Egypt's Security Agencies Back, Now With A New Mandate

Egypt's interior minister announced he is resurrecting much-hated security agencies that stifled dissent and helped Hosni Mubarak stay in power for three decades. They were a key target of protestors who forced his ouster in early 2011 and seemed to disappear from the scene for much of what's transpired in Egypt since. But as it turns out, they never went away and this time, have a popular mandate that many Egyptians fear is making them more dangerous than ever.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin the hour in Egypt, where another clash between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi appears to have been postponed. The interim government had ordered an end to daily protests by Morsi supporters, by force if necessary. A large part of the Egyptian public backs a crackdown now, even though widespread hatred of security forces was a key reason for the uprising back in 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

SIEGEL: Many Egyptians say they are setting aside the past for now, so that peace and stability can be restored to their country. And today, a judge ordered a 15-day extension of the ousted president's detention. But Egyptian activists and analysts say the crackdown against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood may be setting a dangerous precedent.

In a few moments, we'll hear from a supporter of ousted President Morsi.First, more on the security forces from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Just how much Egyptians hated the Amn ad-Dawla, or State Security Agency, can be heard in this online video of protesters storming the notorious agency's headquarters outside Cairo in March 2011. The protesters combed the darkened halls in the giant complex, searching for shredded files on tens of thousands of victims tortured or killed by the Mubarak regime in hopes of bringing those responsible to justice.

Afterward, agencies like Amn ad-Dawla that shored up Mubarak's autocratic rule appeared to vanish from the scene. A decades-long state of emergency that indemnified security forces for their brutal acts lapsed in 2012. Nowadays, some in the military-backed interim government say weakening the security apparatus was a mistake.

The interim president even suggested that he might impose another state of emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: During a televised news conference last month, Interior Minister Muhamed Ibrahim said he was reactivating security departments that monitor political and religious activities to restore public safety. He blamed the current political crisis and violence on the, quote, "abolishment of those agencies."

Public reaction to the interim government's announcements was largely muted, save for a few harsh responses from activists like Ahmed Maher. He's a founder of the April 6th youth movement that was instrumental in forcing Mubarak from power.

AHMED MAHER: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Reached by phone, Maher says it's totally unacceptable for anyone in Egypt to use security forces to quash political dissent. He says the crisis with the Brotherhood should not be used to justify a return to oppression. Maher and others add it's ludicrous for anyone to suggest Egyptian security agencies were mothballed in the first place.

Instead, the security organs became less conspicuous after Mubarak left, but they continued to operate even under their former enemy, the now ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Activists say Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood tried using the security sector to increase their control over Egypt.

ASHRAF AL-SHARIF: It's a kind of old wine in new bottles.

NELSON: That's Ashraf el-Sharif, an assistant political science professor at the American University in Cairo. He adds, most Egyptians don't want another police state but are nevertheless turning a blind eye to the increasing authority that interim leaders are giving security agencies because they want the Muslim Brotherhood stopped.

AL-SHARIF: They really want this to be over, and the Muslim Brotherhood are doing things, they're making things worse. They're escalating. So the more they are escalating, the more people get enthusiastic about giving the mandate to get rid of them.

NELSON: The popular mandate is spurring the security apparatus to act more aggressively than in the past, says Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt who teaches political science at George Washington University.

NATHAN BROWN: There is an entire discourse of the necessity to root out terrorism and terrorism being a barely concealed code word for the Brotherhood that the security services are using in order to justify what is already a much harsher crackdown than Mubarak ever attempted against the Brotherhood.

NELSON: Brown says that the interim government's approach also means there won't be any changes to the security agencies to make them more accountable to the public in the foreseeable future. Kati Innatta(ph) at the Cairo office of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights agrees. He's worked on proposed police and security sector reforms since 2011, including plans to reshuffle the leadership, restructure the security departments, and create civilian oversight so that the agencies function more as they do in Democratic countries.

KATI INNATTA: But the fact of the matter is, these institutions are not even proper institutions anymore.

NELSON: Innatta predicts it could be a few years at least before that changes and only then if Egyptians stand up to the security agencies as they did in 2011. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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