The Inner Logic of Evil A Stasi Expert Advises Egypt on Secret Police Legacy

Two decades ago, Herbert Ziehm helped storm the headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Now, he is advising Egypt on how to deal with its own legacy of official abuse. History, it would seem, is repeating itself.


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."

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BTraven 04/05/2011
I cannot believe that the departments of Egypt's secret policy have been capable of collecting and keeping files of anybody who were suspicious to them because people were dealt much more arbitrarily than in the GDR. Normally a secret policy is not interested in documenting its actions. Germany has been the exception of the rule, and it's quite difficult to find reason why the organisation responsible for terrorising people documented everything so well. Perhaps it has something to do with Germans attitude that everything which involves much paperwork must be correct. Perhaps, the authorities really wanted to know that knowing as much as possible about everybody could be useful for them. It turned out that they were wrong. So how can he help them? The secret policy will not be dismantled, as it happened in Germany. I even doubt whether it's possible to get the names of those who informed the police because of I cannot imagine that a central register where all informants are listed had ever been kept.
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