Monday, March 7, 2011

A New Accountability in Egypt?

Answering the Public, Egypt Names a New Cabinet

By Nei MacFarquhar and Mona al-Naggar
The New York Times
March 6, 2011

CAIRO — Egypt’s interim prime minister appointed a new caretaker cabinet on Sunday, answering a public demand to eliminate most ministers with links to former President Hosni Mubarak, even as protesters nationwide continued to try to storm the offices of hated institutions.

Egyptians were riveted by a trove of secret police documents seized while protesters rampaged through a central office of the state security organization on Saturday night, which began popping up on Facebook.

Reports that the state security police were burning and shredding incriminating documents led to the rampage on Saturday, as well as a protest at the Interior Ministry on Sunday. After several hours, plainclothes police officers dispersed hundreds of protesters with sticks, knives and rocks, while soldiers fired into the air, sending echoes of gunfire through downtown Cairo for the first time in weeks.

The reviled plainclothes security police officers were last seen in force trying to violently suppress the protests that led to the ouster of Mr. Mubarak on Feb. 11, and their re-emergence on Sunday created new tension.

The army, which has been running the country since Mr. Mubarak’s departure, had apologized for previous outbursts of violence by the security forces, but its use of them on Sunday showed signs of impatience with repeated demonstrations despite constant pleas for patience and calm.

The demonstration ended Sunday with a compromise: 10 of the protesters could enter the building to confirm that the secret police were not destroying documents.

The military government reacted sharply to the sacking of the secret police headquarters, issuing a statement demanding that citizens return the purloined files and refrain from publishing and circulating them.

But the documents posted on the Internet, whose authenticity could not be immediately confirmed, created a sensation.

Packaged like WikiLeaks, but under the banner “State Security Leaks,” many of the documents were burned around the edges, suggesting that reports of document burning may have been accurate.

Some were embarrassing for public figures, suggesting, for example, that a famous newspaper editor had bought a heavily discounted mansion from a corrupt politician later convicted of murder.

Others revealed efforts by state security to rein in a popular television host, Mona el-Shazly, and to defame Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who became an opposition leader.

The file on Ms. Shazly, the most influential late-night television host in Egypt, accused her of harboring the socialist sympathies that had landed her father in jail and “made her adopt an incendiary approach in discussing issues related to the Ministry of the Interior.”

The report called her talk show “imbalanced” and said that she had to be warned by state security that she “has gone beyond her limits.”

Ms. Shazly reacted with outrage and demanded an investigation into the files. “This way of dealing with citizens was enough to destroy not only the state security service, but also the state itself,” she said on her show on Sunday.

The file on Mr. ElBaradei, who was considered a possible presidential candidate, noted an e-mail “from somebody named Wael Ghonim (being investigated now)” offering to set up a Web site for him. As is well known now, Mr. Ghonim was the Google executive behind some of the main Internet activity that led to the government’s fall. He was arrested and then released during the 18-day rebellion.

The new cabinet nominated by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf includes Nabil Elaraby, a respected former United Nations ambassador and former judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, who will be foreign minister. He replaces Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who had held the post since 2004 and was widely disliked by the Tahrir Square protesters after he reportedly described them as “thugs” in a cabinet meeting.

At a democracy forum last Friday, Mr. Elaraby detailed a list of problems that plague the Egyptian government, including a lack of separation of powers, a lack of transparency and a lack of judicial independence.

Mr. Mubarak had often pursued a foreign policy, in particular in critical areas like Israel and the Arab world, based on his personal preferences. Foreign policy should be based on Egypt’s interests, Mr. Elaraby said, including “holding Israel accountable when it does not respect its obligations.”

He described Egypt as passing through a “dangerous phase” in the current constitutional vacuum.

“The transition period will not resolve these issues,” Mr. Elaraby said. “But what it can do is prepare us to be in a position and a place from which we can move forward.”

Two other major figures in the new cabinet are the ministers of the interior, Mansour el-Essawy, and justice, Mohamed Abdelaziz el-Gendy.

Mr. Essawy, considered the rare high official who previously resisted government pressure over sweetheart land deals, said he was eager to fix the tarnished image of the police by focusing the state security apparatus on threats like terrorism. A main demand of the protesters, who have again established an encampment on Tahrir Square, is that the secret police be disbanded.

At least four of the new cabinet ministers, including Mr. Elaraby, were proposed by the coalition of youth groups behind the protests, members said.

“All the repulsive faces are gone from the cabinet,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. The new ministers, he said, “are not associated with corruption and do not have a bad reputation.”

There was some objection, however, to the decision to retain Gen. Sayyid Meshaal as minister of military production, which oversees military-owned factories. His reappointment has fueled speculation that the military council was protecting its own.

Liam Stack contributed reporting.

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