Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2011
Issue No. 1047
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Putting the genie back in the bottle

According to security sources, it is only the personnel of the dissolved state security apparatus who know how to restore order in the country, and that can do it, Jailan Halawi reports

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El-Eissawi attempts to face the chaotic upheaval by demoralised security forces

Incidents of thuggery, sectarian strife, robberies and fights have spread following the 25 January Revolution, reflecting the chaotic upheaval felt among a wide spectrum of Egypt's social segments. Regardless of the detail of such incidents and differences of opinion on them, one incessant question is always voice: Where are the Egyptian police, and when will their presence be again felt where it is desperately needed?

Ever since the Friday of Anger on 28 January, when security forces escalated their confrontation with protesters but failed, and then disappeared, a sense of insecurity has been deeply felt among Egyptians. Despite the presence of the Armed Forces in the street, this security void is felt to this day. Public safety, and horrific tales of assaults and worse, is the talk of the town.

To explain the present state of affairs many theories emerged. The most obvious is the loss of trust between the people and the security forces following years of repression during which the police was the iron fist of the former regime, wielded mercilessly. When on Friday of Anger the security forces used live fire on peaceful protests, it was no longer a matter of mistrust, but rather refusal. In districts throughout major cities, police stations were burned to the ground as the people fought back against and conquered their decades long persecutors.

To be a member of the police force from this day on was a curse, whereas it had been the vehicle towards personal power and prestige in society. Attacks on prisons and police stations left scores of police officers killed or injured and thousands of outlaws on the loose with stockpiles of stolen weapons enough to destabilise any nation's security. As order was slowly restored, and a new political chapter opened, former minister of interior Habib El-Adli -- a reviled symbol of the oppression of the fallen regime -- was jailed for 12 years in conclusion of one of many suits brought against him, including for ordering his men to kill peaceful protesters.

Scores of security force personnel are either under interrogation or submitted their resignations. As for those on duty, reportedly, they function either reluctantly or with extreme caution.

Meanwhile, by virtue of the revolution, many political prisoners who served their terms but who were kept under precautionary measures on national security grounds were released. Among them are the historic leaders of Egypt's most militant Islamic group incarcerated since 1981 for their role in the assassination of president Anwar El-Sadat, cousins Abboud and Tarek El-Zomor. Others released have kept a low profile. They appeared later almost on all satellite channels following the revolution explaining their strategy and announcing their "peaceful" comeback to daawa, or the "calling for Allah".

A new trend emerged under the Salafi umbrella with many obnoxious attacks staged in their name followed. The latest was that of Mar Mina Church in Imbaba that left 15 dead and close to 240 injured.

Indeed, a wave of violence has engulfed the country, from sectarian strife, threats of demolishing Sufi shrines, to attacking police stations, and numerous burglaries, to traffic accidents that turn ugly, and other incidents. In its wake, incessant calls have been made through all media channels urging the security apparatus to maintain order and regain stability. A number of peaceful marches were organised announcing that the people and the police stand united hand-in-hand in safeguarding the nation.

"Where are the security forces and why do they always take charge after it's all over? How many times do they need us to tell them to take charge and end the state of chaos in which we live, and what more shall we say to make them realise that we sincerely need them to do their job and regain our sense of security? Why have the police become so passive? Is it either they treat us aggressively or not at all," said 35-year-old Rawya Fares, an accountant, voicing the opinion of many interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly.

For their part, security officials keep promising that their cadres' presence will soon be felt in the street, but it seems this presence will take time to materialise. According to Minister of Interior Mansour El-Eissawi, the ministry faces many challenges due to its many losses worth billions of pounds, whether of arms, burnt vehicles or destroyed establishments, computers, and communications equipment during the revolution. While he assures that what was destroyed is being rebuilt, "equal attempts from inside and outside the country work on aborting these efforts and prolonging the state of insecurity," El-Eissawi explained.

El-Eissawi also notes the moral harm that befell his forces due to the "fierce" media campaign against them. "Not all security officers are corrupt," he said. "What we suffered was a corrupt regime rather than a corrupt apparatus, and hence corruption ends with the end of [the regime's] rule." El-Eissawi further explains that his officers are bitter about the trial of some of their colleagues, "while they were acting either in self- defence or in defence of their police stations." Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there were incidents of wrongdoing and that those proven guilty by trial will be immediately expelled from the service.

El-Eissawi has overseen the dissolution of the tyrannical State Security Intelligence (SSI) apparatus, which for the past decades acted as the ministry's backbone, initiating the National Security Apparatus (NSA) in its stead. The latter won't have the same powers as its predecessor and will only be concerned with terrorism and espionage cases. While the move was welcomed by scores of rights activists and citizens who for years complained of SSI violations, its dissolution seems to have disrupted the ministry's structure. According to security experts interviewed by the Weekly, the SSI apparatus along with the Criminal Investigations Department worked as the ministry's nerve centre. Hence, upon its collapse, "the ministry is only acting with its muscles," according to one source.

Given time, El-Eissawi assures, the ministry is capable of containing the security situation. "We are working hard in hot pursuit of the criminals and thugs at large. Give us time and you will see police patrol cars in the streets as well as officers and policemen in heavy presence. Just give us some time to rearrange our cards. Regaining calm and security needs surveillance and monitoring of the hideouts of criminals. And unless all citizens help and support the security forces, calm won't be restored in the near future," he explained.

In a sign of support, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf underlined the pivotal role of the security forces in pushing forward the wheels of development and prosperity. Sharaf further assured the trust of the Egyptian people in the ability of the security apparatus to maintain stability, hoping it could be established soon. He further urged all citizens to show respect for, and to cooperate with, the police for the wellbeing of the nation.

But are these calls enough? According to security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, no. "What we are witnessing is brainless power in action. In order for the Ministry of Interior to function forcefully, it needs to regain its nerve centre, in its state security officers and those of the Criminal Investigations Department," said one security source. The only functional cadre at the ministry now, according to the source, is that of the Central Security forces, whom he described as "unguided power".

"It is the officers of the SSI apparatus and those of the Criminal Investigations Department that have all the information about the country in the palm of their hands. They have the knowhow of every alleyway and street. They have the tools and the sources that instinctively know how to collect information. These two ranks of officers are the only ones who know the rules of the game, and hence are capable of containing the situation. But in order for them to work, they need to be given a free hand and guarantees that they are backed by their authorities, and in a manner that says they are capable of containing the situation," said another security source.

Citing the latest Imbaba incident as an example, security sources speaking to the Weekly assured that it is the district's Criminal Investigations officer who led the arrest of the main instigator. "That [effort] should be announced [by the ministry] and praised to encourage his colleagues to follow suit."

By definition, one source explained, the Ministry of Interior stands as "an apparatus of power and control". What we need now "is a fully- fledged and strong apparatus to control the situation, and not traffic police or patrol vehicles. It is those wrongly defamed, yet highly qualified and informed, officers who have the blueprint to restore security. It's time to use it [the blueprint] but with some adjustments." The ministry, the source noted, "should work on urging these officers to make a strong comeback, and provide whatever guarantees they need, if they wish to contain the situation. Otherwise it will only get worse."

The source further explained that for decades "some corrupt officers have been breeding thugs as informants and kept them on a tight leash. Now they are on the loose and are partly behind this chaos. Thus, while I might disagree with these officers, I need them to repair the damage they left behind, and only they know who went astray, and how to summon them back."

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