Egypt's security forces are weakened after decades as Mubarak's enforcer

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:26 AM

CAIRO - For years, Marwa Farouk lived in fear of Egypt's state security agents, who arrested and interrogated her several times for her work as an activist.

But now it is the state security apparatus, which served as the main enforcer of former president Hosni Mubarak's regime, that has become vulnerable. In stunning succession, its headquarters have been overrun by angry mobs, its once-dreaded police force hidden away and, on Tuesday night, its top officials were placed under house arrest.

Meanwhile, protesters who stormed its buildings last weekend are now using Facebook as a clearinghouse of sorts for the reams of documents they found. While Egyptians have long suspected the organization of having agents in every corner of society, the files appearing online show a spy network whose breadth has surprised even those who worked for years against it.

When Farouk, a socialist lawyer, opened up a computer file this week, she watched as her life, chronicled in minute detail, scrolled before her eyes. Wading through the mundane drivel that agency spies had apparently spent hours collecting - her boring speeches at universities, long meetings with other activists - she couldn't help bursting into laughter.

"It just seems so absurd now what they were doing, almost comical," said Farouk, 31.

It is a sign of how rapidly things are changing in Egypt. Laughing at the much-feared state security forces just months ago would have been unthinkable for most critics of the regime.

For decades under Mubarak, Egypt's state security organization was hated for its use as a domestic spying agency. Human rights groups regularly tracked cases of citizens being arrested without cause and tortured, and it was such abuses that in part gave rise to the revolution.

The weekend raids by protesters were prompted by rumors that officials were destroying evidence that could implicate them in decades of torture and repression during Mubarak's rule.

The rush into state security buildings resulted at times in violent clashes with the authorities, who have tried to assure protesters that they are moving to secure documents.

Reinforcing that message, the military, which now runs the country, detained the current and former chiefs of state security Tuesday night, according to state-run media. Egypt's general prosecutor also announced this week the arrest of at least 47 state security officers accused of destroying documents, and ordered all interior ministry buildings be sealed by the military.

And the new head of the interior ministry - sworn in Monday along with the new prime minister and other cabinet members - announced he will scale back the state security apparatus. Meanwhile, the military has pleaded with protesters to return all the documents.

Mountains of files

But none of it has stemmed the massive collection of documents that protesters are posting via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs.

Their content runs the gamut: from details about intrusive and sometimes violent tactics to quash dissent, to descriptions of backdoor election deals between opposition figures and the Mubarak administration. There are also accounts of spies planted in activist groups, hacked e-mails, transcripts of private phone calls by opposition leaders, and details meant to embarrass public figures. One of the more breathlessly circulated items in recent days has been a photo of a purported sex tape whose label reads: a Kuwaiti princess and man at the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria.

Verifying the authenticity of the documents has been difficult and, because mountains of shredded papers were discovered in the same buildings, theories are now circulating online suggesting that the more scandalous files may have been deliberately left behind to distract protesters from serious abuses.

Meanwhile, morale among state security forces is low, and many officers - angry and afraid - are refusing to go back to work.

"These recent attacks on state security are a dangerous thing," said Adel Abdel Aleem, a former high-ranking official in state security with 30 years' experience. "People keep talking about how repressive the state security was, but they don't realize the role the system has played in protecting them, the many times we foiled terrorists."

Aleem said many of the online documents are forgeries, and he dismissed the alleged destruction of documents as standard procedure. "When you are a soldier on the battlefield, retreating from the enemy, you don't leave him ammunition to use against you," he said.

Diminished authority

But for the activists who are finally reading their own files, the details contained within ring true, if bizarre and randomly selected. At least two founders of the April 6 Facebook Movement, a key group in last month's revolution, have discovered files on themselves.

Farouk said reading her file reminded her of the harassment she endured for more than a decade, ever since her decision to join the socialist movement in university. She recalled how state security officers often summoned her to their offices, how they sometimes prevented her from entering campus and other times chased her for her activist work.

They arrested her twice - the first time for eight days in a police station in Giza, the second time on the outskirts of Cairo in a town called al-Qanater. She said they did not beat her but interrogated her for hours.

"They thought they could do whatever they wanted," Farouk said. "They thought they had absolute authority over everything and everyone."

But finally seeing the file they kept on her, she said, makes state security seem far less than the all-powerful and all-knowing agency she long imagined it to be.

"In the end," she said, "they were nothing more than thugs."

Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company