November 21, 2011 6:59 pm

Egypt state security feelers still active

At a campaign event in Alexandria, an aide handed a note to Sobhi Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary candidate, as he was about to make a speech.

One of the party’s former state security tormentors, it said, had been spotted at a nearby café watching who was coming and going to the event, just like the days before the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak as president.

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Mr Saleh urged supporters to ignore the spy.

“We know state security still exists,” Mr Saleh said in an interview. “We know who they are. We know they’re doing the same bad things they used to do.”

Anger at what activists say is continued repression in Egypt under the ruling military council has galvanised protesters in Tahrir Square over the past three days.

Unlike in Libya, where the regime collapsed, or Tunisia, which purged and restructured its interior ministry after the country’s revolution, the feared Egyptian state security investigation service, which penetrated unions and university campuses and spied on activists and other presumed enemies of the state for decades, remains largely intact.

There have been few signs of increased transparency or, apart from a few cases, any accountability for past crimes, which included torture and sodomy of prisoners. The structure of the old institution remains in place, despite the scandals that erupted after protesters stormed state security offices in March and seized documents showing the alleged involvement of government officials in torture.

“Departments are frozen, not deleted,” said a professor who maintains contacts with the security forces and requested anonymity for fear of losing his sources. “They can be activated at any point. They could arrest all of the Salafists [puritanical Islamists] in one day if they wanted.”

After some initial moves to purge the security forces, attempts at systemic reform were halted, say analysts and political observers. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, the 100,000-strong state security service has been renamed homeland security and personnel moved around.

A security official in charge of keeping tabs on dissident scholars, for example, was moved to the section watching foreigners entering the country. Some were given early retirement. One of Mr Saleh’s minders was moved from Alexandria, where he was easily recognised, to the Mediterranean town of Marsa Matruh, he said.

“They still exist at 80 per cent of their previous capacity,” he said. “The people who were got rid of are no more than 20 per cent. The rest continue to stay in their posts. They continue to monitor, to eavesdrop. They watch but they don’t interfere the way they used to. They don’t call us in for questioning.”

Occasionally, activists and intellectuals say a phone call will be cut off because, they speculate, recording equipment is not ready, or a familiar face from the security forces is spotted at a demonstration.

Gamila Ismail, a liberal candidate for parliament, said she and supporters began noticing the sounds that calls were monitored during the summer. “I still hear clicks on my phone,” Ms Ismail said. A contact inside the security apparatus confirmed her suspicions. “They went back to the bugging system.”

The behaviour of the security forces is emerging as an election issue. Imad Abdul Ghafour, an Islamist candidate for parliament, said he demanded police and interior ministry personnel take courses in human rights while speaking at a conference inside a police academy.

“I called for changing the culture of the police so they protect people and not monitor people,” he said. “We know they are there,” Mr Ghafour said of the shadowy elements in the security apparatus.

“State security is still there and even our phones are under surveillance. But the heavy hand is less, and the Egyptian people should take the opportunity to prevent them coming back.”

Ms Ismail was banned for seven years from her career as a television reporter for criticising Mr Mubarak and had run-ins with state security under the previous regime. She blamed Egypt’s military rulers for trying to unleash the security forces against the people and keep their grip on power.

But Ms Ismail said Egyptian culture had changed so much since the revolution that their efforts were futile. “The old tactics started to come back in June,” she said. “The military is using old ways . . . Old agents are back in the protests. It’s silly because it never harmed us during the revolution.”

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