An unusual German export to Egypt: how to handle the secret police
By Michael Birnbaum,
CAIRO — Germany is famous for the finely crafted products that it ships across the world, but German and Egyptian officials met Monday to discuss a considerably different export: expertise on how to dismantle a feared domestic spying agency.
President Hosni Mubarak stepped down barely a month and a half ago, and the powerful state security organization that helped bolster his almost 30-year reign by infiltrating all aspects of Egyptian life has not disappeared.
Workers still stream in and out of its heavily guarded suburban Cairo headquarters, which looks like an upside-down pyramid with its top buried in the ground. Protesters stormed the building this month when they heard that employees were destroying records of their activities. A mysterious blaze that consumed several stories of a different Interior Ministry building last week also prompted widespread speculation that the fire was set to eliminate files. Its cause is under investigation.
Two decades ago, East Germans faced a similar situation when Communist rule collapsed, leaving behind the vast Stasi spying agency. “How do you deal with these files in order not to harm any future democratic process?” said Herbert Ziehm, deputy head of the German government agency that maintains the Stasi files. “It’s not just about the past, it’s about the future.”
For many Egyptians, the fate of their state security agency is a crucial test of their revolution’s progress. And many are still looking over their shoulders, unconvinced that the surveillance has stopped.
“There is this huge mass of people who are still working, still in the same positions, but are unseen,” said Amna Shawkat, 30, who participated in the protests that brought down Mubarak and went to a discussion this weekend led by Ziehm. “I don’t know if I’m hopeful.” She said she hoped the files have been preserved.
Germany established a large agency to deal with the Stasi documents, keeping them inaccessible to the public but allowing individuals to see files pertaining to themselves. The agency also does background checks on candidates for parliament to ensure they never worked for the Stasi and has pioneered computer scanning techniques to reconstruct shredded files.
“It looks like something a rich country can do,” said Mostafa Hussein, 30, another protester. “We will see what happens in Egypt.”
The German visit to Cairo was short — three days — but officials said they hope it will be the start of a longer relationship.
The German team met Monday with an Interior Ministry official, Hani Abdel Latif, who asked for details about what had happened to former Stasi employees and how the Germans had reconstructed shredded files, according to Andreas Jacobs, who was present at the meeting.
Jacobs, who runs the Cairo office of a think tank associated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political party and organized the trip, said, “They were asking for advice. The general advice is that it proved to be right in Germany not to destroy the records.” He, however, emphasized that Germany could not tell Egypt what to do.
Abdel Latif did not respond to requests for comment.
Interior Minister Mansour el-Eissawy announced last week that the state security agency would be replaced and that the new national security agency would more narrowly construe its mission to defend against terrorism and ensure internal security. Many employees of the previous agency will be retained, he said, arguing that many are well qualified and had not been involved in the unsavory aspects of the old agency.
In an interview last week on “Egypt Today,” a talk show, Eissawy said that although files had been destroyed, the ministry maintained a computerized backup and planned to begin investigations of torture and other abuses. He did not say whether he planned to make the files public.
Many Egyptians have seen their files in recent weeks as a result of the break-in, and Web sites modeled on the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks have posted many purported records online, though allegations of forgery are widespread.
One prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood received a copy of part of his file this month.
“They spied on telephone calls. They put some cameras on the walls of my offices,” said Mohamed Ghareeb Abd el-Aziz, an attorney for many of the top officials in the Muslim Brotherhood. Judging by the records, he said, many parts of his life were infiltrated by spies.
Over dinner and a nonalcoholic beer, he paged through the file, which is three inches thick and filled with records that detail comings and goings at his office, accounts of meetings and other information — which was used to put him in jail three times in the past two decades, he said.
“The only blessing with this is that they’ve given me my history,” he said. “I can pass it down to my sons.”
Special correspondent Haitham Tabei contributed to this report.