Politicizing Security Sector Reform in Egypt

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

A couple of weeks ago, Egypt’s renowned intellectual Dr. Fahmy Howeidy summarized a study I conducted earlier on security sector reform (SSR) in Egypt. Howeidy was trying to highlight an important fact: the availability of the SSR “know-how” in Egypt, whether in this study or in others. What Dr. Howeidy probably did not know was that the study and other related initiatives were earlier submitted to several Egyptian officials. Interest in such studies/initiative was definitely there. Capacity to implement them is another story.

It is well-established by now that tourism, foreign direct investments, political stability, social justice, and probably the success of Egypt’s democratic transition, rest on the security conditions in the country. The two questions usually asked: is the security sector effective in containing real threats? And is that sector accountable to the people, represented by their elected civilians? So far, the answer in Egypt is probably a “no” to both questions.


The presidency’s approach to SSR was so far gradual, not revolutionary; working within the rules of the system rather than fundamentally altering them. Far from “ikhwanization” (Brotherhoodization) of the Police, President Mursi appointed General Khaled Tharwat, as the new head of the National Security Apparatus (NSA) in October 2012. General Tharwat comes from the very core of the notorious State Security Investigations (SSI). He used to head “Internal Activity,” the general administration in charge of monitoring and investigating civil society groups, political parties, and media outlets. At one point, he was also heading the “Countering Brotherhood Activity” group, in charge of neutralizing the Muslim Brothers.

Moreover, far from Tunisia, where the first Interior Minister was a civilian, torture-victim from al-Nahda Party, the first Interior Minister under the first-ever civilian, democratically elected Egyptian President was General Ahmed Gamal al-Din, a figure known to be loyal to the criminally convicted, General Habib al-Adly, Mubarak’s Minister of Interior. Gamal al-Din was a hardliner during negotiations to release political prisoners following the success of the revolution, as well as during the talks to end the Mohammad Mahmoud street clashes of November 2011. He was also a witness in the “Giza Officers Trial,” in which 17 policemen were accused of killing and injuring protesters in January 2011. He defended the policemen, claiming that the victims had been killed in “self-defence.” Officers but Honourable Coalition, an unofficial organization of police officers who are pushing for internal reforms, accused Gamal al-Din of being a member of a powerful anti-reform faction in the ministry, dubbed “al-Adly’s men” (after former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly). Overall the Mursi administration did not make any major steps in SSR, probably due to very cautious political calculations.

“I got 186 dead officers and more than 800 injured so far, petty-officers blocking security chiefs from entering their offices, a presidential palace getting torched on weekly basis by a hundred kids or so … and Egypt’s largest government complex was blocked for four days, when will I have time to reform? … When these political polemics end,” said the new Interior Minister, General Mohammed Ibrahim February 19, 2013. It was one of the rare times an incumbent minister speaks out publically about the limitations of the security forces and the reform process. And, more worrying, he was not lying about the facts or the numbers. A collapse of the Ministry of Interior (MoI) at the moment can have disastrous consequences in Egypt.

The Interior Ministry’s Catch-22

The violence on the streets and the politicization of the SSR by rival politicians had negative consequence on the reform process and its credibility. On talk-shows, opposition figures call for SSR to be implemented and for police brutality to end. At the same time, the very same political figures praise security generals and corrupt judges/prosecutors known for their support of brutal tactics and faking charges. Some politicians even call for them to intervene in the political process, by cracking down on their rivals. In that sense, the MoI is in a “catch-22.” On the one hand, it is responsible for defending state institutions, constantly under attack by violent groups from various backgrounds. On the other hand, if any of these protestors were killed or injured, the MoI will be accused of brutality. Add to that the limited experience in non-lethal tactics of riot control. “All what they [activists] tell you is lies…the pattern we got here is that the officer gets attacked with shotguns and Molotov cocktails. If he flees, he gets accused of negligence and then he gets tried. If he fights back, he gets accused of brutality and then he gets tried as well. What exactly is he supposed to do?…” told me a major in the Central Security Forces, who witnessed the attacks on the presidential palace last January.

In all cases, no democratic transition is complete without targeting abuse, eradicating torture, and ending the impunity of the security services, with effective and meaningful civilian control of both the armed forces and the security establishments. Those objectives were at the core of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. They cannot be attained in the current extreme polarization in Egypt; nor in the middle of constant attempts to manipulate the security sector by political rivals. As shown in other comparative cases, the unity of political forces on that particular demand is key for the success of both security sector reform and democratization.