A “limited change” is how Egypt’s Interior Ministry described the reshuffle of some of its senior posts that was ordered by the head of ministry Magdy Abdel Ghaffar on Saturday. It was a move that a top security official told state news agency MENA was meant to “improve security performance.”
The expression “limited change” may be more accurate, however, in describing the background of the officers targeted in the reshuffle, more than the magnitude of the reshuffle.
What is worth noting in the changes is that neither the ministry, nor the official that spoke to MENA linked the reshuffle to the October 20 attack on police forces along the Wahat Road, 135 km outside Giza, despite how close the two events were in time and that Saturday’s surprise reorganization in the Interior Ministry’s upper ranks took place only three months after the ministry’s annual reshuffle.
Further, two of the posts that were targeted in the reshuffle, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the head of the Central Security Forces (CSF)’s Special Operations unit, oversee Interior Ministry departments whose members died in the Wahat Road attack.
The 11-man reshuffle also included the NSA head and the agency’s Giza security director, the governorate where the attack was carried out.
Security sources talking to the media following the attack said the Inspection and Censorship Sector — an oversight body internal to the Interior Ministry — the NSA, the CSF and the General Security department launched a joint investigation into the shortcomings of the operation that was ambushed along the Wahat Road. The investigations were said to include questioning the operations’ guides, as well as an assessment of the efficiency of wireless communications used during the mission, which were down, a source had told Mada Masr.
A general in the police forces that spoke to Masr Masr on condition of anonymity says that he believes “firing the interior minister himself should have been a priority, instead of using the deceased police officers’ supervisors as scapegoats.” This is a sentiment, he adds, that is widely held among the police force.
The general says that the attack stirred anger among officers and ministry staff, to the extent that the source believes the anger will impact the morale of police officers who will take part in the ministry’s upcoming missions against militants.
The general’s allotment of accountability is not universal, however. Former Interior Ministry officials believe the operation was not a failed raid, while they concede that a degree of impulsiveness was at play, and that the reshuffle signifies recognition of a security lapse.
Major General Gamal Abou Zekry, a former senior NSA officer and a deputy interior minister, attributes the failure of the operation to the compromised medium in which security must operate.
“In the final evaluation of the situation, we must look at what happens in the field, not [what] theoretically [could have happened],” he tells Mada Masr. “It’s impossible to get intelligence saying there is a terrorist plan and wait two days to be able to coordinate with other agencies so that a helicopter can escort the forces. What happened is that the officers were impulsive in their effort to thwart the terrorists, which is what happened. But to discuss shortcomings? No, there weren’t any. These officers didn’t take part in the operation to die. They were just impulsive.”
According to Major General Mohamed Sadek, a former NSA officer who held the position of deputy head for years, the reconnaissance mission undertaken prior to the Wahat Road operation did not set off alarm bells.
“The Air Force conducted reconnaissance trips on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the attack, the results of which were negative,” he says.
Sadek says that the forces deployed to the Wahat Road on October 20 were continuing this reconnaissance mission, a drastically different task than the clashes with “armed elements” that ensued.
“In the end, the aerial reconnaissance wasn’t enough. These elements can dig in the desert and camouflage themselves or hide in already existing caves,” he says.
In fact, the reconnaissance preparation may have been the factor that tipped off militants and allowed them to prepare for an ambush, according to Sadek.
“We can surmise that the aerial scouting alerted these elements that an operation was underway,” he says. “Militants could locate security forces from a distance of five kilometers. All of this must be taken into consideration when evaluating their performance.”
Sadek believes that, in general, the officers conducting the mission were motivated by the prospect of foiling a militant operation, prompting impulsive decision making.
“This is a natural reaction that anyone who works in the field knows,” Sadek says.
The former officer also says it was difficult for backup forces, who arrived after sunset on Saturday, to be effective, due to low visibility. They were cautious when approaching the scene, fearful of mines planted by militants.
The general in the police force gave fewer justifications. “In the end, our colleagues were surrounded for hours, without aerial cover. They were cut off from supporting forces. And for hours, the officers couldn’t communicate with the operations room,” he says. “The Interior Ministry’s plan should have ensured that enough personnel were present [at the scene] to be able to face these militants.”
“Reconnaissance didn’t identify such a large number of militants armed to this degree. The forces traveled to the location of the attack with the intention of collecting evidence and leads, and the mission ended without the arrest of any of the terrorists or seizing any of their weapons. In truth, responsibility for what happened lies first and foremost with the interior minister.”
According to the Interior Ministry’s count, 16 police officers were killed in the Wahat Road attack. However, several media outlets who cited anonymous security officials in the absence of an official statement put the figure at 53. The high casualty count has raised questions regarding the performance of security forces, especially the intelligence services, whether in relation to reconnaissance, or in relation to evaluating information gathered from the ministry’s sources and guides.
While Saturday’s reshuffle seemed to enforce accountability on the upper ranks of the security hierarchy, there was also been talk that the casualty figures in the Wahat attack were attributable to shortfalls in the competence of police regiments.
As part of the reshuffle, Major General Mahmoud Shaarawy was removed from his position as head of the NSA and appointed head of the Directorate of Port Security. Shaarawy was replaced by Major General Mahmoud Tawfiq, who was Shaarawy’s deputy at the NSA.
The now cast aside NSA head had held this role since December 2015, and was himself the deputy head of the NSA before taking the helm of Egypt’s primary security body.
The reshuffle also saw Major General Ibrahim Masry demoted from his position as director of Giza’s NSA department to a managerial position in the CSF.
The reshuffle also saw Special Operations head at the CSF, Major General Magdy Aboul Kheir, removed from his post, to be transferred to a managerial position inside the ministry’s training department.
Another six officers were rotated in positions of differing seniority and function:
Major General Hesham al-Iraqi was removed from his post as Giza’s security director and assigned to become assistant minister for the Documents Sector.
Iraqi was appointed as Giza’s security director in July 2016, two months after he was awarded the Medal of Excellence First Class from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his performance as the head of Cairo’s General Department for Criminal Investigation.
Major General Tarek Attia was removed as head of the Documents Sector and assigned to take up the position of assistant minister for the Eastern Delta Zone.
Attia was appointed as head of the Documents Sector in July 2017, after holding the position of assistant minister for media and public relations. Attia has worked in the NSA for over 30 years, and exited the ministry before retirement in a restructuring under former President Mohamed Morsi which many considered to be a forced retiring. However, he appealed the directive issued by Morsi-era Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy and returned to the ministry following an administrative court ruling in 2015.
Major General Gamal Sultan Mahanna was removed from his post as assistant minister for the Eastern Delta Zone and assigned to take up the role of assistant minister for the Security and Protection Sector.
Major General Hossam Nasr was removed from his post as assistant minister for the Security and Protection Sector and assigned to become assistant minister for human rights.
A veteran of the NSA, Nasr reached a top position in the agency before being transferred in December 2015 to the ministry’s Port Authority. In a February reshuffle, he was transferred to the Security and Protection Sector.
Major General Abdel-Hamid Youssef was removed from his post as assistant minister for human rights and assigned to take up the role of assistant minister for the Personnel Sector.
Youssef has also climbed the ranks from within the NSA and was appointed by the president in the Human Rights department in February.
Major General Essam Saad was removed from his post as assistant minister for the Personnel Sector and assigned to head Giza’s security directorate.
Saad was appointed head of the Personnel Sector in July’s reshuffle. He started out in the criminal investigations unit in the General Security Department. He later became head of Cairo’s Criminal Investigations. After being on the committee to repatriate illicit funds after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, he was appointed head of the General Department of Public Funds Investigations.
The final person caught up in Saturday’s reshuffle is Major General Fahmy Megahed, who was not part of the closed circle in which the other six officials rotated titles. He was removed from his post as the deputy head of the Directorate of Port Security and assigned to take up the role of deputy head of the economic security department.
Megahed was appointed as deputy head of the Directorate of Port Security in July. In December 2015, he was appointed assistant minister for the General Directorate of Cairo Airport Police. He served in the NSA for years, climbing up through the ranks, until he was appointed head of a general administration within the agency.
In March, Sisi visited the NSA headquarters and expressed his appreciation and respect for its efforts to protect the state. The visit was conducted on the anniversary of the 2011 storming of the headquarters of the State Security Investigation Services, the security body that was disbanded and reformed as the NSA. He was accompanied by Shaarawy on that visit, who was transferred to the Directorate of Port Security on Saturday.
Abdel Ghaffar, who was appointed interior minister in March 2015, served as the NSA head for a little over a year. The NSA is regarded as one of the most prominent departments in the Interior Ministry and its officers some of the best trained and most efficient.
Abdel Ghaffar’s tenure as minister has been marked by a number of militant operations that targeted police officers, security buildings, churches and civilians.
The most prominent of these is the assassination of prosecutor general Hesham Barakat in June 2015, only three months after Abdel Ghaffar’s appointment. The October 2015 attack that downed a Russian plane over Sinai, killing all 224 on board, also took place under his leadership.The attack on the St. Peter and St. Paul Church near Cairo’s Abbaseyya Cathedral in December 2016 which killed 29 and injured 49 others also took place during the minister’s time in office, as did the April 2015 twin bombing that hit churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, and killed more than 45 and injured 126.
Abdel Ghaffar’s tenure also saw the launch of militant groups Lewaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Hassm (determination), who claimed responsibility for killing senior military Brigadier General Adel Ragaie, as well as an assassination attempt on Egypt’s former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and another targeting Assistant Prosecutor General Zakareya Abdel-Aziz.
Translation by Osman El Sharnoubi