Approaches to security vary in different parts of the world. In the USA, the levels of security for doors and locks are below those in Europe. This is probably attributable to easy access to guns. In the US, robbers are more likely to be armed; secure locks won’t block automatic weapons.
The approach to safety also differs; where the British have firemen who seek to contain fires from the outside inwards, the Americans have firefighters who storm into the fires with flame retardant clothing and breathing apparatus. The high death toll amongst American firefighters from 9/11 and nearly annual tragedies from forest fires are a consequence of this American doctrine. In another contrast, the American policing doctrine of remaining apart from the threat while ordering “Get out of the vehicle, put your hands on your head, or I blow you to pieces” often results in unnecessary deaths. These opposing approaches have historic and cultural roots which change over time.
Similarly, in Egypt we can observe certain practices and contrast them with approaches from different parts of the world. I will focus on the following key points that can be seen in the Egyptian approach to security and safety: rotations, shift structure, crowd concentration and safety overrides.
The Egyptian practices may have served Egypt well in the past but the nature of the present environment and threats highlights a dire need for change.
Egyptian security agencies tend to rotate their officers across different provinces and assignments. An officer in charge of the passport office in Aswan may be transferred to combating crime in Alexandria. Another who is in charge of airport screening in Assiut may rotate into checkpoints in Sinai.
There are historic advantages in a security force familiar with different parts of the country and different roles. In contrast, in the UK, for example, airports rely on private specialist aviation security firms and, in the US post 9/11, a dedicated governmental agency for securing airports was established.
The nature of threats today has made specialist security personnel vital. In the USA and UK, those responsible for screening passengers are different from those responsible for the arrivals passport control. These are different careers, not just temporary assignments. The technology and training used to support these two groups are different since one screens for imminent threats while the other looks for future threats.
From Hong Kong and Japan to Germany, Switzerland and across Middle Eastern countries such as UAE and Jordan, I cannot recall ever seeing a guard on duty at an airport or road checkpoint drinking tea, smoking or holding a personal mobile phone. Yet, this is normal practice that is observed routinely in Egypt.
The issue is the length of a shift with no breaks and the absence of supervision. It is impossible to fault a an officer or a security guard losing concentration when assigned a full eight or twelve hour shift. These are critical roles that often combine surveillance, screening, and response or intervention.
Perhaps as matter of doctrine, Egyptian security often relies on creating funnels, whether at road checkpoints, metro stations, or entrances to buildings or airports. These funnels create large crowds and these crowds make it harder to observe the threat through automatic means such as video analytics or trained specialists.
It is extremely difficult to detect suspicious behavior or threatening objects in overcrowded areas. Terminal 3 at Cairo Airport has multiple doors, yet only one or two are ever in use. These bottlenecks present an added security threat both to the operatives and to the public, for they could allow a hidden approach to the checkpoint with explosives or weapons. Japan and Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, have vehicular checkpoints for cars approaching major airports, yet both avoid creating funnels by having multiple tollgate like checkpoints and keeping the number of lanes unchanged.
A significant investment in large modern facilities goes into safety. There are systems to detect and extinguish fires, control spread of smoke, and to facilitate egress of people in emergencies. The number of exits is often based on analysis of projected use.
At Tahrir Square, in the very heart of Cairo, stand two examples of how safety can be set aside to create funnels as described above. Many of the doors to the Sadat Metro station are permanently locked and barricaded. Entrance to this extremely busy station is limited to a few crowded points, where security operatives, on long shifts, screen commuters. Should an emergency actually occur in the station, the result could be tragic as many exits lead to dead ends.
Tahrir Garage, a modern underground parking, has the same problem. Many of the fire exits are locked and can’t be opened from inside. These real examples of limiting entry points show how crowd concentrations result in the override of safety while not improving security.
The evolution of the type and size of buildings and of the threats in Egypt, like elsewhere, requires the authorities to deal with security, safety and crisis management in new ways. This is an urgent matter for the sake of protecting the security personnel as well as the general public.
Appreciation of the new types of threats, such as suicide bombing, requires a new security doctrine that abandons the deliberate creation of congestion and crowd concentration in favor of the exact opposite. Since Egypt already invests in modern security and technologically advanced systems, it is critical that the human element is addressed. Specialization, training and monitoring of the officers and their personnel are of paramount importance.
Finally, safety should not and need not be compromised to enhance security. With modern structures and present day threats, the consequences for marginalizing safety could be catastrophic.
This article was originally published on Ahram Online.