Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 March 2011
Issue No. 1038
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The night State Security fell

Amira Howeidy was among the protesters who entered the State Security Intelligence headquarters in Nasr City and laid a collective nightmare to rest

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An Egyptian carries a sign that reads in Arabic: "Arab Republic of Egypt, State security intelligence agency," after protesters stormed the offices of the state security building headquarters in Cairo's northern Nasr City neighborhood

There's nothing easy about being an Egyptian journalist these days. The amazing speed of events leaves you swamped with stories as well as emotions. The mood swings are frantic: jubilation, fear, worry, optimism, pessimism, anxiety, hope, relief, sadness and the opposite, over and over again.

Sometimes there are no words to describe how you feel. Such has been my experience twice this year. The first was just before 6pm on 11 February when I saw Al-Jazeera flash breaking news in huge red letters that read: Mubarak steps down. I was in a state of disbelief and had to scream the words "he stepped down" over and over to myself to digest their meaning. Not even at the peak of the revolution, when I was in Tahrir Square alongside tens of thousands of others demanding the end of the regime, did I actually believe it was going to happen.

The second time was just before 7pm on 5 March, when I passed though the gates of the State Security Intelligence (SSI) headquarters in Nasr City and entered one of the most notorious complexes in Mubarak's Egypt. Suddenly I was in our Bastille, the scene of our nightmare.

I had known since noon of the same day that there were plans to demonstrate in front of the building and perhaps even storm it, just as happened 24 hours earlier in Alexandria when protesters entered the city's own SSI headquarters. They had been provoked to do so after seeing smoke coming out of the building. They surmised correctly that police officers inside were burning thousands of files. When people first tried to storm the place they were met with live ammunition and Molotov cocktails. Despite the violent response the crowd expanded and the military police stepped in to control the situation. The demonstrators finally succeeded in entering the building after the police were evacuated.

The news was heartening. I woke on Saturday with a realisation that the brutal, vicious, monstrous SSI apparatus was falling part at the seams. The police state was being dismembered and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

By 5pm hundreds of people had begun to gather in front of the SSI Nasr City headquarters and the thought of forcing entry suddenly became a possibility. I imagined myself walking through its corridors, going through its secret files, finding perhaps mine, or my father's, or files on others I knew. By 6pm I had joined the growing crowd that was chanting, urging on the military police that had sealed the entrances of the vast fortress with tanks and armoured vehicles. They wouldn't move. The massive SSI stronghold with its high gates and towering buildings seemed impossible to conquer. I was starting to lose any hope of setting foot inside the place when we heard that police trucks packed with shredded SSI files were attempting to leave the building from the back gates.

The protesters shouted " batel !" (fraud or wrong). A female voice screamed "there's someone inside!" and her words were immediately taken up as a chant. The chants grew louder and stronger at which point the military police opened the gates to let us in.

I ran with the crowd towards the gate. When I crossed inside to the SSI headquarters I looked at my watch. It was almost 7pm. I texted friends, "I'm inside!", and for a moment feared that we had all walked into a trap and the shooting would begin. It didn't. The entire place was empty.

The first thing I saw on walking into the compound were three large black plastic bags packed with the shredded remains of documents. There were also some undamaged files. One of them was titled "Islamic groups -- 11/2/2010 to 30/6/ 2010".

I stood there not knowing what to do. A young man shouted at me: "Don't give anything to the army. We'll only hand things to the prosecutors." I had no objections, but there was no one else except us, the demonstrators, around.

With hundreds of others I tried going through files that were still in one piece. Then suddenly everyone was running in and out of the complex. Some peered through the windows of the second and third floors cheering and making V- signs, others walked around displaying improbable "souvenirs", brand new police helmets, batons and video tapes tucked in their clothes. Most people, however, were carrying files. Some surfaced from the main building with long wooden boards containing stacks of index cards. The SSI's archive. Or to be more accurate our archives, details of our lives, secrets, relationships, phone calls, networks, interests, movements, compiled by the massive spy networks maintained by Mubarak's police state.

As the files began piling up instructions were shouted: "Protect the files, don't take anything!" Someone called out that they had found a document titled "Security cooperation with the United States on Islamists". Others simply chanted Allah Akbar.

Hundreds of young people, men and women, were running aimlessly, carrying whatever they could get their hands on and piling it next to the three black garbage plastic bags packed with shredded files in what had become the "safety" zone. A young man walked around throwing copies of a business card which read "Hisham Abu Ghida, assistant to the Minister of Interior -- State Security Investigation". I was showered with the cards. "Habib El-Adli's men! Huh!" the man shouted hysterically.

I walked into the main building, through a hall that led to other halls, all as shiny as a five-star hotel. I ended up in a large, state of the art space containing cubicles each equipped with a flat-screen computer and white telephone. There was a large, oval-shaped conference table surrounded by leather chairs, each place provided with a thin microphone. There was no indication what the large chamber was used for. It could have been the Internet Surveillance Department which spied on people online.

Some people in the room were taking pictures. Others disconnected the hard drives of the computers and piled them in a corner to hand over to the prosecutors.

"Where are the underground prisoners?"

Suddenly the question that had been at the back of everyone's minds was raised. We were, after all, in the place where thousands of people had been sent for "interrogation", for which read torture. There are thousands of accounts of former detainees held blindfolded in this very complex before being systematically abused by State Security investigators.

We looked everywhere, discovering nothing, no secret passages or doors and certainly not any prisoners, until someone came across an underground tunnel that resembled a garage across the narrow street from the main building. It led to the infamous prison cells.

The entrance consisted of a narrow corridor with several small offices off to the right. They quickly filled with demonstrators who began to go through the files contained in the rooms. There were piles of paper, clothes, shoes: evidence of life before those who worked in the place were hastily evacuated. Pressed into a corner of one of the rooms I examined the files nearest to hand. They were all on Christian missionary activity in Egypt.

I attempted to enter the prison cells at the end of the corridor but a military policeman was protecting them and wouldn't allow any one to pass. Metal bars separated us from the cells which were visible and clearly empty. The metal door of each cell was wide open. They were 24.

The shower area on the left side of the corridor was dirty. Remains of faeces were clearly visible on shower floor's white ceramic tiles.

Outside the tunnel and back in the garbage-area turned into an improvised repository of files half a dozen military police had surrounded our finds.

I saw hundreds of files, detailing the monitoring of the media, Arab affairs, communists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestine and Zionism, student activism, informants, Euro- Mediterranean affairs and Islamism. Amid the chaos I stumbled on three documents on my father, a paper on a journalist who happened to be standing next to me, a report on a phone call by political activist Gamila Ismail and a memo on the Cairo Peace Society, formed by 30 Egyptian personalities after Hamas came to power in 2006 with the aim of "spreading the culture of peace through their workplaces".

After poring over the documents for two hours I left. My bag was searched four times by volunteers to make sure I was not taking anything with me. I did, however, see dozens of people fold documents into their pockets and smuggle them out.

Outside, a man and his wife approached me, both grinning.

"How do we get in?" the man asked. I told him. I didn't need to inquire why they were smiling so broadly. It was the night the SSI fell.

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