Egyptian activists move to shut down infamous secret police

An underground archive at Amn al-Dawla headquarters after it was stormed by activists. (Hossam el-Hamalawy)


CAIRO (IPS) - The much-feared secret police and intelligence service that protected the regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by arresting, torturing and even killing opponents has started a wave of burning documents and evidence that could incriminate them, as calls escalate for abolishing the force altogether and bringing its officers to justice.

Hundreds of protesters surrounded the main office Saturday of Amn al-Dawla, the State Security Police, in 6th of October City, 30 kilometers south of Cairo, to try to stop the burning of files believed to contain incriminating evidence of human rights abuses.

Protesters were shouting “Justice, justice for they fired bullets on us.” Army tanks and armored vehicles were cordoning off the offices to protect the besieged secret police officers.

Heaps of documents and files were on fire. Dozens of protesters used wooden ladders to take a peek from above a three-meter-high fence. Some managed to salvage lightly burned files. The documents could provide insights on how the secret police operated with complete impunity under Mubarak for thirty years.

Similar protests broke out in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and in Sharkia, a province northeast of Cairo. Protesters asked for disbanding the force after word spread on Friday night that officers were shredding documents and setting fire to “top secret” documents.

Eyewitnesses in Alexandria told local TV stations that officers cornered inside the building opened fire on the protesters, injuring at least three.

Disbanding the force would be the next most important landmark in the process of the Egyptian revolution, after it succeeded in ousting the Western-backed Mubarak on 11 February, and the dissolution of parliament a few days later.

Amn al-Dawla resembles the Iranian Savak force under the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. That force was later eliminated by the Islamic revolution.

The draconian force had instilled fear among most Egyptians and was often the main friction point between the public and the Mubarak regime. Thousands have been kidnapped and tortured by Amn al-Dawla officers.

The force, whose exact number and budget remain a secret, controlled almost all aspects of life in the nation of 85 million. Its reports are said to have shaped the future of most professionals in the country.

No government appointments were made without approval of the secret police. Political activists risked at the least a ban on travel overseas. Young army officers were put under surveillance to ensure loyalty to Mubarak. Spies were planted everywhere, including in shopping malls and sports clubs to monitor public sentiment.

“They banned all of us men over sixty years old from gathering inside mosques after prayers to read the Quran,” says Hajj Mohammed Ali. “They banned any gathering. They wanted to control the people with an iron fist.”

Others tell more dramatic stories. Sayed al-Gazzar, a secondary school teacher, recounted how his brother Khaled was detained by Amn al-Dawla in Sharkia for three days for not carrying an ID card.

“He came out a sick person with lots of mental problems because of the heavy torture he endured,” al-Gazzar told IPS. “We spent a year going from one doctor to the other to find a cure for him. But he died a year later leaving behind three children and a wife without any income. They killed him.”

It is such heart-wrenching stories that started off a campaign in Egypt to disband and investigate the force after the toppling of Mubarak.

Calls are mounting on Facebook and Twitter to surround more offices of the secret police force to save the important documents.

The coalition of the 25 January revolution (25 January is when the first big protest was held) — a loosely formed grouping of young leaders of the uprising — threatened to launch sit-ins around the country if the army doesn’t order the end of the Amn al-Dawla, or moves to preserve evidence of its human rights abuses.

“Our unequivocal request is the elimination of that police force,” the group said in a statement sent to IPS. “We will continue to escalate pressure within hours … including issuing calls for masses of Egyptians to demonstrate until that police force is abolished.”

But the spread of protests to other offices of Amn al-Dawla could lead to renewed violence as the force is well-armed, and its members didn’t hesitate in the past to shoot at demonstrations.

New Prime Minister Essam Sharaf is more responsive to disbanding the force, probing abuses by the force and holding its officers accountable. Sharaf has made statements against the force before.

Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy, an old guard figure, has resisted calls to dissolve the powerful force, preferring instead to “restructure” it.

Human rights groups and revolution activists have vowed to press ahead with their demands to remove all symbols of the former regime.

On Thursday, the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information published a series of leaked documents that detail the “crimes” of the secret police. In a statement, the group entitled the release: Countdown to End Amn al-Dawla.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2011). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.