The Inner Logic of Evil A Stasi Expert Advises Egypt on Secret Police Legacy
Part 2: 'We are Finally Free'
Ahmad Hemaya also spoke up. He is the imam at the Sultan Hassan Mosque, widely seen as Cairo's most beautiful house of worship. Every Friday, 3,000 to 4,000 faithful come to pray in his mosque -- as was the case in late January, when the protests grew larger every day. "I gave the people courage," Hemaya, 32, said about his sermons.
Shortly thereafter, he said, agents from the secret police told him to keep out of politics. "If I'm not allowed to speak the truth, then I would rather say nothing," the imam thought to himself, and closed his mosque. Then he went to Tahrir Square to demonstrate, day after day. "The secret police has been defeated. We are finally free," he said.
The state should keep out of the lives of its citizens, in Egypt and in Germany, said Hemaya, who served for years as an imam in Berlin until he was finally expelled from the country because the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution said he had called for a jihad. According to Hemaya, it was all a misunderstanding: "I do not preach hatred," he contended, adding that "after eliminating the Stasi, Germans should also abolish the Office for the Protection of the Constitution."
Ziehm gave a friendly smile. "Thank you very much for your comment," he said. "At least when you are under surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, you are aware of this, and can file a complaint against your expulsion. We could do none of that in the former East Germany."
Storming the Surveillance Headquarters
The Egyptian secret police had approximately 100,000 full-time agents. Most of them are still on the payroll. So far, all that has changed is the name of the organization and a handful of commanding officers have been replaced. Nobody knows what the full-time agents and their estimated 300,000 informants are currently up to or what should happen to them.
This was the situation when Said Abu al-Ala and his friends stormed the headquarters of the secret police in early March.
Abu al-Ala, 27, is a young lawyer who, even before the revolution, wrote a critical book about the Egyptian secret police, leading the agents to keep him under surveillance and interrogate him on a number of occasions.
Files Shredded, Burned or Drenched
He was well prepared for the meeting with Ziehm, and showed him documents from the secret police archives. "Ninety percent of the files have been destroyed," said Abu al-Ala, adding that the remains lay scattered about the rooms of Amn al-Dawla -- shredded, burned or drenching wet -- and some files had already been carted away in garbage trucks. He and his friends were able to salvage some documents, however. Abu al-Ala has already divided them into a number of categories and roughly sifted through them.
"There is a dossier on every former minister," he says. He was able to read what the secret police thought of the homosexual minister of culture, whose job apparently included advising the first lady on her wardrobe selections. He also read about the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is apparently described in the files as incompetent and a "loser." The crooked deals of the elite, their sex scandals, their close relations to the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood -- all of this, says Abu al-Ala, can be found in the files.
But what is to be done with them? Should everything be made public to finish off the old guard? Abu al-Ala had a lot of questions for the German expert. What is the correct way to make an inventory of the files -- and what should be included in legislation concerning secret police files? Who should safeguard the papers for the time being -- and is it right for them to be stored in the homes of activists?
Confusion on the Ground
Ziehm advised caution and said that they should mistrust government institutions. "The Stasi led us up the garden path at the time," he said. Nothing was as it seemed. Agents had apparently placed the most inconsequential files at prominent locations in a bid to satisfy civil rights activists. "It took months, years before we realized the full extent of the Stasi system."
For three days, Ziehm toured the city with Jacobs, his host from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and the stories that the visitor heard produced a confusing picture of the situation on the ground that didn't match particularly well with German TV images of cheering Egyptians on Tahrir Square.
After talking with many different people, he found it increasingly difficult to make simple comparisons between the East German secret police and Egypt's Amn al-Dawla. He gradually suspected that many things were harsher and more brutal in Egypt, despite the facade of an authoritarian, yet generally cosmopolitan state. Was this merely a carefully groomed image for millions of international tourists?
Treating People as Underlings
"Your stories about the German Stasi remind us of Mother Theresa," a gray-haired surgeon said to Ziehm: "Everything was much worse here: Our secret police was a murdering machine."
The head of the Ahram Center, an influential think tank, told Ziehm how the secret police treated everyone as underlings, both the people and its ministers: "They were the real rulers," said Nabil Abd al-Fattah.
The real rulers: Many members of the protest movement are asking themselves if they are still in power. "Mubarak is gone. But Mubarakism lives on," said one of the activists.
Ziehm also ended up feeling plagued by doubt when, only hours before his return flight, he was unexpectedly called in for a short meeting at the interior ministry, which is traditionally responsible for state security, and has now been tasked with restructuring the organization. Sections of the ministry building had burned just a few days earlier. There were angry protests against the new interior minister, and activists had clashed with the unpopular police -- but then things grew strangely quiet in the country again.
In the corridors, Ziehm saw numerous officials warily eyeing all strangers. He was led to a small room where he was greeted by a man who called himself a "director of information" and asked him questions, politely, but without showing too much interest. There was also another man in the room. "He didn't introduce himself or say a word," Ziehm said later, "but he listened very attentively." It felt like the secret police was monitoring the conversation.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: A Stasi Expert Advises Egypt on Secret Police Legacy
- Part 2: 'We are Finally Free'