Egyptians may find police files not such a happy prize
Anti-Mubarak Egyptians may look back at the storming of the interior ministry building Sunday as the fun part.
Once they get their hands on its police files--as they almost certainly will some day--a cold reality will set in: Many of their friends and relatives were informants, maybe even reporting on them.
Twenty-one years ago last month thousands of East Germans stormed the headquarters of their ministry for state security, the Stasi. The pictures of ordinary citizens poring through millions of secret files was one of the most enduring images of communism’s downfall, perhaps second only to the breach of the Berlin Wall itself.
But the Stasi files gave proof to what had only been suspected: many of their best friends and even spouses had informed on them. Even if they did so under duress, the triumphalist narrative of dissidents versus oppressors went off the track. A kind of national disillusionment set in.
The 2006 release of “The Lives of Others,” a stunning drama about the Stasi’s insidiousness, dredged up the ugly past. It “grabbed this country by the throat,” the Boston Globe’s Colin Nickerson wrote from Berlin. The film dragged the reality of the East German police state back out of the shadows, where 56 percent of Germans had preferred to consign it, according to a poll.
The Egypt’s Ministry of Interior, particularly its State Security Investigations Service, may turn out to be even more pervasive than the Stasi. Its size and numbers are impossible to come by at present, but in 2005, the State Department said the SSIS operates with a “culture of impunity.”
“Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons have been detained administratively in recent years under the Emergency Law on suspicion of terrorist or political activity,” it said, quoting Egyptian human rights sources. “Several thousand others have been convicted and were serving sentences on similar charges.”
The Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, in Cairo, put the number of people held under administrative detention at about 15,000.
Police states like this can’t exist, of course, without thousands and thousands of informants. Some do it for the money, but it’s a machine that operates in "a culture of fear,” as a United Nations report on Egypt put it in June.
When protesters finally breach the Ministry of Interior, they may find out who many of them are. It probably just won’t make them very happy.
| February 3, 2011; 12:03 PM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military, Politics
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