On the eve of the infamous “Battle of the Camel” on 2 February last year, Hosni Mubarak gave an emotionally-charged speech, recounting his love for Egypt and pledging not to run for another presidential term.
The next morning, however, paid thugs stormed Tahrir Square on camels and horses, killing and injuring protesters — and launching a day of violent attacks on the sit-in that eventually toppled the president. Living in a building located only a few blocks away from the presidential palace, we heard a loud cry on the street following the speech.
“I want to meet the president. I want to apologize to the president,” were the words we could decipher from our balcony. A gentleman whom we later identified as a resident of the building opposite ours was pleading with the presidential guard to let him meet the president. The scene was hysterical, and amid the craziness of the first few days of the revolution, the neighbors started to wonder if this gentleman had lost his mind.
We soon realized that the man was our old schoolmate’s father, and we learned for the first time that night that he was an intelligence officer. He was apparently laid off in the days following 25 January, along with many of his colleagues in the intelligence corps, for their “failure to contain the revolution” — or at least this was the narrative of the popular committee made up of our esteemed neighbors who camped under our building for 18 days.
More than a year later, some of the same neighbors hung the posters of former spy chief Omar Suleiman on their balconies when he was running for president.
Suleiman’s sudden death a couple of weeks ago, which was not rumor-free, instigated at least two types of reactions. As columnist Wael Abdel Fattah puts it, loyal citizens launched a campaign of honoring the dead and cautioned against ridiculing Suleiman after his passage to the afterlife. Others, in an equally passive reaction, breathed a sigh of relief that this man had disappeared from their lives by divine intervention and unconsciously decided to hush the matter, lest his ghost return.
But in the middle, one saw little interest in public discourse about the intricate life of the man and his institution, which represent the depth of the Egyptian state in its modern iteration. As Abdel Fattah asks, how can Suleiman’s death just pass us by?
In an attempt to not let Suleiman’s death just pass us by, and out of thirst for information about how the Egyptian state has been functioning for the past decades, I will recollect an informal discussion hosted by Egypt Independent earlier this year, where a few of our columnists discussed Owen Sirrs’ “A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service,” a book that is not available in Egypt. Sirrs attempts to trace the history of the intelligence service from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Mubarak. The task is ambitious, especially given the scarcity of primary sources.
The most interesting aspects of the book discussion were on what it lacked. As Amr Abdelrahman, political scientist and one of our columnists, remarked, the book is silent on the internal structure of the intelligence service, which should be a crucial part of any institutional history.
Yet from informal sources, we know that the General Intelligence Services is composed of at least three major bodies. The first is the external affairs committee, which operates as a shadow foreign ministry; an espionage division, which we know nothing about aside from the propaganda we absorbed from television dramas claiming to be based on real stories and some memoirs; and finally the National Security Authority, which serves as the gatekeeper of the state’s ideology, shaping public perceptions on national security, foreign threats and other issues.
The work of the National Security Authority is particularly important if we are to understand how the state has tampered with public perceptions of the 25 January revolution.
Abdelrahman illuminates for us the fact that the underpinning ideology of the intelligence services was based on identifying and curbing a number of threats: colonialism, Zionism, communism and Islamism. In propagating its discourse on national security, the institution primarily referred to the CIA in the US, which was instrumental in shaping Egyptian intelligence — specifically after 1959, when Salah Nasr, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, dominated the scene.
The intelligence services copied the anti-communist propaganda from CIA manuals and broadcasted them over the Sawt al-Arab radio station. When it came to Zionism, they referred to the Nazi propaganda against Jews. In doing so, Egyptian intelligence was based on copying the conservative, right-wing Western model based on curbing a specific perceived threat. This modus operandi seems to continue to this day.
Therefore, it should not be surprising at all that the stamina of the counter-revolution has depended on intelligence, which used tactics that span media to thuggery and other tools commonly referred to as aspects of a deep state, to frame Egypt’s uprising as being instigated by foreigners, communists, anarchists and Islamists.
Speaking of Islamists, however, our discussion of the book ended with a puzzling question: How will the Brotherhood, specifically with Mohamed Morsy’s presidency, deal with a security apparatus that sees political Islam as a national threat? Will the coming days reveal the Brotherhood’s attempts to subvert the intelligence sector? Will it manage to penetrate it?
The answers remain unclear, especially given the Brotherhood’s own tradition of secrecy. But the way Morsy will deal with the security apparatus, specifically the intelligence services, will surely be among the most difficult tests for the Brotherhood in government.
Dina K. Hussein is the opinion editor at Egypt Independent.
This article was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.