With tip hotlines, Egypt's once hated security agency seeks to reclaim role

After a bombing hit a security headquarters in Egypt's Nile Delta, calls flooded into a hotline run by security agencies as people reported suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood in their neighborhoods. In the weeks that followed, hotline numbers have run in a scroll on the bottom of many TV news broadcasts.

It's one sign of how Egypt's National Security Agency — once widely hated as a pillar of the police state under ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak — is reclaiming a major role amid a wave of militant violence and a wide-scale government crackdown on the Brotherhood since the July coup that removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Some activists fear that a Mubarak-style autocracy is returning under the new military-backed government, three years after the uprising that toppled Mubarak in hopes of creating a democracy. The emphasis on the hotlines, they warn, raises the likelihood that neighbor will turn against neighbor at a time when the government has accused the Brotherhood — its top political nemesis — of organizing the violence.

Officials from the agency say tips from citizens are helping it rebuild its intelligence sources. They depict the agency as deeply crippled by three years of turmoil — including, they say, security breaches during Morsi's year in office, when the Brotherhood gained access to its files.

The hotline also aims to enlist the broader public on the agency's side as it tries to rehabilitate its image. One agency official said the lines help change a "cultural norm" among Egyptians against cooperating with the police.

"Some think that those who report will ultimately be accused in the case. Some fear ratting out their own. Others view those who report to the police to be agents," the Cairo-based official said. "We want to change that." He and another official from the agency, based in a provincial bureau, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its workings.

Under Mubarak's rule, the agency, then known as the State Security Agency, was notorious for abuses and torture as it pursued political opponents, particularly Islamists. It kept a lid on dissent and was involved in rigging elections to ensure ruling party victories. It and other domestic security agencies had a powerful grip on Egyptian society, overseeing the media and determining who filled positions ranging from university presidents to heads of state industries.

Hatred of the agency was a main motivator for protesters in the uprising that toppled Mubarak. After Mubarak's fall, protesters in March 2011 ransacked its headquarters as troops stood by and watched, following reports that some security agents were burning or shredding documents. The post-Mubarak government renamed the agency as the National Security Agency and forced a number of its senior officers into retirement, but it was never dismantled or reformed.

Since Morsi's fall, at least a hundred of the sacked senior officers have returned, other security officials said. And pro-government media is demonizing secular activists amid signs that authorities are laying the groundwork for prosecuting them for organizing the storming of agency headquarters in 2011.

A TV presenter, Abdel-Rehim Ali, has been airing a string of alleged recordings of the activists, purporting to expose them as "traitors" who undermined security. In one show, he played activists' phone conversations during the storming of the agency in which they are heard asking each other if they found their own files. He did not reveal the recordings' source, but there is little doubt they came from security officials monitoring activists.

"They are destroying Egypt's security agency — not Israel's — just to get their own files," he shouted. "We are still suffering to this day from the destruction of this agency."

The message is boosted by a wave of pro-military nationalism since the popularly backed coup and by public fear of the campaign of militant bombings and attacks, which have spread from the Sinai Peninsula to other parts of the country since Morsi's fall.

The officials from the National Security Agency say it has to rebuild so it can face the militant threat. The agency lacks information on new militant elements that sprung up, particularly in Sinai, they said. Many of its traditional informants in universities and Sinai are gone, and officers' movements are hampered because they fear for their lives after attacks targeting them. A senior officer in charge of following militant activities was assassinated in November, fueling fears within the agency of internal leaks.

The National Security Agency hotline was first set up in November, joining an existing military hotline. A separate Interior Ministry hotline also exists. The officials said it has been effective in gathering information about suspicious groups and that a number of bombs were defused after calls to authorities over unusual objects.

Traffic on the hotlines increases threefold after an attack, they said. Following the December bombing of the police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, people called in to report local members of the Brotherhood who were not known to authorities. One report led to the arrest of a junior Brotherhood member at the airport as he tried to leave the country. He was later released.

Workers at charities have also called the hotline to claim links between their own colleagues and the Brotherhood, which runs a broad network of social organizations, one official said, adding that calls implicating secular activists and their ties to foreign groups have also picked up.

Mohammed Mahfouz, a former police officer who campaigns for reforms in the security agencies, said that a hotline is a "necessity" at a time of militant attacks and limited intelligence.

But the problem is that the National Security Agency and other security bodies remain unreformed, he said. No specific law regulates the agency's workings, making it largely unaccountable.

"You can expect anything" from it, he said. "We have seen how it was turned before into an agency that protects the regime, not the people."

Wael Abbas, a prominent activist, said the agency remains a force above the law.

"It is a corrupt agency that we asked to dissolve, but regrettably it has only changed names," Abbas said. "It is now more vicious than before."