On Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5, 2011, protesters swept into offices of the State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) in cities across Egypt.
2,500 protesters- many claiming to be victims of torture and harrassment by SSIS officials- overwhelmed the main office in Cairo. Once inside, they found rooms full of files, sex tapes intended for blackmail and mounds of shredded paper. (You can see a Flickr stream of photos from inside the building here.)
It was the rumor of shredded documents that brought the crowds to SSIS offices all over Egypt. Protesters ransacked the shelves for files about themselves, family and friends. Activists took photos of the interior scenes and posted them on Facebook: metal shelves stuffed with reams of neat paper files; young people perched on bags of shredded paper, leafing through photos and documents.
Bloggers took to calling it "Egypt's Bastille Day," but I wonder if any of them realized they were re-enacting a much more recent event.
On January 15th, 1990, citizens in the soon-to-be-dismantled German Democratic Republic stormed the Stasi's Berlin Compound. Like the SSIS, the Stasi had been desperately shredding and hiding files as the chaos in the GDR increased. It took protesters days to actually find the files, writes Andrew Curry in Wired magazine:
Accompanied by cooperative police, Stasi agents led Gill and his compatriots through twisting alleys and concrete-walled courtyards, all eerily empty. Finally they arrived at a nondescript office building in the heart of the compound. Inside, there was more paper than he had ever imagined. "We had all lived under the pressure of the Stasi. We all knew they could know everything," Gill says today. "But we didn't understand what that meant until that moment. Suddenly it was palpable."
At it's peak in 1989, the Stasi employed 91,000 people to monitor 16.4 GDR citizens. They obsessively documented everything from the banal to the bizarre- cigarettes smoked, walks in the park, even gossip sessions between teenagers. They recorded the success or failure of attempts to harrass surveillance subjects(from "Need to Know" by H. Saussy):
The point of it all was probably not gaining information, but intimidating the suspect. One fine point of technique involves small acts of harassment—repeatedly letting the air out of bicycle tires, to name one that I found especially disturbing—that by daily accumulation make the person wonder if she is going crazy. Did I ride over a nail or did the Stasi do that to me? The message you’re supposed to get is that the secret police are not only all-knowing, but inescapable, a more intimate part of your life than your toothbrush or the smell of your own sweat.
Writing in Al Masry Al Youm, Issandre El Amrani describes a very similar role played by the SSIS in Egypt:
There were worse dictatorships, yes, but the problem was not simply an aging, authoritarian president, his ambitious son and his corrupt entourage. It was that, for the sake of regime preservation, a sprawling security apparatus collected information on citizens, manipulated them, cajoled and threatened them, humiliated them. State Security did not just, as its role should have been, keep tabs on possible terrorists and criminal networks. It ran Egypt on a day-to-day level, super-imposing itself onto the regular bureaucracy, acting as an intermediary...
...What those who gained access to its offices discovered is that, much like the Ministry of Transport might keep an inventory of its buses and trains, State Security maintained an elaborate database on citizens, the threats they represented, their weaknesses, relationships and other every little detail of their lives.
One Egytian newspaper estimated the SSIS workforce at 100,000. According to Ahmad Zaki Osman of Al Masri Al Youm, the SSIS really came into its own after the imposition of the Emergency Law in 1981.
Furthermore, the SSIS was responsible for shutting down rights groups. In 2007, it caused the closure of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services, which provides legal assistance to workers.
The SSIS also played a role in eliminating opposition candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Moreover, the SSIS has allegedly played a prominent role in appointing loyal editors for state owned newspapers in order to smear the opposition and defend policies of Mubarak’s regime.
The SSIS has played a role in obstructing political life on a day-to-day basis.
The distortions of Egyptian society caused by the SSIS mirror the distortion of society in the GDR by the Stasi: neighbors paid- or coerced- into informing on neighbors, plainclothes operatives shadowing civilians during their most ordinary errands. Was that flat tire a coicidence or a warning? Did your landlady enter your apartment while you were at work? Both organizations created a poisoned society, where potentially no one is who they claim to be and rumor feels more truthful than fact.
Can a society so poisoned survive and eventually heal? A re-unified Germany eventually did. They turned the Stasi compound into a museum and created an organization dedicated to reassembling and giving files to surveillance subjects. Thus far, 1.7 million Germans have requested their personal Stasi files. The Germans call this Vergangenheitsbewältigung- "coming to terms with the past."
But can Egyptians achieve this? No one can tell the future, but look for a moment at the past. In his Wired article, Andrew Curry describes the beginning of the German revolution:
...on October 9, the situation escalated. In Leipzig that night, 70,000 people marched peacefully around the city's ring road — which goes right past the Stasi office... A week later, 120,000 people marched; a week after that, the number was 300,000 — in a city with a population of only 530,000.
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?