x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Egypt ponders how to deal with police snoops who spied on their fellows

Vast trove of internal spying documents found in the headquarters of state security makes great gossip, but also poses a challenge for Egypt: how to reconcile the secret service spies and the public they spied on.

Ayman Nour, an opposition politician and chairman of the Egyptian political party el Ghad, says he was shocked at how much the state security spied upon him.
Ayman Nour, an opposition politician and chairman of the Egyptian political party el Ghad, says he was shocked at how much the state security spied upon him.

CAIRO // As a prominent political dissident, Ayman Nour always knew that he was under close surveillance in the police state of former president Hosni Mubarak.

But after reading his own intelligence file, which his son discovered by chance last week when demonstrators raided the headquarters of state security, Mr Nour said he was still shocked by the shameless way security officers had systematically violated his rights and then meticulously recorded it.

"What surprised me was the impertinence of the documents as a whole," said Mr Nour, who challenged Mr Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was jailed the following year. "We immediately published them [via] Twitter."

What is needed now, say Mr Nour and other prominent politicians, is the creation of a political healing process like the ones employed in East Germany, South Africa and other former police states.

Such an approach serves to hold abusive officers and their informers to account without clogging up the nation's courts and without worsening societal divisions.

"They should admit the truth and apologise so that a new page can be turned, but before that happens we cannot move forward," Mr Nour said.

"I believe that it should be a political, not a legal process, because if it's a legal process there will be punishments for violations and this will worsen the situation. But there should be an apology to every person who was violated."

The trove of documents made public by Mr Nour, which ranges from reports on wiretaps of his family to an internal letter suggesting interference by state security in his 2005 forgery trial, represented just one account among hundreds that have gripped Egypt in the week since protesters stormed into a number of state security buildings across the country.

The revelations that have spilt out onto Facebook and Twitter - of lists of government informers, incidents of blackmail and reports of torture and wrongful imprisonment - have not only answered some long-held questions and brought truth to light but also threatened to tear apart communities and sap public trust in the government.

And the lack of any official vetting process has created the potential for opportunistic forgers to post misinformation and lies online, say experts.

The new government should provide controlled access to the documents in place of the unregulated releases on Twitter and Facebook, said Bahey el din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

So far, Egypt's military rulers have instead appeared to favour keeping remaining police documents secret, he added.

"Such documents should be at the hands of the state, but should be made available for the people to review and read, at least so that everyone can have access to his or her own file," he said.

The documents published so far represent just the tip of the iceberg among hundreds of thousands of files, say protesters who last week surged into state security headquarters and other offices that are now under heavy military guard.

At the suburban Nasr City headquarters of the State Security Intelligence Service, known as the Amn el Dawla, activists came across rooms full of documents on several underground floors, said Ramy Yacoub, a 28-year-old graduate student who entered the building last week.

In spite of mounds of shredded papers, "there was no way the people there could have got rid of it all", he said.

"I can sincerely not describe to you how many documents were there," said Mr Yacoub, who was with Mr Nour's son, Nour Ayman Nour, when he discovered his family's file. "People were sitting side by side on the sea of documents, just reading."

The abrupt opening of state security's confidential records invited comparisons to similar events that took place in Germany's communist eastern half in 1990, when a crowd of protesters burst into the headquarters of the country's notorious "Stasi" state security service, said A James McAdams, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US, whose 2001 book Judging the Past in Unified Germany traced the dismantling of the regime.

As in Egypt, the East Germans were confronted with painful truths, but the scale of spying in the latter was unprecedented. Of East Germany's 16 million citizens, the secret police maintained files on more than a quarter of them.

The records were ultimately made public through an organised disclosure process.

The German parliament held hearings to set the historical record straight and to try to promote reconciliation, and subsequently some former state security employees were banned from taking new jobs in the government.

"Once [the documents] were out, it would have been very difficult to put them 'back in', even though many West German politicians would have been glad to do so,"he said.

"One can legitimately regard the Stasi-files process as being a better form of truth-telling than the [parliament's] efforts at truth-telling. The problem with the latter, and similar commissions in places like South Africa and Chile, is that they become so easily politicised."

In Egypt, the government "had better develop a thorough process for dealing with [the files], otherwise such files are like dynamite and end up exploding in all directions", Mr. McAdams recommended.

"Has a real change taken place, or just something that seems like a change?

"In part, we will be able to measure the extent of the change in Egypt by looking at how issues like justice and truth-telling are handled."