CAIRO — Three weeks after President Hosni Mubarak's ouster, Egyptians are turning their anger toward his internal security apparatus, storming the agency's main headquarters and other offices Saturday and seizing documents to keep them from being destroyed to hide evidence of human rights abuses.
What to do with Egypt's tainted security agencies remains one of the most contentious issues facing the military rulers who took charge after Mubarak was forced to step down on Feb. 11 after an 18-day popular uprising.
The 500,000-strong internal security services are accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in the suppression of dissent against Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule. The protesters are demanding the agency be dismantled and its leaders face a reckoning.
The ruling military council's bind was evident on Friday and Saturday when thousands of protesters – including some people who said they were victims of abuse by security agents – marched on several state security buildings in Alexandria, Cairo and other cities.
Protesters stormed inside at least six of the buildings, including the agency's main headquarters in Cairo's northern Nasr City neighborhood, confronting officers face-to-face and attacking some in a surreal reversal of roles.
"We are inside, hundreds of us," Mohammed Abdel-Fattah, one of the protesters who barged into the Nasr City compound on Saturday, said in a telephone interview. "We are fetching documents and we are looking for detainees."
Cries of "Allahu akbar," or "God is great," could be heard in the background, as one of the protesters found a file with Mubarak's name on it.
Around 2,500 people swept into the compound, according to the state news agency.
Abdel-Fattah said they barged in from the back doors, and the military, which had cordoned off the building, couldn't stop them. They scoured the building for official documents, many of which were already shredded in huge piles in what they believe was an attempt to hide evidence incriminating senior officials in abuses.
Some also searched the building for secret detention rooms. Others prayed in the compound's mosque.
Army officers tried to get protesters out of the compound, but did not use force. One army officer rescued a State Security officer from the hands of angry protesters and ushered him into a tank.
Activists posted photos on social networking sites of some the purported finds from inside the buildings. They showed underground prison cells, burned documents, men sifting through files while sitting on piles of shredded paper, videos labeled as sex tapes and entire shelves of documents on Islamists. One man posed with a bazooka.
One blogger called it Egypt's "Bastille Day."
Egypt's State Security Services, which were given a free hand by emergency laws under Mubarak to suppress dissent, are some of the most powerful symbols of his regime. Many protest leaders say despite the fall of Mubarak and his government, the agency remains active in protecting the old regime and trying to sabotage the revolution.
The agency was the most pervasive security force, collecting intelligence on regime opponents and supporters alike, said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst.
"It was the planning brain behind everything during Mubarak's reign. ... Mubarak only trusted the State Security."
Hassan said after Mubarak's fall, the agency has continued to play the role of main provider of intelligence to the current military rulers of Egypt, who have no recent experience in running civil affairs.
"It seems that the agency has realized that the military council is being responsive to the demands of the revolutionaries, and may start to consider their calls" to dissolve the agency.
The military council has replaced the head of the agency, but it is not yet clear if it is considering restructuring it or redefining its mission as it charts Egypt's path toward a freer political system and an eventual return to civilian rule.
Hassan said it should be turned into a force to protect the people, and not be dissolved altogether.
"It must be an agency of state security, not regime security," he said.
Among the other buildings targeted by demonstrators Saturday, fire poured out of the agency's offices in the Nile Delta town of Sharqia, the north coast city of Matrouh and the oasis city of Fayoum south of the capital.
It was not clear if protesters set the fires or if they were started by security officers burning documents, said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Egypt's chief prosecutor ordered a team to recover and hold the seized documents and asked the military to take control of the main headquarters until an investigation is completed.
The targeting of the agency's buildings began Friday night in Alexandria. More than 1,000 people stormed the building there after officers opened fire on the crowd from inside. Four protesters were wounded and more than 20 security officers were badly beaten, witnesses and security officials said.
Kutb Hassanein, a protester in Alexandria, said most of those who stormed the building were activists who had been abused or detained by the State Security. He said the crowd also included many Islamists, who Mubarak considered his chief enemy.
"We all suffered and saw horrible torture at the hands of this agency," said Hassanein, himself detained several times in the same building near downtown Alexandria. "There is a huge desire to take revenge. But we would rather see them all put on trial."
Hassanein said the protesters saw lots of official documents shredded in those offices as well in an apparent attempt to hurriedly get rid of official records.
Mahmoud Salem, a blogger and one of the protesters at the Nasr City headquarters, called the storming Saturday Egypt's "Bastille Day." He said it showed the protesters remain willing to take matters into their own hands if their demands are not met.
"We are very nice people. But we are not going back. If someone tries to delay us, we will push," he said.
Meanwhile, the former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who was long in charge of those agencies and the regular police forces, appeared in court Saturday for the first time. He was forced out along with Mubarak and is facing charges of money laundering and abuse of authority.
El-Adly has been widely blamed for the deadly brutality used by riot police against demonstrators in massive protests that began Jan. 25.
Crowds numbering a few hundred, including families of more than 300 protesters killed in the uprising, waited for him outside the Cairo courthouse.
"The death sentence awaits you, el-Adly," they shouted. An effigy was hanging outside the courthouse with el-Adly's name stuck on it.
The former minister arrived in an armored car and wore a white prison jumpsuit. He denied the charges and told the court: "I am Habib el-Adly. I gave Egypt a lot, and I fought terrorism."
The next hearing is scheduled for April 2.