extremism in Egypt. With nearly all the armed opposition either dead, imprisoned or in exile, Egypt’s stability and lack of external enemies led to new demands for economic liberalization, the repeal of the Emergency Law and the introduction of a more legitimate democratic process. Fueling or even igniting religious and sectarian tensions in Egypt may have provided just the right amount of manageable instability to allow Mubarak to maintain a corrupt administration while posing as the lone bulwark against Islamist violence. These activities also appear to have offered cover to large-scale corruption within the regime. The implosion of Egypt’s Interior Ministry and its national security service provides a cautionary warning to those who assume the “War on Terrorism” is being fought on the same terms and for the same ends everywhere.
1. Video of the break-ins at the security headquarters and documents allegedly found therein can be found at: leaksource.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/amn-dawla-leaks-egyptian-security-force-files/.
2. Video of the break-ins at the security headquarters and documents allegedly found therein can be found at: leaksource.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/amn-dawla-leaks-egyptian-security-force-files/.
3. For the document, see: www.facebook.com/photo.php.
This article first appeared in the April 7, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor