Herbert Ziehm has traveled a long way to meet his past. Finally, standing in front of his destination, the building that houses the Egyptian state security service in Cairo, his composure cracks.
It is 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning and Ziehm has donned a gray jacket for the visit. He is well groomed; clean shaven with a neatly tied knot in his flower-patterned tie. He is a German civil servant under the hot Egyptian sun. All that is missing from the stereotypical image is his briefcase, which he left at the hotel.
The most momentous day in his life was 21 years ago, in January 1990, when he and other demonstrators occupied the East Berlin headquarters of former East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi. The activists formed citizens' committees and prevented informers' reports from being destroyed. Afterwards, Ziehm simply stayed on and organized the archives. Over the years, he has seen so many files that nothing can shock him anymore.
High Walls, Watchtowers and Tanks
"There is an inner logic to evil," he said shortly before boarding his flight to Cairo. He is a man who has grown accustomed to rationally and abstractly analyzing the horrors of the Stasi. Ziehm is 64 years old and, with retirement just around the corner, he spends a great deal of time at his cottage in the countryside outside Berlin. "Things have become a little boring at the office," he says about his work for Germany's federal commission that oversees old Stasi documents.
But suddenly the past comes roaring back to him. And it is not an abstract version of the past, but tangible: High walls, watchtowers and tanks with poised machine guns protect a windowless concrete fortress and a number of administrative buildings extending for hundreds of meters. It is the headquarters of Amn al-Dawla, the Egyptian State Security Investigations Service. It looks like the Stasi under palm trees. The gates remain closed and visitors are not wanted. Here there is no civilian oversight, the military rules.
Ziehm falls silent. He gets back into the car and wants to keep going. He looks away with moist eyes, folds his hands, anxiously twiddles his thumbs. He does not notice that the photographer is asking him questions, he is too lost in his memories. Ziehm prefers to keep his feelings to himself. "I first need to take a deep breath of air," is all he says, and remains silent for the rest of the drive.
Facing Up to the Past
Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria have all sought his advice, wanting to know what he recommends they do with old secret police files. Coming to terms with the former East German dictatorship has effectively become a sought-after German export. Ziehm quickly gave up his profession as an engineer and traveled throughout Eastern Europe until interest waned and the upheaval of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall became a topic for historians.
Can his model now also be applied to the Middle East? What can Egyptians and Tunisians learn from Ziehm? Will Libyans and Syrians soon also require their own agencies to deal with old secret police files?
In early March, hundreds of demonstrators stormed Amn al-Dawla headquarters in Cairo. They found deserted offices, empty prison cells and shredded files -- but also many secret reports that were still intact. For a few hours, the revolutionaries enjoyed what felt like a victory over the state security agency. Then the military took control.
Stasi Expert Export
It was around this time that Andreas Jacobs had the idea of bringing a German Stasi expert into the country. Jacobs heads the Egyptian office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which has close ties to Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He aims to foster civil society and, with Ziehm's help, maybe even bring some much-needed momentum into Egypt's process of democratization. Jacobs says the movement towards democracy is stagnating. "Perhaps you are coming too early. Nobody wants to see you here," he said when he greeted Ziehm three weeks later. Jacobs says that the secret police don't want to speak with the visitor from Germany and the Egyptian Interior Ministry is putting up resistance. Many of the same old people are still in positions of power.
According to Jacobs, the expert's visit is an experiment: "This is not November 9, and this is not Berlin after the fall of the Wall," he says. He contends that the situation is more comparable with the summer of 1989 in Hungary, when the country opened the Iron Curtain along its border with Austria. Everything is still possible, Jacobs argues, even a victory by the old forces in the regime: "What kind of revolution is this where the toppled ruler continues to be able to live in his villa at the beach?"
Headquarters on a Garbage Dump
The El Sawy Culturewheel is the most famous cultural institution in Egypt that has managed to avoid coming under the yoke of the regime. Its headquarters is built on top of an old garbage dump, beneath a city expressway bridge, and is far from prestigious. It once served as a shelter for homeless people, but is now the meeting place for Egyptian activists. Some 70 of them gathered here a week ago Saturday to attend a presentation by Ziehm. They were hoping that the German could explain how they can get a grip on a secret police force that has been left to its own devices.
Ziehm showed them a short film from East Berlin, focusing on the Stasi headquarters in Normannenstrasse: Young demonstrators appeared on the screen along with shredded files, and much of it resembled the blurry videos of protesters storming the headquarters of the Egyptian secret police, Amn al-Dawla.
"It reminds me of 20 years ago," said Ziehm, "when we also found files and didn't know what to do with them. We had no idea how many people were employed, how many reports there were and how the entire organization worked." Some politicians in Berlin called for the files to be destroyed, he added. Others argued for a continuation of the Stasi as an agency for national security. All that he and others could do was hope that it would end differently, and peacefully, but nothing was certain.
Parallels with Cairo
Many in the audience nodded. His historical recollections matched the current situation in Cairo.
Then Ziehm explained that the Germans systematically dismantled their secret police and created an agency with up to 3,000 staff members to administer the Stasi documents. He told them that they have roughly 120 km (75 miles) of shelves filled with files, and have even begun to piece together shredded documents from over 15,000 garbage bags filled with scraps of paper. He added that they have made it possible for millions of people to look at their files. "You cannot escape the past," Ziehm said. His listeners now looked astonished. No one could imagine, at least not for the time being, such a thorough effort to come to terms with the past.
"I warn against immediately dismantling the entire apparatus of the secret police," said a young activist, "otherwise the agents will act independently, and that's too dangerous. We would be better off finding new jobs for them."
"We have suffered under this regime for so many years, now everything has to change," said a doctoral student. Nonetheless, she felt that the Egyptians would be better off not reading their files because "what is most important now is unity and stability."
'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.