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General Magdy Abdel Ghaffar was a little-known name in Egypt until his appointment as interior minister on 5 March 2015 thrust him into the spotlight. His appointment followed a surprise cabinet reshuffle that saw the removal of the previous interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, who had been widely criticized by human rights groups and activists.
However, activists fear that this ministry shake-up does not signal an easing of the crackdown on Islamists or secular protesters, since Abdel Ghaffar has a long security background. Born in 1953, he followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from the Police Academy in the mid-1970s. Within a couple of years, he had been offered a job in the notorious State Security Investigation Services (SSIS), a powerful branch of the police that was regularly accused of human rights violations. He remained there for 31 years, rising through the ranks before being reassigned in 2008 to head the Ports Authority.
Following the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, a public outcry against the SSIS led to then Prime Minister Essam Sharaf replacing it with the newly formed National Security Agency (NSA). Abdel Ghaffar served as deputy head and then head of the agency, and finally interior minister’s aide.
In a rare television appearance in 2011, he said: “We admit there were wrong practices and violations under the previous regime….there were increasing infringements of freedoms and practices that went against the law.” He went on to stress that there would be no human rights abuses under the NSA and distanced it from SSIS practices, such as illegal phone tapping and torture.
He remained in this position until August 2012 when he was officially retired. In leaked audio recordings, then President Mohamed Morsi can be heard saying that he had refused to renew Abdel Ghaffar’s post, opting instead to bring in “young people and new faces”.
Back to the Forefront
Following his retirement, Abdel Ghaffar disappeared from public view for most of Morsi’s year-long reign and the popularly-backed coup that removed the president from power in July 2013. He came back strongly, however, when the cabinet reshuffle by current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on 5 March removed seven ministers and landed him the police force’s top job.
Only a day after being sworn in, Abdel Ghaffar initiated his own reshuffle, raising speculation that he was tightening his grip by removing influential officers from senior positions and placing them in less powerful roles. The speed at which he did so suggests that he knew of his appointment well in advance.
A total of 22 security officials were replaced, including the assistant minister for the general security department and the heads of security in the Cairo, Giza, Assiut, Qena and Gharbeya governorates, all of which have seen a growing number of militant attacks in recent months. Significantly, he also replaced the assistant minister for the national security division and the assistant minister for the Sinai region, the northern part of which is a hotbed of Islamist insurgency. One of his new assignees, the head of the Prisons Authority, Hassan al-Sohagy, was head of Aswan’s security directorate during tense tribal clashes that left over two dozen dead.
While little else is known about Abdel Ghaffar, his appointment has been met with mixed reactions across the country. On the one hand, many are happy to see a high-ranking figure from the disbanded SSIS take up the ministry’s mantle, and hope this will empower the ministry to improve the security situation, which had been deteriorating under Mohamed Ibrahim despite claims to the contrary. Some reports say that during his time at the SSIS, Abdel Ghaffar also oversaw the services’ religious extremism unit, gaining insight into the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, which is seen as another attribute in his favour.
Human rights groups and activists, however, are worried that his appointment will mean further erosion of freedoms and the gains they made following the 25 January revolution. They cite concerns that his background in the SSIS will see a return to the organization’s past practices and an increasing crackdown on political dissidents.