Egyptians stormed the headquarters of the country’s secret police Saturday night, marking another poignant milestone in the revolution as they overran the agency that was former president Hosni Mubarak’s tool of repression for nearly 30 years. Just months ago, entering the feared and hated symbol of torture and abuse would have been unthinkable.
Their victory came as new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf began forming his cabinet, making a break from the past by removing the ministers associated with Mr. Mubarak and appearing to make choices that would be accepted by democracy protesters. He also announced that he would begin restructuring the state security apparatus, and proposed transferring oversight of state security from the Interior Ministry to the cabinet.
The events of the weekend were a rapid fulfillment of some of the key demands of protesters who have continued to press for significant and systemic change. And many now see them as even more pivotal than Thursday's resignation of Mubarak-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq – perhaps just as important the historic ouster of Mubarak.
“This is the best day of my life,” said Ibrahim El Houdaiby after entering the headquarters of the State Security Investigative Service Saturday. Mr. Houdaiby, a former member of the banned and suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, was interrogated at the site in 2008. “This is when I can finally say the revolution is moving in the right direction,” he said. “This is better than the day Mubarak left, better than the day Shafiq resigned.”
Burned and shredded documents
The crowd of hundreds of protesters who gathered at the headquarters Saturday evening said they were trying to save documents they feared were being destroyed by officers afraid of prosecution. The protest came after citizens stormed a state security building in Alexandria Friday night and found burned and shredded documents, and as they gathered at numerous other state security offices around the country Saturday. Protesters gathered Sunday at a downtown state security office, demanding to be let inside.
At the headquarters in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood Saturday, protesters gained entrance to the massive walled compound despite the fact that the Army's armored vehicles were guarding the entrances. They ran throughout the modern compound of manicured gardens, looking for prisoners and poring through the files on political groups, average citizens, journalists, prisoners, and activists. They found a compound empty of people, but full of evidence of the past.
The agency, which fielded a huge network of informants, was used to spy on Egyptians, as well as for counterterrorism. It was notorious for its use of torture, and many of those present Saturday night had experienced State Security torture or interrogation firsthand. Entering the massive walled compound freely, without a blindfold on and without fear, was an emotional moment.
Abdullah Al Fakharany descended into the below-ground prison cells and described seeing torture implements, including devices used to electrocute prisoners. A man next to him pointed at the device, he said, and with tears in his eyes, said “They used that on me.”
Opulence built on brutality
In an office building, Egyptians took their photos sitting in the chair of the agency’s feared director, General Hassan Abdel Rahman. His opulent office was full of leather couches, sparkling chandeliers, and Persian carpets.
In the myriad smaller offices in the building, they also pored through folders of documents, lists, photos, maps, diagrams, and videotapes.
In one office, folders were marked “Muslim Brotherhood,” “Extremist groups,” and “Salafists.” One document, focused on the November 2010 parliamentary election, appeared to show government interference in the vote. Some were able to find their own files. Houdaiby found that of his grandfather, a previous leader of the banned group. Others found lists of citizens' e-mail addresses and passwords and evidence of hacking into Skype accounts.
Posting documents on Facebook
On Sunday, Egyptians were already posting photos of the documents online, some to a Facebook group called Amn Dawla (State Security) Leaks, whose logo is an adaptation of the Wikileaks logo. Army officers thoroughly searched those leaving the compound Saturday to prevent them from taking documents or looting items, though many succeeded anyways. The prime minister and state prosecutor urged Egyptians in a statement Sunday to return any documents they had taken to preserve national security.
Destroying the evidence?
But some of the most sensitive documents may have been destroyed. Document shredders were in many offices, and huge plastic bags full of shredded paper and tapes stood outside the building. It appeared there had been an organized effort by State Security to dispose of evidence that could be used by a new government to convict the officers of human rights and other abuses. A photo was posted online of what appeared to be an order by State Security head Abdel Rahman to destroy documents, dated Feb. 26. Its authenticity could not be verified.
It’s unclear when the document destruction began. But the agency, which may have felt safe under the previous government of Mubarak loyalists, was no doubt concerned when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the group of military officers ruling the nation until new elections are held, appointed a new prime minister Thursday.
Sharaf, in his speech to protesters at Tahrir Square Friday, said "I pray to God that will I see an Egypt where free opinions are voiced outside prison cells and security agencies serve the nation.”
Out with the old, in with the new
Most of his cabinet choices were announced Sunday, subject to approval by the military council. The key figure of Interior Minister appeared to be someone who would be acceptable to protesters. General Mansour El Assawy was previously deputy minister of security in the Cairo and Giza governorates. Egyptian media reported that he had become known for fighting corruption when he was head of the Minya governorate, in southern Egypt.
Independent activist Ahmed Shoukry was not familiar with Assawy before Sunday, but said it appeared he would be accepted by protesters because he has a good reputation. Most of the other suggested ministers are also acceptable, he said, though he mentioned one minister connected to Mubarak’s regime. He predicted that protests would calm for the time being. “But the problem is not only the names, it's a bigger problem because at all the levels we have corruption. We need social change besides the change of the security,” he says.
Protesters had demanded the removal of General Assawy’s predecessor for his connections to the Mubarak regime – he was appointed by Mubarak himself shortly before he was toppled, in a cabinet shakeup that was a desperate last-ditch effort to stay in power.
He replaced Habib El Adly, Mubarak’s long-time interior minister who presided over countless instances of human rights abuses documented by rights groups. The much-hated minister appeared in court on Saturday, charged with money laundering. From a cage in the courtroom, he pleaded not guilty. His court appearance, like storming the state security agency, was just another moment in a momentous weekend for Egyptians that showed their revolution is moving toward real change.