- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt‘s interior minister on Tuesday dissolved the country’s widely hated state security agency, which was accused of torture and other human rights abuses in the suppression of dissent against ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule.

The new interior minister, Maj. Gen. Mansour el-Essawy, a former Cairo security chief, said in a statement that a new agency in charge of keeping national security and combatting terrorism will be formed.

Dismantling the State Security Investigations agency was a major demand of the protest movement that led an 18-day uprising to oust Mr. Mubarak. Since he stepped down Feb. 11, Egyptians have stormed the agency’s main headquarters and other offices, seizing documents to keep them from being destroyed to hide evidence of human rights abuses.

Many protest leaders have said that despite the fall of Mr. Mubarak and his government, the agency remained active in protecting the old regime and trying to sabotage the democratic transition.

Islam Lotfi, a leading youth activist, called it an “excellent move” but one that should be followed by other steps to restore the Egyptian people’s sense of trust and security.

Mr. Lotfi said dissolving the agency was just one of the demands of the protest movement.

“We want to see public trials for all those accused of torturing or abusing Egyptians, and the Interior Ministry should compensate all those who suffered at the hands of this agency,” he said. He added that the Interior Ministry should ensure all state security documents are preserved.

Visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, was pressing Egypt‘s transitional leaders Tuesday to follow through on pledges for democratic reform and, in particular, to ensure respect for human rights.

The security agency being dismantled had a free hand under emergency laws issued by Mr. Mubarak to suppress dissent and was one of the most powerful symbols of his regime. State Security was notorious among Egyptians for its arrests — and abuse of activists — and also was involved in closely monitoring media and tracking and disrupting almost any political activities not condoned by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s order to dismantle the much-feared KGB after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, hoping to show that the decades when the secret police penetrated every facet of life had ended. The monolithic agency was broken up into several agencies, led by its main successor, the Federal Security Service.

Russian protesters didn’t storm the agency’s massive headquarters in Moscow, but angry citizens of East Germany and Romania did storm their countries’ secret-police offices after communism fell.

In his statement, the interior minister said the agency’s branches and offices all over Egypt would be dissolved and replaced with a new National Security agency tasked with maintaining security inside the country and combatting terrorism “in line with the constitution and principles of human rights.”

It said officers for the new agency would be chosen in the coming few days. It also added that the new agency will “serve the country without intervening in the lives of citizens while they practice their rights and political life.”

Figuring out what to do with Egypt‘s tainted security agencies has been one of the most contentious issues facing the military rulers who took charge after Mr. Mubarak was forced to step down.

“As much as we are happy that State Security is now dissolved, National Security, the new entity, must be under real judicial supervision,” tweeted Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who worked on a Facebook page that rallied hundreds of thousands of Egyptians behind the protests.

In a sign of ongoing chaos, 30 suspects in a detention center in the Nile Delta city of Belbeis escaped Tuesday, apparently assisted by relatives and armed men.

Security officials said the suspects were being moved to another prison when thugs wielding guns and swords began firing in the air to create chaos. Then the suspects broke out of their cells and escaped into waiting vehicles.

Some 25,000 prisoners, including hardened criminals and drug barons, escaped from prisons during the popular uprising. About 13,000 have been recaptured or have surrendered voluntarily.

Attacks on police stations freed another 25,000 suspects, most of whom remain at large, according to security officials.