Egypt violence exposes secret tools of state repression

  • Published
Plain clothes police officers detain protesters in Suez, Egypt (27 Jan 2011)
Image caption,
Middle Eastern states have long used secret police to stifle dissent and prop up unpopular regimes

International journalists covering events in Egypt this week have had a small but painful taste of "the dark side" - the secret security apparatus used by governments across the region, day in day out, to keep unpopular rulers in power.

The BBC, CNN and several Arab media organisations have all been experiencing harassment, crude and at times violent, by plain clothes "thugs" supporting President Hosni Mubarak.

On Wednesday the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was handcuffed, hooded and interrogated, while another journalist, from Al-Arabiya TV, was beaten so badly by plain clothes men he had to be hospitalised.

Local opposition figures would simply say: "Welcome to our world."

Whether it is the official secret police of the State Security Investigations (SSI), the intelligence agents of the Mukhabaraat, or just hired street thugs, these instruments of power have long been used to intimidating effect on those opposing the government or even speaking out about human rights abuses.

Tom Porteous, UK Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the BBC: "State repression and abuse are coming out of the torture chambers and onto the streets".

In its just-published 2011 review of human rights around the world, HRW accuses Egypt's secret police and uniformed police alike of routine, systematic torture of prisoners. "This is used both to extract confessions," says Mr Porteous, "and as an instrument of punishment and deterrent".

Democracy stifled

But Egypt does not have a monopoly on brutal secret police. From Morocco to Tehran, Middle Eastern governments have long made use of torture as a political weapon.

Public hatred of these practices, and the stifling effect they have had on democracy, has been one of the main factors fuelling the recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.

Arabs in those countries are fed up with not being able to express their dissatisfaction with sometimes even the most trivial aspect of government policy without fear of arrest and mistreatment. In some cases people have been lifted off the street and simply "disappeared".

So why has more fuss not been made by governments around the world? Part of the answer lies in the interview President Mubarak gave on Thursday to ABC's Christiane Amanpour - she moved from CNN a while ago.

The embattled Egyptian leader raised the spectre of what would happen if he gave up power too suddenly. Egypt, he said, could risk falling into the hands of the Islamists.

Clearly he still sees himself as the most effective bulwark against an Islamist takeover.

When I interviewed Mr Mubarak in his Sharm El Sheikh residence soon after the 9/11 attacks he adopted a similar line. The West should have listened to his warnings, he said gripping my arm as he criticised Britain for harbouring Islamist extremists like the Finsbury Park imam, Abu Hamza al-Masri.

Insurgency fears

To try to understand the mindset of Mr Mubarak and his use of such brutal repression, one has to look at the violent birth of his presidency.

Image caption,
Rights group say police abuse is now emerging from the torture chambers

As vice-president in 1981 he was just feet away from exploding grenades and a spray of machinegun bullets when Islamist gunmen assassinated President Anwar Sadat.

Mr Mubarak, whom many Egyptians thought at the time would not last more than a year as president, spent much of the 1980's chasing the associates of Sadat's assassins, using his secret police to help round them up, put them on trial or simply incarcerate them. Many fled the country to Afghanistan and Pakistan to eventually join al-Qaeda.

In the late 1990s, Mr Mubarak's regime fought and eventually defeated a serious Islamist insurgency that saw running gunfights in Cairo slums, the murder of countless policemen and the massacre of 58 western tourists at Luxor in 1997.

In Mubarak's mind that insurgency could recur if he and his state apparatus do not maintain "order".

For decades foreign diplomats have quietly applauded, preferring to deal with this dependable autocrat and ally than to see Egypt go the way of Iran or suffer years of civil war like Algeria.

Yet this week, in the full glare of the international spotlight, Egypt's secret police and their hired thugs have overreached themselves with their bully-boy methods, revealing the ugly and unacceptable side of Egyptian "stability" that human rights groups hope will now be impossible for western governments to ignore any longer.