Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

New minister, same fears

Mohamed Ibrahim has been removed from the post of interior minister after a string of failures fighting terrorism and a controversial human rights record. Khaled Dawoud reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Calls for the removal of Major General Mohamed Ibrahim as interior minister began to be made within weeks of his appointment by Mohamed Morsi in January 2013. But while Morsi and many of his ministers have been in prison since 3 July 2013, Ibrahim survived. He was the only minister to be retained from Morsi’s cabinet.

Even as Morsi and the Brotherhood grew more unpopular by the day during their one-year rule, Ibrahim showed total loyalty. At least a dozen activists, members of revolutionary, leftist and secular groups, were killed by police as they took part in anti-Brotherhood protests.

Ibrahim even lost the confidence of the police force. In one unprecedented scene, officers attacked Ibrahim when he attended the funeral of one of their colleagues, shot dead by suspected terrorists.

The minister was forced to flee from the mosque without his shoes. The police force, which had spent decades fighting the Brotherhood and radical Islamic groups, had no stomach to reconcile with the group.

But as events shifted the fortunes of the Brotherhood and Morsi, Ibrahim executed a U-turn. He turned his back on Morsi and supported his removal following popular demonstrations that began on 30 June 2013.

Sources close to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi say this change of heart was one of the reasons Ibrahim kept his job as interior minister. Ibrahim then escaped an assassination attempt by a suicide car bomber just weeks after police violently dispersed pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo’s Rabaa and Nahda Squares.

Over 800 people were killed during the Rabaa dispersal, according to reports commissioned by the government.

Independent estimates of the death toll are higher.

Sassa Post, an independent online news site, reports that in the 26 months Ibrahim served as interior minister there were 236 deaths among detainees as a result of torture. The most recent deaths took place two weeks ago when three people, including a lawyer, died as a result of torture in Eastern Cairo’s Mattariya police.

The numbers of those killed and arrested over the past two years are disputed. International human rights groups estimate that some 30,000 people have been arrested. Since Morsi’s removal, violence and bloodshed have become almost daily occurences in northern Sinai and major urban centres.

Ibrahim repeatedly claimed that the security campaign was scoring success after success, and that the police thwarted far more attacks than actually took place. It became an increasingly hard line to sell as tragic incident followed tragic incident.

The Interior Ministry insisted there was no alternative to its heavy security crackdown on the Brotherhood. At the same time, however, secular parties and groups that had supported Morsi’s removal found themselves subjected to police violence.

Hundreds of secular protesters were arrested for violating the controversial protest law and many were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years.

When a small group of Popular Socialist Alliance Party members tried to mark the 4th anniversary of the 25 January 2011 revolution by laying flowers in the middle of Tahrir Square they were attacked by anti-riot police. Shaimaa Al-Sabagh, 30, was shot dead by the police, according to witnesses, as she walked along Talaat Harb Street towards Tahrir Square.

The Interior Ministry’s response was to claim that the peaceful demonstrators had attacked the police by throwing stones and fireworks. The deputy president of the Socialist alliance Party was then arrested, only to be released almost immediately. The prosecutor-general then ordered a news blackout on the case.

In early February 20 young football fans were killed in front of an army stadium in Cairo after police restricted access to the football match to a single gate around which they had built a steel cage.

Police responded to the increasingly disgruntled crowd — an estimated 10,000 fans were trying to get into the stadium — by firing rounds of tear gas into the confined space. The Interior Ministry justified its actions by claiming that the police were trying to prevent fans without tickets from entering the match.

Ibrahim’s claims of growing success in Egypt’s war on terror, and promises of extra security measures ahead of the Sharm El-Sheikh Economic Conference, rang ever more hollow as the number of homemade bombs detonated across the country grew in number.

On 5 March, in the week before Ibrahim was removed, 20 small bombs were detonated in Cairo and Alexandria alone. One exploded in front of the office of the prosecutor-general, on a busy downtown Cairo street, a place where two similar incidents had already occurred.

But the way Ibrahim was removed by Al-Sisi has sent mixed messages. Hours after his removal he was appointed as the prime minister’s advisor on security affairs and given the honorary title of deputy prime minister. Observers say this confirms the gratitude Al-Sisi retains for Ibrahim following the latter’s role in Morsi’s removal.

Nevertheless, the decision to remove Ibrahim was made in total secrecy, and like the other ministers involved in the reshuffle, he had no prior notice that he was about to lose his job. As the new interior minister, Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar, was being sworn-in, Ibrahim was touring a Central Security Camp in Suez.

Ibrahim’s replacement, 63-year-old Abdel-Ghaffar, has spent much of his career in the infamous State Security Department, the arm of the security apparatus which former president Hosni Mubarak relied on to suppress all forms of opposition and to rig parliamentary and presidential elections.

Such was the organisation’s unpopularity that one of the first acts by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) following Mubarak’s removal was to order its overhaul.

Informed Interior Ministry sources say Abdel-Ghaffar was not a close associate of Mubarak-era interior minister Habib Al-Adly. In 2008, Abdel-Ghaffar was removed from State Security, where he had served for 30 years, and transferred to the Ports Security Authority. After the 25 January revolution, he returned to oversee reforms at what was now called the National Security Department.

In a rare interview in June 2011, Abdel-Ghaffar, then deputy director of the National Security Department, acknowledged that errors had been made. Said Abdel-Ghaffar, “Many mistakes and excesses were carried out by the former State Security Department, including lack of respect for human rights and the privacy of citizens.”

A recording of Abdel-Ghaffar’s interview with the private Al-Hayat television channel began circulating hours after his appointment as interior minister, an attempt, perhaps, by activists to remind him of his pledges to respect human rights, and his admission that the former State Security Department was used “for political purposes by the previous [Mubarak] regime.”

The central dilemma Abdel-Ghaffar now faces is how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abdel-Ghaffar was promoted to become director of the new National Security Department in October 2011, only to be removed in August 2012, two months after Morsi became president. Officers known to be close to Abdel-Ghaffar were also transferred to other departments within the Interior Ministry.

Some commentators say Abdel-Ghaffar’s appointment means the government will maintain its security crackdown against the Brotherhood, and making use of his long experience in confronting the group under Mubarak.

Other informed sources, however, suggest Abdel-Ghaffar may have been selected for the job because his knowledge of the Brotherhood and its leaders will be useful in hammering out some form of reconciliation with the group.

They note that Abdel-Ghaffar was instrumental in engineering the unofficial truce between Mubarak’s government and Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya following the Islamist group’s renunciation of violence in the late 1990s.

Abdel-Ghaffar showed he meant business from his first day in his new job. On Friday, less than 24 hours after his appointment, he announced a major reshuffle including 24 senior officers in the Interior Ministry. Among the officials he removed was the director of the National Security Department, Khaled Tharwat.

Tharwat has been replaced Major General Salah Hegazy, a veteran officer with whom Abdel-Ghaffar worked closely for many years in State Security. Hegazy served as Abdel-Ghaffar’s deputy when he was director of National Security, but was transferred to the Civil Affairs Department by Morsi.

Senior officers known to be close to Ibrahim were also removed, including the former minister’s deputy for security affairs and the director of Cairo Security Department.

Confronting terrorism will remain the key challenge facing Abdel-Ghaffar, and the litmus test of his success in his new job. Secular parties, which welcomed Ibrahim’s removal, also hope he will put into practice the promises he made to respect democracy and human rights following the 25 January Revolution.

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