Muslim-Christian clashes in a poor Cairo neighborhood on May 7 left twelve people dead and provoked allegations of inadequate protection and intervention by security forces. After protesters stormed the State Security building in Cairo in March—seizing documents that revealed alarming surveillance tactics as well as grave human rights abuses—the government formally dissolved the notorious State Security Investigations apparatus and replaced it with a new “National Security” apparatus. But questions remain as to whether the new apparatus will truly change, and what role it should play in Egypt’s new political order.

The Carnegie Endowment and the Project on Middle East Democracy hosted a discussion on these critical issues with Mohamed Kadry Said, head of the military studies unit at the Cairo-based al-Ahram Center, Omar Afifi, a Supreme Court lawyer and former police officer, and Robert Perito, director of the United States Institute of Peace’s Security Sector Governance Center. Carnegie’s Michele Dunne moderated.

Security reform necessary for a democratic transition

Former President Hosni Mubarak spent years consolidating a police state engineered to repress and marginalize opposition forces that posed a threat to the authoritarian status quo. Although Egyptians are no longer protesting in the streets, the panelists agreed that a full democratic transition cannot be achieved without overhauling the Interior Ministry’s security apparatus.

  • A new mission: Afifi emphasized that the mission of the internal security forces must be depoliticized and redefined to focus on protecting civilians and combating terrorism, rather than repressing opposition groups.
  • The judiciary’s role: Security sector reform must be accompanied by parallel reforms in the legal system to promote the accountability of police officers, Perito said. A legal framework for evidentiary-based convictions must be established, so that security personnel no longer rely on torture techniques to extract forced confessions.
  • Parliamentary oversight: Mubarak’s former government exercised very little administrative or financial oversight over the state security apparatus and its vast operating budget. Said recommended that Egypt’s parliament—which will be elected in September—should play a role in regulating the activities and expenditures of the Interior Ministry.
  • Public scrutiny: Afifi called for new mechanisms to enhance the transparency of the security apparatus. He recommended the formation of committees comprised of parliamentarians, lawyers, and local council members to conduct inspections of police departments and document any evidence of torture. Said added that scrutiny from civil society groups and independent media also functions as an important safeguard against human rights abuses. 
  • Engaging communities: Perito stressed that security forces cannot guarantee public order alone, but must earn the cooperation and trust of the population. Civilians cannot respect a police force that perpetrates human rights abuses, and are more likely to commit crimes or refrain from reporting them in the presence of a repressive state security apparatus. Egyptian security forces must adhere to standards of ethical conduct to win back the public’s respect and loyalty, he said.  

Obstacles to reform

  • An entrenched institutional culture: For years, Mubarak’s government used the state security apparatus as an instrument for reinforcing the political status quo. Rather than playing a neutral role in maintaining public order, the Interior Ministry was a highly politicized institution that functioned to protect the ruling party and its interests—as evidenced by the fact that Mubarak renamed the national police academy after himself, Afifi said. Reforming the security apparatus will require uprooting this decades-old institutional culture and replacing numerous ministry personnel who have lingering loyalties to the ousted regime.
  • Military complicity in unrest: Afifi suggested that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has deliberately refrained from restoring public order because continued insecurity provides a justification for the military’s continued role in the post-revolutionary political system.  Afifi predicted that ongoing instability could eventually provide the pretext for a power grab by a military strongman.

The U.S. role in security reform

While the United States can provide valuable training and technical assistance to support security sector reform, the Egyptian people must assume ultimate responsibility for the necessary institutional changes, Perito said.

  • Bilateral cooperation in training: Afifi recommended that Egyptian police and security officers participate in training programs in the United States, where they can observe their American counterparts in the field.
  • Long-term strategy: Perito cautioned that U.S. policy makers often place excessive emphasis on training and equipping foreign security personnel, rather than promoting the institutional reforms required to achieve structural change.
  • Egyptian ownership of reforms: Perito stressed that Egyptians, rather than American advisors, must ultimately assume ownership of the security reform process.