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Egypt's military risks trouble by reviving hated secret police

July 31, 2013 at 1:15 PM   |   Comments

CAIRO, July 31 (UPI) -- Egypt's military-led interim government, grappling with widening protests over the army's ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and a swelling al-Qaida-linked insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, says it's reviving the hated secret police in a bid to restore order.

In doing so, it's taking a monumental risk of worsening the latest manifestation of a political crisis that has gripped the Arab world's most populous nation since longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was driven from office in a pro-democracy uprising in February 2011.

The Interior Ministry announced Monday it is resurrecting the notorious Mabahith Amn ad-Dawla, the State Security Investigations Service, and other controversial police units that were nominally disbanded after Mubarak's downfall.

The SSIS was a symbol of oppression under Mubarak's autocratic rule, and was supposedly replaced by a new organization, the National Security Service, pledged to uphold the reforms introduced amid a post-Mubarak purge of the security agencies.

"It's a return to the Mubarak era," lamented leading human rights activist Aida Saif el-Dawla. "These units committed the most atrocious human rights violations.

"These were the units that managed the killing of Islamists during the 1990s," when extremist groups like Gamma al-Islamiya and Islamic Jihad waged a bloody, and unsuccessful, war to topple Mubarak -- who took over the presidency when Islamist fanatics assassinated President Anwar Sadat in October 1981 for making peace with Israel.

"It's an ugly authority that's never been brought to justice," declared el-Dawla.

Analyst Patrick Kingsley observed that "hatred of the police was a major cause of the 2011 revolution while reform was one of its implicit demands.

"But the police's obvious enthusiasm for Morsi's fall has helped to rehabilitate them in the eyes of many," he wrote in the British daily The Guardian.

The defense minister and the power behind Morsi's ouster July 3, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the army chief, Friday called on Egyptians to take to the streets in a display of support "to give me, the army and the police a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism."

Many observers saw that as a signal that a new crackdown by the military was imminent -- despite U.S. warnings that would intensify civil strife -- and the resurrection of the much-reviled Mukhabarat, the generic term across the Arab world for "secret police," only served to strengthen that concern.

Egypt's powerful 50,000-strong Mukhabarat was a pillar of Mubarak's regime during his 30-year rule and the spearhead of his massive offensive against the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

While the Arab Spring uprisings toppled Mubarak -- as well as dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Yemen with President Bashar Assad of Syria still fighting for survival in a civil war that's 2-1/2 years old -- the remnants of those rulers' security services are still around, waiting for the chance to regain their former power amid the continuing chaos across the Arab world.

The recent mass killings of Morsi supporters by Sisi's security forces, reportedly including sniper units tasked with shooting protest leaders, has hardened fears that Egypt's shadowy Ministry of the Interior, which ran the death squads and were infamous for their brutality, may be regaining its former powers.

Abuses by the ministry diminished after Morsi was elected in June 2012, but his critics say he was not able to completely rein in the loyalists of the Mubarak regime who remain there.

The army's move against Morsi, who sought to reshape Egypt as an Islamist state, has given supporters of Mubarak's regime, including military and security personnel a new lease of life.

Veteran Middle East commentator David Gardner cautioned "the army is clearly determined to secure its power, privileges and prestige in the country's political and economic affairs -- just as it did not just under Mubarak but with Morsi."

Gardner, writing in the Financial Times, observed that Sisi seems to see himself as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic army officer who overthrew King Farouk in July 1952 and became a symbol of Arab nationalism.

Gardner said the "vast army of political low-lifes and informers" being resurrected are suspected of being "behind several provocations adding to Egypt's chronic instability -- and now they are back. Is this the transition imagined by the liberals and the left -- reconsecrating the security state?"

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