Early in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, activists and protesters battled their way into state security archives around the country. But the revolutionaries handed over the documents to the army, who later took power. Inside the state security archives were the blueprints for uprooting the police state and making lasting structural change.


Egyptians have been fighting their repressive police state for over a century. Modern Egyptian history is littered with revolts against it. In the 1919 revolution protesters burned police stations to the ground, nationalists targeted the British-backed political police between the 1920s and 1950s, and in 1977 thousands of protesters attacked and burned police stations as part of their anti-International Monetary Fund “bread uprising.”

The core of the modern Egyptian police state has been the State Security Investigation Service (SSI), the main security and intelligence apparatus of the Ministry of Interior and the highest internal security body in Egypt. Originally formed by British colonial authorities in 1913 as the intelligence wing of the National Police, the SSI was reorganized after the 1952 revolution under the new military regime of Gamal Abdul Nasser (president from 1956 to 1970) as a separate branch of the Ministry of Interior and given legal powers of arrest, detention and prosecution in separate State Security Courts.

By the end of the 1970s—with an estimated 100,000 personnel (and as many informants) fortified by the paramilitary Central Security Forces (CSF)—State Security was dominating Egypt. With its vast network of surveillance, prisons and fully operational torture chambers, it was more powerful than the army in internal affairs and, in fact, monitored all levels of military command. It was favored by President Anwar al-Sadat (1970–1981) and his successor Husni Mubarak (1981–2011) due to their fear of a military coup d’état.

In 2011, another battle took place between the people and police state across Egypt, with protesters choosing January 25—the annual National Police Day public holiday—to converge upon Cairo’s Tahrir Square and launch their uprising. By January 28, the protesters had defeated the police in the streets, burned down police stations and chased police officers from cities. There were a few attempts to break into the central Ministry of Interior headquarters on Shaikh Rihan Street near Tahrir Square, but these were harshly repelled and the army assumed security over the building. With no uniformed police personnel in public, it seemed that Egyptians had finally defeated their brutal police state.

Yet despite the immediate successes of the Egyptian revolution in the first month—ousting Mubarak, dismantling the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and routing the police—the revolution had yet to confront directly and uproot the core apparatus of the police state. State Security, housed in the Ministry of Interior, contained a trove of documents many believed would reveal the numerous crimes committed against the Egyptian people during Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship.

The Battle of Alexandria

On March 3, 2011, political activists monitoring State Security in Alexandria—a city that suffered considerably from SSI detentions, torture and killings—spread word that the SSI was shredding documents and transferring others outside its Alexandria headquarters. With the call to protest spreading through social media, people geared up and surrounded the security building at its six gates. An SSI-affiliated police officer shot and severely injured the well-known Alexandrian activist Hassan Mustafa. Then more protesters, followed by army personnel, converged on the site and the SSI was under siege. The apparatus that had for so long watched over them was now being watched—the first inversion in the logic of power that had dominated Egypt for decades.

Buried in the SSI archive, therefore, was the art of government by which Egypt has been ruled for more than a century.

The mostly young revolutionaries demonstrating in front of the building had no official support from the Muslim Brotherhood or traditional political parties and included artists, salafists, Revolutionary Socialists and family members of SSI victims. The unarmed protesters, only carrying banners with anti-SSI slogans, established communication channels linking the different gates. The army securing the SSI building developed a relatively good relationship with the protesters, who kept within army-directed limits. The army allowed the demonstrations but made clear that they were securing both the protesters and the SSI building, which belonged to the Egyptian people and the state.

The tense but managed situation, however, was later shattered when a bloody battle broke out after SSI officers surprised both the army and the protesters by throwing Molotov cocktails and firing live ammunition and tear gas at the protesters. As the army retreated, a fierce battle took place between SSI personnel and the revolutionaries, who successfully broke into the main entrance. The army sent Special Forces from the navy to control the situation, but while trying to take the SSI officers out of the building, the protesters attacked and another battle took place leaving many SSI officers severely injured, beaten up and humiliated.

The long night finally came to an end with the protesters’ takeover of the SSI headquarters. The Muslim Brotherhood sent an informal delegation to check the situation and take away some files, but most of the documents captured by the revolutionaries were handed over to the army willingly. Army officers were reportedly angry to find out that the SSI spied on them, but little substantive information was released to the public.

News that the SSI headquarters in Alexandria had fallen encouraged thousands in Cairo to march on their massive headquarters in Nasser City. Other protesters breached SSI headquarters in the central city of Assiut and the nearby 6th of October City. But this time there was no battle: The army evacuated the building and opened the doors to the protesters. Many entered and took photos of jail cells and torture rooms they had once inhabited. Most of the documents found that night were also handed over to the army, with a smaller number taken by individuals and released to the media as leaks. The bulk of the SSI documents were now in the military’s hands.

From Triumph to Defeat

Despite the revolutionaries’ battlefield triumph, little was achieved at the structural level in the centuries-long popular fight against the police state. Egypt’s new overlords, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the body of senior Egyptian military officers that assumed governing power from President Mubarak on February 11, 2011—formally dissolved the SSI on March 15 that year. But instead of abolishing it they rebranded it as the National Security Agency, or Homeland Security. The State Security apparatus—with its offices, prisons, torture chambers and many of its former personnel—resumed operations. The only real change was to the Ministry of Interior’s position in the hierarchy of internal security organizations that rule Egypt. The once-dominant SSI was forced to take a step back in favor of the Military Intelligence Directorate, led at the time by Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.

An equally important setback to the revolution was that the SSI archive was never opened. All the reports between SSI operatives, the ministry and presidential bureau; orders received; historical records; evaluation reports on events and daily matters and the entire internal history of the SSI apparatus remained classified and untouchable. People discussed salacious matters such as the women’s bras found in SSI headquarters or the recordings of sex calls, but the information stored in the archives about how the SSI ruled Egypt and how they penetrated all aspects of life was not revealed.

Unlike what happened with the Stasi in East Germany after the 1989 revolution, Egyptians still know very little about the SSI. In 1989, the entire structure, archive and history of the Stasi-led police state were revealed to the East German public. People learned exactly how they were ruled and controlled for decades, and through which techniques and methods. This information is now archived in the Stasi museum, housed in their old headquarters.

Why did the Egyptian revolution fail to unlock the archive and structurally dismantle the SSI? Egyptian protesters broke into the SSI headquarters when the revolution was at its peak—the revolution’s later defeat by the military cannot explain its failure. Rather, the failure to unlock and dismantle the SSI is due to two factors that were also present in the dynamics of the battle of Alexandria.

The most immediate problem was that none of the main players, such as the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, the new political parties or even the revolutionary youth coalition had the capacity, interest or strategy for completely dismantling the SSI and opening it up to the public. But at a deeper level, the SSI is widely misunderstood as simply a negative, repressive apparatus. This conception inhibits a richer conceptual understanding of the productive centrality of the SSI across the entire Egyptian social body: the roles it plays, the social networks it inhabits and the functions it provides in shaping the entirety of Egyptian society. Buried in the SSI archive, therefore, was the art of government by which Egypt has been ruled for more than a century. Without a proper understanding of those dynamics, it will never be possible to know how to dismantle and transform the brutal police state that continues to govern Egyptian society.

SCAF Aspires to Be Sovereign

The most powerful domestic actor on the scene after Mubarak’s ouster, the SCAF, clearly lacked the will or interest to dismantle the SSI, although it had the capacity. There were compelling reasons for the army to want to dismantle the SSI, but the SCAF and specifically Military Intelligence ultimately wanted to inherit the SSI information, and then force the SSI to step back into internal security matters. The SCAF also needed to inherit the SSI to maneuver against another security organization—the General Intelligence Directorate. Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former intelligence chief and ally of Mubarak, was a rival to the army and had the capacity to compete over power. Rather than dismantling it, the SCAF wanted to teach the Ministry of Interior and the SSI a harsh lesson that they were the new power and the only safeguard to protect them from the angry masses.

Behind the SCAF’s decision to upstage but not dispose of the SSI was the longstanding internal power struggle between state security organizations over who dominates Egypt and who is actually the sovereign. This contest can be traced back to the 1960s when the internal security apparatus was split in the power struggle between President Nasser and Field Marshal Abd al-Hakim Amer. Nasser had on his side the National Police, the SSI, the presidential bureau and the Arab Socialist Union (the ruling party). Amer had the army, Military Intelligence and General Intelligence. After Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, the Nasser bloc, and the SSI, won the power struggle and took over the other organizations by blaming the defeat on Amer’s bloc.1 By the 1970s President Sadat relied largely on the National Police and SSI against the army and against leftists, and later radical Islamists, amidst growing discontent with his economic policies and the Camp David agreement with Israel. Following Sadat’s 1981 assassination, the Ministry of Interior became the dominant player in Egypt’s power game during Mubarak’s rule and helped maintain the regime in the midst of the state’s vicious war with Islamists, growing poverty and finally Mubarak’s unpopular attempt to hand power to his son Gamal.

By the eve of the 2011 revolution, the army was very aware of its marginalization within this longstanding power struggle. Ministry of Interior officers of all ranks were calling themselves the masters of the country. Gamal Mubarak and the new capitalists of the NDP loyal to him, alongside the Ministry of Interior strongman Habib Al Adly, were ready to take over the country once Mubarak died. To add insult to injury, the SSI routinely flaunted their power over the army.

Not just a repressive apparatus, the Egyptian police state is deeply intertwined with the networks linking the ruling social class with other state institutions.

Thus, all the conditions were ready after the revolution erupted in 2011 for the army to allow the humiliation of the SSI and let it face the wrath of the people. But dismantling the SSI completely and opening it up to the public was another story. Knowledge, information and state archives are matters of national security for the army—they form the technology of power to rule Egypt and are therefore a matter of sovereignty. The army’s continued rule depended upon an extensive police state, which they could not let fall. With Mubarak’s ouster, the SCAF had captured the state apparatus and thus Military Intelligence came to the front line again after decades of marginalization. It should be no surprise that the leader of Military Intelligence during the revolution was Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.

The SCAF’s unwillingness to dismantle the police state was reinforced by powerful allies such as the United States. The long-term partnership between the United States and the SSI flourished throughout the 1990s and 2000s because of the global war on terrorism.2 Opening up the SSI archives would have potentially damaged the United States by exposing many dark secrets. Both the General Intelligence and SSI played an important regional role for the United States in the fight against radical Islamists by utilizing their dark operational methods to help maintain regional order after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. It is unlikely that the United States would have abandoned important allies and risked such disclosures for the sake of popular sovereignty.

A Limited Revolutionary Agenda

The problem for those rebelling against Egypt’s police state was primarily their limited capacity—as well as lack of a strategy and the necessary political imagination—to fully dismantle the police state and open up its archives. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was clear from the beginning that they did want to radicalize the revolution nor escalate against the SCAF. They defended the Ministry of Interior on several occasions and praised the army, seeking to shift the battle from revolutionary and transformative to one about enhancing morality and fighting corruption. Ultimately, they wanted to accelerate the political process to elections, where they were confident in their chances to finally inherit the state as an apparatus and tool for their own rule.

The newly born political parties who mobilized for promised elections, on the other hand, were too weak to lead a battle against the SCAF to dismantle the SSI. They also lacked a broader imagination about what was possible after the revolution. According to some of their members: “The battle was too big for them and out of their political scope and imagination.” In the words of one: “We did not know what do with the SSI after the masses broke into it, we only cheered up for the act, and nothing further was in the back of our minds. Things were in state of flux and too fluid, and the political sphere was just born, after 60 years of anti-political regimes and the long demonization and demoralizing of politics and social struggles that the subsequent regimes of the 1952 coup d’état succeeded to achieve.”3

Finally, the revolutionary youth coalition and other independent activists also lacked the capacities, tools and strategy for leading this battle. Few coalition members focused on the struggle against the SSI, while others underplayed the importance of entering the SSI during the battle of Alexandria, seeing it as a minor achievement where people entered the SSI, took photos and cheered themselves up. Other members of the coalition blame structural problems within the composition of the coalition itself: it was formed mainly by reformists who did not want to escalate against the SCAF and, moreover, there was too much trust in the SCAF.4

The young Alexandrian activists who had captured the SSI building in March 2011 ended up handing the documents over to the army. They had the courage and the will to lead a bloody battle on that night, but they lacked a political agenda or strategy for what to do next. Several activists from Alexandria described how: “we had a what to do check list, we were not happy that the SSI remained untouched, we wanted to act against it, but we did not have a strategy apart from chanting and demanding trials against its officers…even the demo that ended up with the fall of the SSI in Alexandria was not planned, things just escalated.”5

How the Police State Governed Egypt

Behind the inability of many protesters to grasp the strategic importance of needing to completely dismantle the SSI and open up its archive to the public was a widespread, but narrow, view of the SSI as simply a repressive apparatus of torture and brutality. While true at one level, this view nevertheless inhibits a broader understanding of how the Egyptian police state plays a dynamic and productive—not simply negative—role in shaping all levels of Egyptian society. Michel Foucault describes this role in another context as “an apparatus that must be coextensive with the entire social body and not only by the extreme limits that it embraces, but by the minuteness of the details it is concerned with.”6

The tendency to reduce the Egyptian police state to its repressive function was, in part, shaped by the liberal human rights discourse that emerged in the 1980s and which became well-articulated through the 1990s and 2000s in response to excessive state violence and widespread torture against its citizens—not only political dissidents and criminals. This focus allowed activists and lawyers to wage a long political war against police crimes and brutality. But the liberal human rights discourse also reduced the police state to a problem of its repression and illegality, preventing a deeper understanding of its constructive role, its social foundations and its social functions as the main player in the daily governance of Egypt and the constitution of Egyptian society—the governmentalization of the police state.

The SSI security apparatus is based on a chain of mechanisms and techniques that are coextensive with Egyptian society. From the little knowledge that exists in the public, particularly from colonial-era archival documents and exposés by journalists and scholars, it is clear that the apparatus is structured as a militarized tree whose roots run deep into the soil and mud of the society, and then its roots spread horizontally among different realms (economic, social, political, artistic and criminal networks). This structure gives the apparatus unlimited power, capacities and potentials to inhabit the entire social field. Being informative and executive, in addition to its judicial arm, as represented in the High State Security Court, the apparatus has become a parallel state within the state. The apparatus has its own army composed of criminals, police officers (high and low rank), ordinary soldiers, intellectuals and different media outlets. It even has a special intelligence unit called Intelligence Unit 75.7

In terms of its daily operations, the SSI became the ultimate point of reference and decision making for most state institutions, particularly its educational institutions. It controlled political life as well as civilian life (like the work of the NGOs and Youth Initiatives which was not merely political work), and even intellectual and artistic production. Since the British colonization of Egypt until the present, the SSI has been equipped with the most advanced surveillance tools and propaganda production technologies, methods, strategies and tactics, and its officers were often trained abroad in the United States, East Germany, the Soviet Union, England, France and other countries.8

The SSI apparatus penetrated the public sphere under the narrative that if it limited its repressive control then communists, Islamists or the population in general would destroy the state and endanger the nation. This rationale mirrors Foucault’s observation that the “defense of society is tied up with war by the fact that…it is thought of in terms of ‘an internal war’ against the dangers arising from the social body itself.”9 The SSI has thus assumed the role of a panopticon and a machine of war against the society. This machine worked through a chain of power composed of four steps: surveillance, control, penetration and punishment or reward.

From this broader perspective, the police state has historically performed six basic functions across Egyptian society. Police state operatives are often deeply involved in daily community-based negotiations with regard to everything related to social arrangements, social conflicts and managing territories. The police state apparatus mediates between the state and society regarding conflicts over resources and representation, reflected in the clientele relations linking the countryside to the Egyptian state. It also manages social exclusion, segregation and separation between different social classes. It monopolizes knowledge about society, and prevents the acquisition of tools to gain this knowledge through bureaucratic restrictions and laws that obscure the right of society to know itself, or through the acquisition of decision-making in the affairs of the university, development, land holding and urban expansion. The police state governs morality (according to the current constitution and all the former constitutions), and links it to security and order, which allows it to target homosexuality, atheism, indecency and social appearance as threatening the morals and foundations of the nation and Islam. Last, and most well-known, it engages in direct repression against certain segments of society.

All of these functions are intertwined and overlapping. In order to play a role in community-based negotiations, for example, the police state must be a primary mediator between the state and society, but it must also have the repressive power to impose outcomes it prefers. Therefore, it is important to assert their intertwinement, and their reciprocal or dialectical relation.

Although the destruction of the police state has been a central objective of most rebellions in Egypt, they have not succeeded in dismantling it or uprooting its social roots, necessities and acceptability—the same fate as the 2011 uprising. The Egyptian police state is deeply intertwined with the networks linking the ruling social class with other state institutions, which are also intertwined with the economic system and its relation to the administration of the public sphere—all contexts in which the police state assumes a necessary social and political role that reproduces the social order.

Unlocking the Art of Government

By laying siege to the SSI headquarters in Alexandria in 2011, the revolution was one step away from unlocking the key to understanding its longstanding police state. By handing its documents to the army, with no clear strategy of what to do next and in the absence of a political agenda for fully dismantling the police state—and by focusing primarily on the SSI’s repressive nature—the revolutionaries committed their fatal mistake. In the SSI archive was the art of government by which Egypt has been ruled for more than a century. Without a proper understanding of that story, it will never be possible to know how to dismantle and transform the brutal police state in Egypt.

Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization’s lifetime, and are kept to show the function of that person or organization. While some scholars describe archives as a treasure to reveal history, an archive is better characterized as a series of clues that help one paint a certain picture by carefully collecting and gathering its different elements. The richer the archive, the more potential there is to draw a clearer picture, more expressionist rather than impressionist—a painting that can reveal the codes of history and allow us to understand or produce, in Foucault’s terms, a history of the present.

Egypt’s revolutionaries created independent archives of the revolution that have been important—the most famous of which is Wiki Thawra, an independent website dedicated to documenting the deaths, arrests and casualties suffered since January 2011. But without access to the state archives, particularly the archives of the security apparatuses, the revolution lacked an important part of the historical knowledge necessary to understand how the state functioned as a machine, how it thought and acted in response to certain events and how it developed through its interactions with these events in time. There are likely not many documents that reveal direct orders from a high-ranking police officer to torture someone, for example, but it is the broader portrait that is more important to the story of ruling Egypt.

It is impossible to replace a form of governance without introducing another one, and this is not possible if you do not have the knowledge of how and why a certain art of government existed. The elites that led the opposition in 1952 and in 2011 were all complicit in avoiding this fundamental issue by instead focusing on the terms of the constitution rather than unearthing the actual apparatus of rule and its art of governance. Without unlocking the archives and opening up the police state, the possibilities to transform the authoritarian system are very limited, and the potential rebound of the security apparatuses are very high even if they are temporarily smashed. The Egyptian state security archives kept secret in the vaults of the newly expanded and empowered police state today await the next round of rebellion.             ■



1 Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (London: Verso, 2012).

2 Owen Sirrs, A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of Mukhabarat, 1910–2009 (London: Routledge, 2010).

3 Quotes from several interviews and discussions by the author with cofounders and activists of the newly born parties after the revolution.

4 Quotes from several interviews and discussions with some of the former members of the Coalition.

5 Quotes from several interviews and discussions with the independent activists from Alexandria, and political activists from the Revolutionary Socialists.

6 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), p. 213.

7 Kandil, Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen, p. 174.

8 Sirrs, A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service.

9 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory and Population (New York: Picador, 2007), p. 489.

How to cite this article:

Aly El Raggal "The Egyptian Revolution’s Fatal Mistake," Middle East Report 291 (Summer 2019).

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