I have spent much of my time since October researching a history dissertation at Dar Al-Watha’iq (The Government Documents Archive) in Cairo. One of the archival units I read frequently is unit 73, which contains reports of the Egyptian political police (note: Arabic site) between 1923 and 1942.
So it was of considerable interest to me to learn yesterday that anti-regime protesters had actually breached the walls of the State Security (Amn ad-Dawla) compound in Nasr City, a neighborhood of west of downtown Cairo. Protests had sprung up this weekend around State Security compounds in many locations including Alexandria and Sixth of October City, a satellite suburb west of Cairo, when locals noticed large clouds of black smoke billowing from them, indicating the security officers were burning their files within. I followed twitter accounts from Sarah Carr, Mosa’ab Elshamy and Ahmed Elmassry as protests on Saturday culminated in the protesters rushing past the thin army cordon and entering the deserted building to search for documents and prisoners. There has been hardly any any international coverage of this yet. Today, leading independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm posted a fascinating edited film of last night’s riot.
There are many amazing things about this event, which blogger Sandmonkey rightly calls Egypt’s Bastille (although more protests are shaping up today in front of the biggest prize, the Interior Ministry). It shows the continuing disintegration of the brittle state security apparatus and the unwillingness of the army to protect it. The army even had to hustle the remaining employees out to a waiting APC amid an immense, angry crowd to prevent a possible lynching (Video here). You will notice “Allahu Akbar” chanted more frequently than in earlier protests, as it seems more Salafi Islamists showed up to this one, many of whom spoke to reporters as the protesters gathered about their experiences being tortured within during Mubarak’s 20-year crackdown on domestic terrorism. (Arabic video) All prisoners and officers were long gone, so what remains of “the apparatus” is elsewhere at the moment.
According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, the protesters quickly formed a committee to aggregate the documents found scattered throughout the building, although it also appears from twitter and videos that individuals were seeking for personal or relatives’ files for personal possession. The army was also searching people leaving the compound to make sure that nobody was stealing documents, and was apparently coordinating with the protesters to deliver the files to the attorney general. (The Ministry of Justice is currently in-between heads since the appointment of Essam Sharif as Egypt’s first post-Mubarak prime minister, so I’m not sure how much faith protesters would have in that plan.)
A good deal of amazing and damaging information has already emerged from camera phone images of documents taken from inside the building. First up, a notice from February 26 to all state security officers to liquidate their archives. (I removed the link, photo and my translation for security purposes). This is why protesters found rooms filled to the ceiling with shredded documents, although it seems the clerks only got to a small minority of the papers, although presumably they got the most scandal-worthy stuff first.
If this is the official policy of the Interior Ministry, then every minute they can hold back protesters means potential thousands of words lost to future historians. Then again, paper has a stubborn ability to hang around. Scanning software is becoming sophisticated enough to automatically re-assemble jumbled strips of paper (Wikileaks has already offered to do this). Burning takes longer than expected and is dangerous. Paper simply takes up a lot of space and it is deceptively heavy!
Some of these videos remind me of the end of the great 2004 film “Der Untergang” (The Downfall) about the last few weeks of Hitler’s life and the Battle of Berlin. In one scene, the SS is trying to burn its files; the courtyard of its palatial building is filled with endless waterfalls of paper, and they still can’t get everything. (Funny, the squalid intimacy of former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly’s bathrobe out to dry in his personal apartment deep within the heart of the wrecked state security building depicted in this video is reminiscent of the claustrophobic pathos of Hitler’s bunker).
We can be thankful that Egyptian record keeping isn’t as computerized as, say, the Bush White House, which “disappeared” millions of emails that it was keeping in a secret server run by the Republican party. Then again, 22 million more mostly unrelated Bush emails have more recently surfaced from mislabled backups; so perhaps electronic data is still more threatened by incompetence than political intrigue.
Even if these papers survive, keeping them all organized in an archive useful to future historians is an expensive, sometimes cost-prohibitive task. A badly mutilated archive sometimes feels worse than none at all, in that the connections and cross-references between many documents one needs to prove broad arguments about systematic policies become impossible. The “smoking gun” documents are always few and far between.
Unfortunately for my project on World War II-era Egypt, the British and American embassies largely succeeded in destroying their documents between 1939 and July 1942, when Rommel got as close to reaching Alexandria as he would ever get and they feared Nazis seizing classified information. Oddly enough, 1942 is when the Egyptian political police reports in unit 73 (above) become erratic and then run out. All I can think today is that when Nasser and the Free Officers of the Army came calling in 1952, that panicked police officers loyal to the old regime started quietly tossing out files in reverse chronological order… and only got ten years into their project. But it is just as likely they’re lost in the archives somewhere.
I hope to continue reporting on the information from these leaked documents in the coming days… and on echoes of Egypt’s past from my research in observations of current events.