One of the main narratives emerging in coverage of the violence that plagued Egypt’s popular uprising on Wednesday and Thursday is that the Interior Ministry is primarily responsible, as seen for example in the CNN video here. We heard from Al Jazeera English on Thursday that Egypt’s attorney general has banned former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly from leaving the country and has frozen his assets. In this post, I provide some background on the Interior Ministry and how its 1.4 million employees are deployed. But one should not assume that the Interior Ministry is the only other problem once Mubarak is gone. As Jane Mayer has pointed out in detail, Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is now being openly discussed by the US government as the leader of a potential interim government should Mubarak step down, has been the primary conduit for CIA renditions to Egypt for torture.

Here is the description of the actions taken by the attorney general against Habib al-Adly in addition to his being banned from leaving the country:

An Al Jazeera correspondent, reporting from Egypt, said al-Adly is also being interrogated for his decision to order police off the streets, and whether any security forces were involved in clashes between pro-democracy protesters and Mubarak loyalists that are continuing to rage in Cairo.

The police melted away last Friday after tens of thousands took to the streets demanding Mubarak’s ouster. What followed was days of lawlessness and on Wednesday, clashes broke out in Tahrir Square of Cairo after Mubarak loyalists attacked pro-democracy protesters.

The protesters say police in plain-clothes were among the attackers.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry is a huge operation and is even much bigger than the military:

The armed forces are eclipsed numerically by the internal security forces under Interior Minister Habib el-Adli, 72. These have grown since the failed Islamist revolt of the 1990s into a vast force of 1.4 million, say U.S. diplomats in leaked cables.

That’s right. The Interior Ministry, which includes the “riot police” who were blamed for the violence last week, has 1.4 million employees. Remarkably, as of the time of writing this post, the English version of the Interior Ministry’s website was still up and still reflected al-Adly as in charge.

Here is how the ministry describes its duties and their authorization:

First: The Constitution;

“Article No. (184) of the Egyptian Constitution specified the nature and competences of Police Authority as it stipulated that: “Police are a civilian, disciplinary authority, the supreme commander of which is the President of the Republic. Police perform their duties in service of the people; grant citizens tranquility and security and endeavor to preserve order, public security and morals. They perform whatever duties stipulated for by laws and regulations and all their mentioned tasks should be carried out in the manner provided for by law.”

Second: The Law;

“Law No. (109) of 1971, was based upon the general constitutional framework. It affirmed in its first article that:” Police are a civilian, disciplinary authority affiliated to the Ministry of Interior and the supreme commander of which is the President of the Republic. It performs its functions and competences under the leadership of the Interior Minister who issues all the decisions regulating its affairs and work systems.”

“Article 1 (2) of Police Authority Law provides that:” Interior Ministry is divided into major and regional sectors formed by virtue of a decision issued by the Minister of Interior. Each sector is headed by a First Assistant/ Assistant to the Minister. The sector president might by aided by one (or more) vice-president to act on his behalf when absent. Competences of the sector vice- president(s) are detailed by virtue of a decision issued by the Minister of Interior”.

The ministry dates back to the 19th Century. Here is its description of its founding in 1857:

Interior Ministry was entitled to:

(Implement the decisions taken by “Decisions Council” – health related matters – public engineering works – the governorate headquarters – Suez Canal works – management of Shoubra stable – the official print house – Royal Offices “which implied Civil Schools”- The Royal Hospital).

Police Authority:

Police Authority is divided into major and regional sectors formed by virtue of a decision issued by the Minister of Interior. Each sector is headed by a First Assistant/ Assistant to the Minister. The sector president might by assisted with one (or more) vice- president to act on his behalf when absent. Competences of the sector vice- president are detailed by virtue of a decision issued by the Minister of Interior. (Article 1, Police Authority Law, No. (109) of 1971; as amended).

General Mandate:

Police Authority is entitled to preserve public order, security and morals; protect lives, honors and properties as well as to prevent crimes and seize criminals. It is also responsible for availing tranquility and security for all citizens in all fields, and for performing all the duties stipulated by laws and regulations. (Article 3, Police Authority Law, No. (109) of 1971; as amended).

An organizational chart is provided to show how this massive bureaucracy is organized (the chart can be enlarged for ease of reading at the ministry’s website or by clicking on the image here and using a browser function such as “ctrl +” to enlarge):

As can be seen in the chart, what would be considered local police units in the US fall into this one huge organization reporting to the Interior Minister. I don’t see in this chart where anything like the “public engineering works” or “official print house” mentioned in the historical description show up, so it appears that the entire ministry now is devoted to policing. If anyone can find verification of other functions within the Ministry, please provide that in comments.

The “police” forces are more than three times the number of active military personnel, or about one in every 58 citizens in the country. The Interior Ministry forces are rightly seen as playing a key role in how the uprising will resolve. (It is interesting, however, to see that this source on Egyptian military strength shows 450,000 on active duty, 254,00 as “active military reserve” and another 405,00 “active paramilitary units”. What is an active paramilitary unit in this context?)

Note also that besides being such a huge proportion of the population, the ministry relies heavily on informants. Here is a partial screen capture of their website, where it can be seen that the link for “Informs & Complaints” features prominently at the top of every page on their site:

There already is speculation that if and when the ministry falls and its documents are made public, there will be a lot of turmoil created when informants are identified, whether they informed freely or under duress, just as was seen in East Germany.

One should not presume from this analysis, however, that the Interior Ministry should be the only part of the Mubarak regime that should arouse concern. With the US now openly promoting a plan for Mubarak to step down immediately in favor of an interim government headed by Omar Suleiman, one should not lose sight of Suleiman’s history.

Jane Mayer describes in detail Suleiman’s key role in CIA renditions to Egypt for the express purpose of torture. The case of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi is especially important in this regard:

What happened to Libi in Egypt, while in the custody of the Egyptian intelligence service, is documented in detail in a bipartisan report released in 2006 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. According to the report, Libi later told the C.I.A. that the Egyptian authorities grew dissatisfied with his level of cooperation, so they locked him in a tiny cage for eighty hours. Then they took him out, knocked him over, and punched him for fifteen minutes. The Egyptian officials were pressing Libi, who knew Bin Laden personally, to confirm the Bush Administration’s contention that there were links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In particular, the Egyptians wanted Libi to confirm that the Iraqis were in the process of giving Al Qaeda biological and chemical weapons. In pushing this line of inquiry, the Egyptians appear to have been acting in accordance with the wishes of the U.S., which wanted to document its case for going to war against Iraq. Under duress, Libi eventually gave in. Details from his confession went into the pivotal speech that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Nations in Feburary of 2003, making the case for war.

Several years later, however, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq turned up no such weapons of mass destruction, or ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Libi recanted. When the F.B.I. later asked him why he had lied, he blamed the brutality of the Egyptian intelligence service. As Michael Isikoff and David Corn first reported in their book, “Hubris,” Libi explained, “They were killing me,” and that, “I had to tell them something.”

Is the US promoting Suleiman as the interim leader of Egypt in order to prevent his secret files being made public?