Egypt’s newly appointed interior minister will dissolve the country’s reviled state security agency, fulfilling a central demand of the protest movement that ousted the country’s former president last month.
Egyptian state-run television reported Tuesday that Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawy will create a new internal security body called the National Security Sector.
Former President Hosni Mubarak used Egypt’s vast internal security apparatus to stifle dissent and keep tabs on opposition leaders. Human-rights organizations complained that the agency often employed torture to extract confessions.
Protesters raided state security offices early this month, seizing documents and reports that chronicled the agency’s invasive monitoring of opposition political figures, religious leaders and even television celebrities.
Egypt’s general prosecutor arrested the head of the agency, along with 47 officers who were accused of burning and shredding documents to hide alleged criminal activity within the organization.
In Cairo on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced American support for Egypt’s march toward democracy and promised economic aid to help create jobs.
“This moment of history belongs to you. This is your achievement,” she said. “The U.S. and President [Barack] Obama and I will stand with you as you make this journey.”
She also “applauded” news that the interim government had disbanded the security apparatus.
Ms. Clinton met later Tuesday with democracy activists and other human-rights advocates, which she said would be a crucial part of Egyptian democracy. The representatives expressed concern that the pace of elections is moving too fast in Egypt for newly formed groups, and that it would benefit groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
A senior American official said after the meeting that holding three elections in a few months is “daunting.…No question this is very fast.”
He added that there were some “frustrations with the history of the relationship” between Egypt and the U.S., both in terms of supporting the Mubarak regime and in not responding aggressively to the protests in January.
The decision to dissolve the agency comes as opposition to a set of proposed constitutional amendments mounts before Saturday’s national referendum, which threatens to delay Egypt’s military-led transition to democracy.
The country’s new military rulers have scheduled a referendum on 10 proposed amendments to the country’s constitution. If passed, the changes would introduce presidential term limits and open the political field to multiple political parties, among other moves.
The referendum will be the first time in history that Egyptians will vote in free and fair elections, said the head of the judicial council overseeing Saturday’s vote.
But many protest leaders and politicians say the measures will do little to redeem a constitution designed to perpetuate authoritarian governance.
Major opposition figures, including presidential front-runners Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, have both urged the Egyptian public to reject the amendments.
They say the amendments fail to address the constitution’s most egregious shortcoming: its reliance on a powerful executive branch that dominates the other branches of government.
If the public rejects the amendments, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power from Mr. Mubarak when he stepped down on Feb. 11, could issue a “constitutional declaration” that would allow the country to proceed toward elections without formally revising the constitution.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appointed the eight-person committee that drafted the proposed amendments behind closed doors and without any clear input from outside scholars. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The council has offered no alternative process in case the public votes “no” in the referendum.
The head of the High Judicial Council—the body in charge of overseeing the referendum this Saturday—said in a news conference on Tuesday that a “no” vote would lead to a “legislative void” that the military would then fill with its own “constitutional declaration.”
“This would be a limited constitutional declaration to govern the transitional period to a new authority, which would allow for the transfer of authority to a modern and civilian state,” said Mohammed Attia, the chairman of the High Judicial Council.
Opponents of the referendum see the Muslim Brotherhood and NDP support as little more than a cynical gambit to sweep parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for June.
If Egyptians vote “yes” on the amendments, the military’s transitional timetable will proceed without allowing time for independent candidates to organize new political parties, said the amendments’ critics.
The new constitution enjoins the new parliament to appoint a constitutional congress who would draft a permanent constitution. If NDP and Brotherhood candidates sweep the coming vote, critics say, they will be well-placed to influence the permanent constitution.
“They have a chance and they want to snatch it regardless of how this will affect the rest of the people,” said Shadi Al Ghazali Harb, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition. “We’re all not happy about that.”
Mr. Al Ghazali Harb said he would prefer to see a transitional civilian government to lift the burden off Egypt’s military rulers in the short-term. That would free up time for a more considered debate about a new constitution.
The balance of public opinion appears to be tipping in favor of Mr. Al Ghazali Harb and his anti-amendment supporters. A poll of some 43,000 Egyptians conducted by the Egyptian cabinet office and published in local newspapers on Monday found that nearly 60% disagreed with the amendments.
The debate over Saturday’s vote has ushered in a generational battle between old and new forces in Egyptian politics. Established political parties, who have the most to gain from a rapid move toward elections, support the proposed amendments. New candidates and parties hope to delay a rapid transition.
Standing beside them is a military leadership whose capacity to govern and maintain law and order has been pushed nearly to the brink by worsening sectarian violence, a rock-bottom economy and growing instability in the Middle East.
“What I see is a very stressed military trying to handle a lot of things coming at them,” said a Western diplomat. The military, said the diplomat, is “doing a not-so-bad job, wanting to get out of it as soon as they can and that wanting to get out of it is causing some stress on the political system.”
In support of the amendments is an unlikely alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling National Democratic Party, which helped support Mr. Mubarak’s claim to power for nearly 30 years. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, was banned when Mr. Mubarak and the NDP were in power, although its members ran for office individually.
Mohammed Ragab, the new leader of the NDP, endorsed the constitutional changes in a news release over the weekend.
Both groups say voters should support the amendments in order to complete the military’s scheduled transition to democracy and end the routine protests that have delayed a full return to normalcy.
“The people…are not all Ché Guevaras and you are not in need of a Ché Guevara here,” said Essam Al Erian, a senior leader and spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood. “We need stability, we need security and we need to choose the people who represent us.”
Some observers said the dissolution of State Security was a strategic decision aimed at mollifying opponents of the referendum.
Yet many remain suspicious that plans for a new National Security Sector amount to a shallow attempt at repackaging an old menace.
“We don’t have the details, but the name for the National Security Sector gives us the idea that it will be the same,” said Gamal Eid, the general director of the Arab Network for Human Rights, a Cairo-based advocacy organization.
Mr. Eid said the interior ministry needs a top-to-bottom overhaul., not a renaming of only one of the nine agencies that enforce Egypt’s internal law and order.
“Part of the problem is the impunity.” he said. “What happened before they can do it again.”
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