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

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Washington Post Staff Writercq; not foreign service
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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 once served as the main enforcer of former president Hosni Mubarak's regime, that has become vulnerable. Its headquarters have been overrun by angry mobs, its once-dreaded police have hidden away and, on Tuesday night, its top officials were placed under house arrest.

Meanwhile, protesters who stormed its buildings last weekend are 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 her life, chronicled in minute detail, scroll 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. Just months ago, laughing at the much-feared state security forces 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 such abuses in part gave rise to the revolution.

Trying to secure files

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

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 that 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 that he will scale back the state security apparatus. Meanwhile, the military has pleaded with protesters to return all the documents.

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


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