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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part III: Shehata)

[Central Security Forces face Egyptian Protesters. Image Source: M. Soli/ via wikimedia commons] [Central Security Forces face Egyptian Protesters. Image Source: M. Soli/ via wikimedia commons]

[This is the third of seven posts associated with a Jadaliyya electronic roundtable on the future of Egypt. Click here to access the full roundtable. Participants include: Issandr Al-Amrani, Zeinab Abul-Magd, Nathan J. Brown, Jason Brownlee, Daniel Brumberg, Mohamed El-Menshawy, and Samer Shehata. A description of the roundtable can be found here. For the previous post click here.]

 Citizens and State in Post-Mubarak Egypt

Jason Brownlee is correct to argue that the most daunting challenge facing efforts to advance democratic change in Egypt is not whether constitution writing should precede elections or choosing between different electoral systems, but security sector reform. 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.

Fraudulent elections were a regular feature of Mubarak’s Egypt. Mismanagement of government resources was rampant. Public education was left to deteriorate and health institutions were badly neglected. But more troubling to ordinary Egyptians was the daily abuse they suffered at the hands of the security services, especially the police, but also, the State Security Investigations Services (SSIS), and the Central Security Forces (CSF). Egypt under Mubarak was far from a state based on the rule of law. In fact, law enforcement agencies, the very institutions that should have been entrusted with upholding the law in public life and in their own practices, systematically abused their authority.[i] This became glaringly obvious to outside observers through high profile cases such as that of Emad El Kibeer and, more famously, Khaled Said, but it was, and remains, a regular feature of life in authoritarian Egypt.

Moreover, as both the Said and El Kibeer cases demonstrate, the problem extends well beyond “formal institutions.” The arbitrary exercise of power is pervasive, and extends to ordinary interactions between security personnel and “citizens”. Rather than serving the people, the security forces lord over the public, often treating Egyptians with little respect or dignity. In fact, many observers see in the ‘Arab Spring’ a struggle by ordinary people to restore their dignity after suffering arbitrary abuse at the hands of corrupt authorities.

The Ministry of Interior was the heavy, repressive boot of the Mubarak regime against the throat of the Egyptian people. It enjoys sweeping powers (i.e., the majority of current police officers have only worked under the Emergency Law, in effect since 1981) and significant material and human resources.[ii] Ensuring the regime’s survival, not protecting the citizenry or upholding the rule of law, was its primary function.

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 in custody awaiting 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).

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.[iii] 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.

Of course, the dehumanizing experience of suffering abuse at the hands of authorities that are unconstrained by the rule of law (everyday authoritarianism), was the corollary, and took place in parallel, to the “political” repression regularly carried out by uniformed security personnel, especially the CSF, and plain-clothes thugs (baltageyya) during elections, demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins.

If Egypt’s “January 25 revolution” is to succeed, comprehensive security sector reform is essential. This extends well beyond the demand of holding those responsible for killing protesters during the revolution accountable. It means much more than rooting out officials who, in the past, carried out or authorized torture and human rights abuses. It must entail comprehensive reform of the Ministry of Interior, or “deconstructing the security state,” to borrow Brownlee’s felicitous phrase. The entire organization must be overhauled, from the police academy’s admissions procedures, to curricula and training, operating procedures, promotions, and the codes and norms governing the relationship between officers and conscripts. The organization’s ethos must be transformed into one that reflects a deep respect for the rule of law, the dignity of citizens, due process, accountability, and human rights. Accomplishing this will likely prove more difficult than holding “free and fair” elections or drafting a constitution.

Unfortunately, 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.

What is to be done?

In addition to the changes outlined above, 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,[iv] labor (through the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation), syndicates, and civil society groups, not to mention political parties, activists, Islamists, and elections. Even high-ranking government officials and ministers were, at times, the targets of security surveillance. So far, 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.

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.

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.

NEXT: Daniel Brumberg discusses tradeoffs and challenges in pursuing security sector reform…

[i] Of course, this is perfectly understandable considering the authoritarian character of the regime. The Interior Ministry performed, as it should have, and largely according to plan, in such a system.

[ii] Estimates of the size of the Central Security Forces vary. Brownlee writes that the CSF numbered 300,000 while Samer Soliman estimates their strength at 450,000 See Samer Soliman, The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) p. 63. Ibrahim Al Sahary writes that the force numbered between 300,000 and 400,000 in 1986, at the time of the CSF riots. See

[iii] For a recent cinematic rendition of the problem, see Yousef Chahine’s last film, Heya Fawda (It’s Chaos), about police corruption in a Cairo neighborhood. For incidents of police abuse after the “January 25 revolution,” see the episode of Baladna bil Masry entitled “Torture in Egypt before and after the January 25 Revolution.”

[iv] According to these documents, SSIS made arrangements with a number of well known clothing companies to sell its employees merchandise at significant discounts:

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2 comments for "Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part III: Shehata)"


مقال رائع وفي غاية الاهمية

فتحي زين wrote on July 25, 2011 at 02:35 PM

Well written and informative. Thank you Jadaliyya.

Bethany L wrote on July 25, 2011 at 04:58 PM

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