Egypt faces new turmoil: Looted state security files

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2011 

CAIRO — Less than a month after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's caretaker government faces a new crisis: what to do about thousands of documents that protesters seized from State Security offices over the weekend.

The military-led interim authority has demanded that the classified files kept by Mubarak's dreaded internal spy agency be returned. Instead, they're being scattered throughout Egypt like confetti, with new finds turning up on Facebook and Twitter hourly, forcing the government to respond to them and raising fears among some activists that their value has been reduced for any future prosecutions for torture and kidnapping.

What the documents reveal is both salacious and sinister.

One file includes a sex tape purportedly involving a Kuwaiti princess and a prominent Egyptian businessman. Another paints Egypt's highest-ranking cleric as a womanizer.

Israa Abdel Fattah, 32, a labor organizer and blogger, shared her personal file with McClatchy and marveled at the thoroughness of the surveillance, which included detailed transcripts of e-mails sent from her personal Gmail account and phone conversations she'd had with her ex-husband. The feeling of violation was indescribable, she said.

"I knew they were watching me, but I never imagined they knew all this information about me," she said. "My friends tried to take me out to dinner that night; they tried to make me laugh, but I couldn't. I told them I should be alone, so I took my papers and went home."

Perhaps the most controversial document to ricochet around Internet message boards was one that purports to lay out State Security's involvement in a deadly church bombing on New Year's Day in the port city of Alexandria. The bombing killed 21 people and wounded 80, the worst violence against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority in more than a decade.

The legitimacy of the document hasn't been determined, but its distribution touched off protests Sunday in Cairo by hundreds of Coptic Christians.

From the beginning, Copts, especially those in Alexandria, had suspected state involvement in the blast, noting that a stepped-up security force that was supposed to have protected the church had vanished before the bomb exploded.

According to the document, one of eight said to discuss attacks on churches, State Security used a jailed Islamist to help organize the plot, including details on the church's entrances and exits. The document was dated Dec. 2, 2010, and was addressed to the interior minister. It referred to the church bombing as "Mission No. 77."

Georgette Qilini, a Copt who served in the Egyptian parliament, said Mubarak's information minister ordered television stations to stop inviting her to speak after she suggested on the air that State Security was involved in the explosion.

"Maybe they were involved," Qilini said Monday. "We visited the church after the incident and we didn't believe the official story. There are still many, many questions, but I don't have any documents."

There are also several files that back State Security officers' reputation for torture. In one letter stamped "top secret" in 2008 and now available on Facebook, a senior official wrote that detainees suffered "injuries" in State Security custody. He complained that questioning had to be delayed until the wounds had healed.

Other files show the mundane workings of a police state that spent reams of paper on transcriptions of ordinary phone conversations such as one that began, "How are you doing, Mom?"

Questions abound. Why, for example, would such a serious plot as the church bombing be outlined in a document that was found so quickly? Why were some documents shredded and others left on the shelves?

Almost all the documents bear the State Security letterhead and the signatures of senior officers.

Military officers who were on the scene when the protesters barged into the State Security headquarters in Cairo and other cities tried to recover the documents, wrangling some of them from the crowds. A senior prosecutor took possession of others.

A message Sunday on the official Facebook page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is now running the country, ordered anyone in possession of the files to stop publishing them and to hand them over immediately to the nearest army post, citing national security concerns.

Activists and human rights advocates worried that the disappearance of the files into protesters' hands would hurt their hopes that a new civilian government would prosecute officials one day for State Security's abuses.

"This is the one chance to hold (State Security officers) to account, but because there wasn't a procedure in place to access the documents, it's problematic," said Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Cairo office of Human Rights Watch. "Some are in the hands of activist groups that are fairly responsible, but in other cases, they're all over the place."

Protesters defended taking the documents, saying the interim authority had failed to secure them and that they were in danger of being lost or destroyed if activists hadn't taken them. As if to endorse that claim, the Egyptian attorney general on Monday ordered the arrests of 47 State Security officers for their involvement in destroying documents.

Certainly, there was no effort Monday to stop publication on the part of protesters, who'd formed a WikiLeaks-style online clearinghouse for the documents and were still posting them on Facebook and elsewhere.

Abdel Fattah was shocked at what friend after friend handed her as she waited outside the doors of State Security's Cairo complex Saturday.

She'd been arrested in 2008 after she urged a general strike to call attention to the plight of Egyptian workers. On Monday, she provided McClatchy with parts of her files, including 16 pages of e-mails she'd sent and received from her personal Gmail account and a summary of a two-hour conversation she'd had via the Internet-based Skype phone service.

A photo of her, smiling, was attached to one document.

The first stack of papers Abdel Fattah received was an e-mail exchange she'd had with an American woman at the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based U.S.-funded nonprofit organization that promotes democracy around the world. The group had invited her to lead a talk via Skype about youth-led pro-democracy activities.

Abdel Fattah had accepted, so the State Security officer who was monitoring the e-mails recommended that her 3G Internet connection be severed at the appointed time in order to stop her presentation, according to the files.

"First, I laughed," Abdel Fattah said. "How stupid of them to think that cutting my service would stop me. I could always go to a friend's and use the Internet."

Then she read through her extremely personal e-mails and telephone conversations with her ex-husband. Her activism, her professional work and her private life were all laid bare, with notations of where backup copies of the files existed.

She went home, despondent. Then she made an appointment for later this week with a lawyer to discuss building a case against the officers named in her dossier.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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