Surveillance state

Hundreds of CCTV cameras have been installed across Egypt over the past two years


Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, June 8 2011

Despite being one of the most celebrated cities of the ancient world, Luxor could soon fall prey to one of the modern era’s least celebrated innovations – the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera.

The city, which more than 3000 years ago was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, is due to be fitted out with 100 cameras under a plan to improve security in the area. They will monitor everything from tourists hopping off their cruise boats in the harbor to visitors walking into the city’s temples.

Yet like a number of other surveillance projects in the works – including a US$4 million plan to install 350 CCTV cameras on Cairo’s metro system – the idea is currently on ice as the post-Mubarak government deals with the chaos caused by the 25 January revolution.

Emad Adly, chairman of one of the companies that applied for the metro CCTV project tender, said he had heard “rumors” that the whole thing might be canceled.

“The last thing I heard from the Ministry of Transport was that the whole thing was on hold,” said Adly, also the chairman of Audio Technology.

The same goes for the Luxor CCTV project, according to CSI Egypt, one of the companies that applied to the tender.

Although the disruption caused to these wide-ranging surveillance projects is proving to be a headache for company shareholders, it is a welcome relief for those who feel that Egypt’s authorities are in danger of turning their country into an Orwellian nightmare.

In the past two years, the number of street-level security cameras across the country has increased rapidly through government-sponsored projects.

Since late 2009, nearly 300 cameras have been installed in Alexandria and Cairo’s Al-Azhar area of at a cost of more than US$7.5 million – with all of the cameras being supplied by Audio Technology.

The same company also has a contract to provide an additional 100 cameras in Hurghada, where lenses that can zoom up to 400 meters and swivel around full circle could soon be operational.

Audio Technology’s partner in all of its projects has been Orascom, the telecommunications firm owned by billionaire businessman-turned-politician Naguib Sawiris. While Audio Technology provides the cameras used for the CCTV systems, Orascom installs the wireless technology and control rooms required to monitor the images.

The spread of CCTV across Egypt mirrors a wider trend in the region. A report by IMS Research last year estimated that the Middle East market for video surveillance equipment would grow by 10 percent in 2010 and continue its upward trend strongly toward 2013.

Steve Batt, Middle East sales manager for video equipment firm Vicon, said it was true that the use of surveillance CCTV in Egypt was widening, but that the development was only following a global pattern.

“What’s happening in Egypt is not very different to what’s happening elsewhere,” he said.

According to Emad Adly, the spread of CCTV technology is essential for securing businesses across Egypt.

“Security is one of the most important things for investors,” Adly said.

Mohamed Ezzeldin, managing director of Egypt’s division of the security services company G4S, agreed. His own company pitched to secure the recent contracts in Hurghada and Alexandria and is also in the running to provide the proposed CCTV network on Cairo’s metro system.

“The country needs the CCTV,” he said. “If there is an incident, then you can find someone to blame. I think it’s really important.”

Yet Steve Batt warned there was a possibility that the technology could be abused by authoritarian governments – particularly in the Middle East.

He said that the Interior Ministry, which controls all of the government street surveillance projects through its Technical Research Department, would be responsible for all of the control rooms used in CCTV operation.

“The Interior Ministry has to approve the operators and run the system,” he said.

“In the United Arab Emirates, if you are building a new Ritz Carlton, in order to get the hotel open and get a license you have to install a security system in accordance with Interior Ministry guidelines.

“If that system has to conform to the same standard, it makes it simple for the Interior Ministry to access it,” Batt said.

However, he questioned how valuable CCTV really was for a police state hoping to monitor its citizens.

“It’s very easy to sensationalize what you can do with a blurry image of a person in the street next to 15,000 other people,” he said.

Wherever you look in Egypt, it seems the CCTV industry is booming. Private demand for cameras and security systems has skyrocketed in many sectors because of the uncertainty caused by the uprising. Mohamed Ezzeldin said that he reached his company’s US$4 million sales target four months earlier than he did last year due to a hike in orders from oil companies and industrial firms.

For now, the uprising has stalled the boom in government CCTV surveillance. But if the projects which were in the works prior to 25 January get back on track, then the trend of increasing surveillance will continue unabated.

How CNN’s “virginity checks” story first unravelled

Salwa Hosseini, who told CNN she had been subjected to a "virginity check"

Egyptian TV presenter Shahira Amin was eating lunch in a Lebanese restaurant when she received the phone call which dropped a bombshell.

It was an army general responding to the interview request Amin had made last week following a show she recorded with a guest from Amnesty International – the organisation which some weeks ago made allegations that Egyptian women had been subjected to degrading “virginity tests” in custody.

As the general began to speak, Amin stopped eating her tabbouleh salad and began taking notes on a table napkin in front of her. The general’s comments were startling.

He confirmed that following a demonstration in Tahrir Square on March 9, a number of female protesters had been subjected to rudimentary “examinations” in order to determine whether they were virgins or not.

It was the first time since Amnesty’s report that the allegation had been verified by the military. But perhaps what was more startling than the admission itself – which was subsequently denied in an army statement yesterday – was the reasons given by the general and his justifications for the actions of his troops.

“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said, according to the article that Amin wrote for CNN’s website and which was published on Tuesday. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs).

He continued by saying that the checks had been done so the women could not claim later that they had been raped while in custody.

“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).”

Speaking to Al Majalla, Amin said that she was under the impression the general – who asked her to remain anonymous – had been given the green light to talk to her from higher ranking officials.

“As I was talking to him he got a phone call,” she said. “He said to someone, ‘I have Shahira with me on the line’. Then he told me he would call again in five minutes.

“He then called back and said to me, ‘do you know who that was? It was the army chief of staff’.”

Since the CNN story was published earlier in the week, the issue has slowly been developing momentum of its own.

On Wednesday night a couple of hundred people gathered in the plush east Cairo district of Heliopolis to protest outside a meeting being held between the military and a handful of youth groups.

A number of the protesters held up placards and screamed chants expressing their disgust over the general’s comments.

Salma Nagy, a 30-year-old economist who was at the protest, said: “I consider it a personal threat to me. Every time I think about going to protest I think about what happened to the other girls.

Architect Sandra Louka, 32, added: “The virginity tests are ridiculous. I think it’s a violation of human liberty.”

Egypt’s bloggers and tweeters have also taken to the web to denounce the general’s comments, which come after days of mounting unease about the army’s conduct in managing the uprising.

Earlier in the week the renowned Egyptian blogger Hossam Hamalawy was questioned by the military and later released after he said publicly on TV that he had evidence of military malpractice. This week bloggers called another day of online action to criticise the widespread use of military courts to process thousands of Egyptians.

Criticism of the military was utterly taboo under Mubarak, and while restrictions have eased somewhat since the fall of Mubarak, there are still doubts about how far the army is willing to tolerate dissent.

A number of leading military figures have said they cannot wait to hand over to civilian rule. If it means that people start directing their ire at somebody else, then it is easy to see why.

What next for Egypt’s peace with Israel?

Anwar Sadat, left, and Menachem Begin with Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979


Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, May 31 2011

Before President Anwar Sadat signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and won back the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s eye patch-wearing foreign minister, had no doubt about what the deal would mean for his nation’s security.

“If a wheel is removed,” he reportedly said, “the car will not run again.” In other words, if Egypt was taken away from the field of battle, the Arab world could never again pose a threat to the Jewish state.

After the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) permanently opened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza on Saturday, many in Israel are wondering if the Arab car might have found its throttle again.

“I think many people here are nervous,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University. “There was a lot of admiration when people saw civilians going out and asking for better lives, but also concern about what was going to come.”

The SCAF’s decision to permanently open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which has been closed as part of a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege on the Palestinian territory since Hamas took power there in 2007, drew sharp criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for people in Egypt, it was a hopeful sign of new relations with Israel.

Ever since Sadat signed the peace deal – a move he calculated would help him emerge from the shadow of his wildly popular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser – Cairo’s relations with Tel Aviv have been out of step with popular Egyptian feelings.

A 2007 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project found that 80 percent of Egyptians felt that Palestinian needs could not be met while the state of Israel existed. Only 18 percent believed the two states could co-exist on an even keel.

What will substantively change as a result of the January 25 uprising? Not much, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert from Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I think the same Egyptian-Israeli relationship will continue as before without any significant changes in strategy,” he said.

In common with most analysts who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm – and in stark contrast to much of the fevered speculation that characterized Western coverage of the Egyptian uprising – Abdel Fattah predicted that the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was not in any danger.

“Even the Muslim Brotherhood will respect the treaty,” he said. “This is in the national interest, and they know that if they finish the peace treaty, then the reaction around the world will be negative.”

Despite the SCAF saying soon after the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak that it would “respect all treaties” signed by previous presidents, the Muslim Brotherhood – which many expect will be the biggest winner in elections scheduled for September – has not been so specific, contenting itself with issuing vague statements about respecting the will of the people.

Many believe that tearing up the peace treaty would be a fool’s errand. Though public attitudes towards Tel Aviv are undeniably icy, a recent poll by the Dubai-based marketing research firm YouGovSiraj also found that 60 percent of Egyptians are in favor of maintaining the status quo. Only 27 percent think that severing ties would be a good idea, according to the survey.

“Nobody is going to risk changing the balance,” said Imam Hamdy, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations at the American University of Cairo. “Nobody can afford it.”

There will, of course, be change, said Hamdy, but it will be characterized by a subtle shift away from the warm cordiality which existed under Mubarak.

But what Israel and the West might view as an alarming disengagement from the spirit of the Camp David Accords, others should see as a return to a more normal, less imbalanced relationship, she added.

“Before 25 January there was an exceptional relationship,” she said. “The Egyptian regime was too accommodating and generous to Israel, even at the expense sometimes of Egyptian and Arab interests.”

As an example Hamdy cited the controversial 20-year deal signed in 2005 in which Egypt agreed to export cheap gas to Israel, triggering anger among some Egyptians who said the fuel was being bought at below-inflation rates.

“Now I think it’s going to be a more normal relationship. I think Egypt will distance itself a bit,” Hamdy said.

Her views were backed up by Abdel Fattah, who added: “The majority of the Egyptian people criticized the regime of Hosni Mubarak because he accepted many violations [against] the Palestinian people.”

“I think the revolutionary uprising is a message to America and Israel saying, ‘You must respect us as a country.’”

If the new government that comes to power after this year’s elections hopes to reflect the will of the people, then a change in Egypt’s attitude toward the issue of the Palestinians would probably be a vote-winner. Indeed, many of the presidential candidates have already started touting their tough-on-Israel credentials as they launch their campaigns.

The SCAF has already got the ball rolling, both by opening the Rafah crossing on Saturday and also by helping to broker a deal between Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions, on forming a unity government. Its next test will be how it deals with Israel’s reaction to a planned UN vote in September on Palestinian statehood.

But a much more permanent change in tact will would required to shift away from Mubarak’s cozy relationship with Israel and the US.

Internal memos recently leaked to Al Jazeera shed light on the duplicity of the Egyptians in their dealings with the Palestinians.

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right hand man on intelligence issues, was cast in a particularly bad light. He was accused by one European diplomat of “discouraging” a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah after the 2006 elections, while negotiators trying to break the siege of Gaza reported that although Suleiman and Mubarak were promising in public to deliver supplies, no goods were actually getting through from the Egyptian side of the border.

“Egypt’s relationship with the Palestinians was very complex,” Hamdy said. “On the one hand Mubarak wanted to establish peace for the sake of Egypt. He believed that Egypt had a stake in peace – that stake was world leadership.

“In public, it has been very supportive of a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. But how far does it go when it comes to the details? That is the issue.”

The merits of drastically altering Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel – and thus endangering approximately US$2 billion of mostly military aid which Cairo receives every year from Washington as a result of the peace treaty – also seems uncertain when one considers whether it is likely to have any serious effect on changing the Israelis.

“It is hard to say whether Egypt will now have leverage on Israeli domestic policy,” said Maddy-Weitzman, the Tel Aviv University professor.

He said that Egyptian impotence in the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held prisoner in the Gaza Strip by Hamas since 2006, was an example of how Cairo’s powers are limited.

Yet he also said the recent deal between Hamas and Fatah, brokered in Cairo, showed how Egypt’s influence has potential to grow.

“If Egypt could have a hand in bringing about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians which is seen as acceptable then it would send a nice message to the Israeli public,” he added.

Whatever direction Egypt takes after parliamentary and presidential elections this year, there seems to be no possibility of returning to full-scale hostilities with Israel.

According to Mohamed Abdel Salam, an expert on Egypt’s military and editor of World Politics magazine, even if a new government did want to rip up the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt would be in no position to fight a war if it wanted to.

“The balance of forces would have to be 3-to-1 if Egypt wanted to attack Israel,” he said. “I don’t think the balance of power is 3-to-1.”

He added that there was absolutely no incentive whatsoever for either country to break its peace.

“There are regional realities,” he said. “There aren’t any vital interests in going to war.”