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Egypt: the intricate security apparatus is indispensable for the regime's survival

The Egyptian government regime, headed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is characterized by an imposing security system, in which the role of the army, the state police and, above all, the different intelligence bodies, is indispensable to feed the fear of the population on a daily basis and therefore, to hold power. The article describes this dense safety net, but questions, above all, the external aid it receives in order to continue its work.

1. The organisation of the defence and security system

The current government of President Al-Sisi, was born from a military coup he led in July 2013, together with some officers and with the support of the army, with the aim of bringing down the then government of President Mohamed Morsi, democratically elected in 2012, following the power vacuum created after the strong popular protests of the Egyptian Arab Spring that succeeded, challenging and overcoming all forms of fear and repression, to get the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for almost thirty years. What led Al-Sisi and his army loyalists to carry out the coup d'état in 2013 were the precarious political, but above all financial, conditions in which Egypt was then, no thirst for power had guided their work. However, the following year, Al-Sisi ran for the presidential election which he then won, with an overwhelming 96.91% of the vote, against his only opponent Hamdīn Sabāhī.

If we look at the years in which Al-Sisi came to power and compare them with the current situation in the country, we can see how he worked towards a progressive increase in the security and defense system, especially internal, in Egypt.

The issue of defence and security is dear to the Egyptian President, since before taking up his current role he was Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces and previously Head of the Directorate of Military Services and Investigation. Although from the point of view of international security, since 2014 Egypt has been at the forefront of the problem of the birth and advance of the Isis and has therefore had to act as a decisive regional player in its defeat, the motivation that best explains the strengthening of the regime's internal security apparatus is the fear that it may be overthrown by new protests by the population, as is happening in recent weeks and as happened to the regime of former President Mubarak, overwhelmed by the Arab spring of January 2011. Security, increasingly oppressive, serves to fuel the fear of the population and therefore to keep the situation calm, which cannot and must not get out of hand with the regime, especially because Egypt would be an insecure country from the financial point of view and, therefore, would escape major international investments, including those in the oil and armaments sector, which see, among other things, two Italian players, respectively Eni and Leonardo, among the main clients of the Egyptian regime. A vicious circle is thus generated between security, the foreign investments that serve to maintain it and the power of the regime.

This heavy internal security apparatus of the regime is not a recent or temporary feature in Egypt: every Middle Eastern regime, from Ben Ali's Tunisia to Assad's Syria, as well as Saddam Hussein's Libya or Iraq were and are, in the Syrian case, repressive dictatorial regimes, characterized by strong violations of human rights, in which corruption, especially of the government and electoral fraud, votes bartered with small favors by the regime or extorted with threats, are the norm. The West, for its part, accepted and turned a blind eye to this situation until the outbreak of the Arab Springs, not out of ignorance or stupidity, but out of economic interest.

The Egyptian security network is composed of three main actors: the army, the police and therefore the prison system and the different intelligence bodies. The army is mainly responsible for the external defence of the country, however, it played a leading role in the aforementioned coup d'état of 2013, also because the Egyptian army generals control every sector of the country: they own factories, airlines, hotels, insurance companies, banks. Former President Mubarak had always controlled their interests and it was the Egyptian army generals who abandoned him, advising him to resign: they would then change their leadership, but they would not abandon power. On the contrary, the police is competent, on the contrary, on the internal security of the country, above all, for the actions of anti riot and repression of the demonstrations and plays a liaison role with the Egyptian intelligence, which plays the role behind the scenes of the regime, guaranteeing what must be substantial stability: it has the task of preventing and directing the moves of the police or the army. As in every country, also in Egypt the government agencies that deal with intelligence are different and with different tasks.

The Egyptian National Security Agency or Homeland Security depends on the Ministry of Interior and deals with internal intelligence, border security, anti-terrorism. It is the intelligence agency most "visible" to the Egyptians. The other two agencies, much less visible, are the General Intelligence Directorate and the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance, of which President Al-Sisi was the head until 2012.

While the General Intelligence Directorate is the core of the agencies and plays a role in coordinating and sorting the information it receives from them, the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance is responsible for military intelligence and is under the directives of the Ministry of Defense. It is an agency common to several Middle Eastern regimes (Syria, Libya, Egypt and Iraq until the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime) under the Arab name of Mukhabarat precisely because it is in charge of controlling, monitoring and punishing opponents of the regime. Anyone can be an agent of Mukhabarat or become one when needed: a neighbour, a friend, a colleague...they are the eyes and ears of the regime, that's why they are everywhere, ready to listen and report any criticism towards the government, any attempt of opposition or change to it. Anyone suspected by the agents of this agency of working against the regime does not undergo a trial, with a lawyer and a fair challenge to the accusations, is, on the contrary, made to disappear and imprisoned in one of the prisons of the regime, where he suffers all kinds of torture and humiliation, not only physical, but also mental.

In a report of September 2016, the Human Rights Watch agency describes the abuses and torture suffered by prisoners in Egyptian prisons, particularly in the maximum security prison Tora, also called "Scorpion" from which, according to a former jailer who worked there, "you can only get out dead"[1]. Since the fall of former President Morsi's government, current President Al-Sisi has started a tough campaign of arrests, especially against political opponents, lawyers and human rights defenders, who are too inconvenient for the regime's life.

2. No regime is an island: who helps the Egyptian regime

2.1 Defence-related aid

The survival of President Al-Sisi's regime is also due to the cooperation of a number of international players, who are working on various fronts to maintain it. The most important in this sense is that of defence, where the Egyptian regime can count above all on Russia and its European partners, first of all France, followed by Germany and Italy, which in the last five years have tripled the sale of arms to the country[2]. Although, therefore, Europe says that it is attentive to the respect and protection of human rights in the world, the sale of arms probably does not seem to be linked to this principle, or on the other hand, business is business and in this it is above all Italy that sets a good example.

Yes, because despite the fact that successive Italian governments in recent years are well aware of the human rights situation in Egypt, which has dramatically exploded before the eyes of public opinion following the disappearance on 25 January 2016 of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was found dead following brutal torture on 3 February and whose murder is still being asked for truth and justice, Italian arms exports to Egypt are proceeding at full speed. The amount paid in 2018 by Egypt to Italy for the sale of arms, ammunition and security information systems, amounts to more than 69 million euros[3]. It is important to note that, from 2013 to 2018, therefore in correspondence with the arrival of Al-Sisi to the government and his strengthening of the regime, the export of arms has grown at the same pace and year by year: from 17.2 million in 2013 to 69.1 million in 2018[4].

During this period, the Egyptian President has undoubtedly had to face important international security challenges such as the already mentioned birth and advance of Isis, or the delicate Libyan situation that sees Al-Sisi on the side of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, whom he looks to as support to overcome the threats of regional terrorism. However, the data for 2018 mainly concern the sale to Egypt of small-caliber pistols and rifles, addressed to the army and the riot police, as well as electronic equipment and software useful above all to the police and intelligence forces. According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the first four Italian operators in the field of arms sales in Egypt are: Leonardo (67.65% of sales), RWM Italy (6.16%), MBDA Italy (4.90%) and Iveco Defence Vehicles (4.17%)[5]. Business is business, it seems to be the motto also of other Italian industries such as Eni that after the discovery of the Zohr oilfield, defined the largest in the Mediterranean in 2015, has worked incessantly to reach last August, a production of 2.7 billion cubic feet of gas per day[6].

2.2 Aid to Egyptian intelligence agencies

There are also other actors who collaborate with the Al-Sisi regime in other areas, but with the same aim of helping it to control the freedom of the Egyptian population. These are the Google search engine and the International Criminal Police Organisation, INTERPOL. In 2014, when the current Egyptian president arrived in government, Google's offices in Cairo closed down to move to Dubai, given the impossibility of working guaranteeing the privacy of its users, as Egyptian intelligence agencies began to monitor the internet more and more frequently, accessing and very often blocking sites or blogs of human rights activists, or those who expressed dissidence towards the regime. The harassment of the secret services towards social networks or various sites or blogs was and is mainly due to the fact that the protest movements that exploded in the Arab Spring of January 2011, were organized by boys and girls thanks to the use of the internet and social networks.

According to a note released by the Egyptian government last June, however, Google is ready to reopen its offices in Cairo, after the meeting between some representatives of the Egyptian government and Google's head of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries, Lino Cattaruzzi. According to some commentators, the reopening of Google's offices in Egypt will soon result in renewed pressure from the Egyptian government to monitor and therefore, have access through the search engine, to sensitive user data, especially in the case of journalists, dissidents and lawyers involved in the field of human rights. In particular, according to the Director of International Relations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Katitza Rodriguez: "Reopening an office in Cairo when the government is already aggressively enough demanding other search engines to provide it with disproportionate access to user data is quite alarming"[7]. In a report published last autumn by Amnesty International, President Al-Sisi's regime is described as an "open prison for dissidents" and a long list of some of the journalists, activists and bloggers arrested by the regime in the last four years is presented. Google, however, is not the only one intelligence agencies turn to for access to useful data or to search for dissenters from the regime.

A recent investigation in the Middle East Eye revealed that Egyptian intelligence authorities are using the agency INTERPOL to recognise political dissidents abroad, extradite them and execute them. The task of this international organization, of which 194 countries are members, is to facilitate cooperation between the police forces of the member countries. The agency has seen its role grow especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, when the governments of European countries requested close cooperation of intelligence agencies with INTERPOL to file and monitor possible terrorist cells active in Europe. With regard to cooperation between INTERPOL and the government headed by Al-Sisi, a number of similar cases have revealed attempts by the Egyptian government to extradite dissidents in exile using INTERPOL's "red alert" system, which allows member countries of the international agency to request the arrest of alleged criminals who have fled abroad. In particular, in fact, the list of persons reported by the red alert that the international agency has provided to the Egyptian regime includes three members of the Egyptian opposition party Freedom and Justice, currently residing abroad after General Al-Sisi's 2013 coup d'état that forced them into exile. These people, like others, would therefore be on the red alert list for a political reason, i.e. to have challenged the regime currently in government, although they have not committed any crime.

The task of INTERPOL, as its statute[8] describes, is to prosecute crimes and above all, according to article 3: "Any activity or intervention in political, military, religious or racial matters is strictly forbidden to the Organization". Moreover, if the red alert is activated for a political motivation, it is even more unjust and inconsistent with the democratic requirements of regular procedure that, for INTERPOL, the persons who receive the red alert, those responsible for the crime, do not have the right to be heard, to examine the evidence that governments have produced against them, nor the right to appeal to the decisions of the INTERPOL Commission. The Director of the United Kingdom-based Arab Human Rights Organisation, Mohamad Jamil said: "There is a flaw in the INTERPOL system that allows dictatorial regimes to abuse the alert system. In order to carry out its mission in the best possible way, the International Organisation should classify countries according to their respect for human rights."[9] Overwhelmed by numerous criticisms, especially in the last two years, in 2018, the INTERPOL General Assembly approved the decision to carry out a new review of its data processing regulations, which would appear to be still ongoing.


Egypt_ the intricate security apparatus
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[1] From: [2] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’ Report: [3] Data contained in the Report on operations authorized and carried out for the control of the export, import and transit of armaments materials of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, in relation to the year 2018 and transmitted to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers on 2 April 2019: [4] Ibidem, p. 24 [5] Ibidem, p. 38 [6] [7] , cit. p. 3 [8] [9]


-D. Quirico, Che cosa è la guerra, (Milano: Salani editori, 2019).

-A. Meringolo, I ragazzi di piazza Tahrir, (Bologna: CLUEB, 2011).

-J.-P. Westad e P. Oborne, EXCLUSIVE: Egyptian authorities use Interpol to target dissidents abroad, on Middle East Eye, 23 september 2019.

-V. Ryan, Google is Deepening its Involvement with Egypt’s Government, on The Intercept, 18 august 2019.

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