Sightings of the Egyptian Deep State

by Issandr El Amrani | published January 1, 2012

For background on so-called fi’awi protest, see Hesham Sallam, “Striking Back at Egyptian Workers,” Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011).

For background on SCAF-Islamist relations, see Joshua Stacher, “Egypt Without Mubarak,” Middle East Report Online, April 7, 2011.

The turbulence that has hit Egypt since mid-November seems, at first glance, mostly a testament to the poor performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in handling the transition away from the rule of Husni Mubarak. Having assumed power on February 10, the SCAF moved quickly to attain the stamp of popular legitimacy through a March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments. Since then, however, the conclave of generals has stumbled over the flawed logic of its own plan for the transition, as well as ad hoc decision making and a high-handed, dismissive attitude toward the new politics of the country. The SCAF’s plan, in brief, was to engineer a restoration of civilian rule that shielded the army’s political and economic prerogatives from civilian oversight, and perhaps bolstered those roles, yielding a system not unlike the “deep state” that prevailed for decades in Turkey. Such was the system in Egypt, in fact, under Mubarak.

As a return to civilian government looms, with Parliament set to reopen and presidential elections scheduled for no later than July 2012, the SCAF is no closer to securing such behind-the-scenes dominance for the military and is much further from winning popular consent to that arrangement. Indeed, for much of the political class and a not inconsequential slice of public opinion, the violence of the early winter has reduced the military’s moral authority to a level unseen since its defeat at Israel’s hands in 1967.

In some respects, this delegitimization is not unlike the erosion of Mubarak’s authority over the 2000s: Just as the deposed president, once deemed untouchable, became the butt of activist and media scorn from late 2004 onward, the military now finds itself subjected to unprecedented criticism and scrutiny. The difference is that the SCAF’s fall from grace is occurring at an accelerated pace, propelled by the new faith in participatory politics unleashed by the January uprising and the army’s own bungling.

Fateful Triangle

In the eyes of some, the protest movement and the political class share blame with the SCAF for the stalling of the post-Mubarak transition -- the former for taking to the streets without a clearer long-term agenda, the latter for failing to elaborate a coherent counterpoint to SCAF’s misadministration. Instead of working together, politicians of all stripes engaged in time-wasting arguments about the identity of Egypt, eventually turning to the SCAF for arbitration.

Egypt’s largest and closest-knit political party force, the Muslim Brothers, cozied up to the generals, who were comforted by the Brothers’ supposed ability to control the streets. The Brothers, officially outlawed under Mubarak and his predecessors, obtained a degree of “normalization,” as well as a transition plan that favored them. An Islamist intellectual luminary, the former judge Tariq al-Bishri, chaired the commission tasked with redrafting the six constitutional articles for the March 19 referendum. This body included no representatives of secular parties or revolutionary youth groups, and only one politician, the Brothers’ former MP from Alexandria, Subhi Salih. The Brothers and other Islamists campaigned for the amendments’ approval, at times presenting a “yes” vote as a religious duty. After 79 percent of voters said “yes,” the amended clauses were incorporated into a 62-article “constitutional declaration” that was simply decreed by the SCAF. But the Brothers were attracted by the generals’ blueprint putting parliamentary elections first -- ahead of a completely new constitution that would allocate Parliament’s powers -- because their superior numbers and organization made them most likely to succeed.

Secular politicians, for their part, strove in vain to get the SCAF’s imprimatur upon the outlines of a new constitution. Some of them, particularly the newly registered parties that chose to recruit from the ranks of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, now defunct, sought the tacit backing of the ancien régime.

Formation of this Islamist-SCAF-secularist triangle naturally redounded to the generals’ benefit. The ruling brass positioned themselves as umpires of what was, for the most part, a non-dispute over how such terms as “Islamic” and “civil” ought to figure in the definition of the post-Mubarak polity. The secularists had fallen into the Islamists’ trap of debates over identity, where they could never win, rather than respond to the public’s demands for social justice, prosperity, and law and order.

In the meantime, the politicians lent little succor to the protest movement -- a motley crew of liberal youths, seasoned radicals and many thousands of unaffiliated sympathizers for whom the January uprising is an indelible memory. Those activists who reject formal politics or wish to work independently found themselves the target of reinvigorated security services; a state media machine that painted them as troublemakers and, increasingly, traitors; and the SCAF-led project to promote “stability” over “chaos” and “sectoral (fi’awi) demands,” code for supposedly parochial concerns whose expression was detrimental to national progress.

Already in mid-February, several activists were sent before military tribunals, which offer no possibility of appeal. The SCAF also continued to field civilian security services under the hated Emergency Law in place since 1981. In the autumn, other provisions of this law have been invoked, such as the prohibition upon public gatherings of more than five persons. The murder rap facing the blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah is only one of the ludicrous charges thrown at well-known protesters.

Dark Clouds Over Cairo

The military’s claim to be guardian of the revolution has been weakening since soon after Mubarak was toppled. The SCAF was slow to arrest kingpins of the old regime, and its military police maltreated protesters in March and April, as with the infamous “virginity tests” of women. The protest movement’s mounting dissatisfaction culminated in the reoccupation of Tahrir Square in July. Another turning point was the October 9 confrontation at the state broadcasting headquarters, known as Maspero, in which 25 protesters for Coptic rights died at the hands of army troops. (The SCAF claims that an unknown number of soldiers were also killed; Abdel Fattah is accused of murder in this connection.) If many Egyptians accepted that these deaths resulted from panic among the soldiers, the SCAF’s grip on public sympathy has slipped badly amid the clashes of November and December.

Unlike previous instances, Maspero and a few others excepted, the most recent confrontations -- in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez -- have been very bloody, claiming at least 57 lives and wounding over 1,500. The clashes began on November 19, the day after a peaceful “million-man march” in Tahrir Square, led by Islamist groups but also attracting significant secular participation. The protesters focused their ire on “supra-constitutional principles” drafted by then Deputy Prime Minister ‘Ali al-Salmi, an attempt to predetermine basic tenets of a new constitution as well as rules for the composition of the future constitutional assembly. Among the proposed measures: guaranteed secrecy for the military budget and SCAF authority to impose its own constituent assembly should the body appointed by Parliament fail to agree upon a draft national charter. The day of protest against the army’s power grab passed without incident.

The decision by salafi groups and the Muslim Brothers to back the November 18 demonstration marked the Islamist forces’ first public break with the SCAF. Coming less than two weeks before the start of parliamentary elections, it was an important challenge to the military. The Islamists were confident in their electoral chances, however, and it is premature to declare a divorce between them and the army. The Brothers have resorted to protest only on rare occasion: Indeed, for most of the transition period, their cadre have stood aside, a decision many frequenters of Tahrir Square see as evidence of a deal with the SCAF. Strengthening this analysis is the fact that the Brothers, as well as salafis, largely withdrew from Tahrir at 6 pm on November 18, leaving other activists behind. By the next morning, only a few hundred diehards stayed with the small encampment of families of victims of the January uprising. The families had set up their tents several weeks previous to demand investigations into the deaths of their loved ones and delivery of the promised compensation.

The November-December violence stems from the state’s decision to send in riot police to clear out these remaining demonstrators. The police used considerable force, prompting the full reoccupation of Tahrir Square and a fracas on the adjoining Muhammad Mahmoud Street that claimed 40 lives and wounded hundreds, many of them critically. Police snipers were found to be aiming for protesters’ heads; several activists lost an eye, including one who had already lost a first eye in January. The massive use of tear gas over the ensuing week shrouded much of central Cairo in an acrid cloud, afflicting hundreds, if not more, with serious ailments. Doctors at the field hospital set up by volunteers witnessed several case of seizures brought on by tear gas inhalation. Whether, as many suspect, a substance other than ordinary CS gas was used in still under investigation. Some activists allege that military-grade chemicals were deployed when normal tear gas proved ineffective.

The circumstances of the decision to order the unnecessary police intervention of November 18 are puzzling. Several cabinet ministers have stated that they opposed such a step, including, oddly, the minister of interior, who officially oversees the riot police, the Central Security Forces. The SCAF or other security officers may have overruled them. Equally strange is that the fighting was allowed to go on for several days before the army intervened, taking advantage of a truce to build a wall to separate the riot police from the protesters.

The Muhammad Mahmoud Street clashes, which recalled the scenes of police brutality in late January, outraged the public. The SCAF made some important concessions, agreeing to hold presidential elections by July 2012 (previously they could have been held as late as mid-2013) and sacking the ineffectual government of ‘Isam Sharaf, the former Mubarak-era minister of transport whose early pro-revolutionary stance had won over protesters in February. Attention shifted quickly away from Tahrir Square as parliamentary elections began on November 28, drawing large crowds to polling stations.

Over the next two weeks, Tahrir Square reopened and its occupiers launched a satellite sit-in three blocks south, in front of the prime minister’s office on People’s Assembly Street, where Parliament is also located. The protesters advanced multiple demands, some of long standing and others of fresh provenance. They called for an end to military trials and accountability for police brutality, for instance, as well as opposing the appointment of Kamal al-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era prime minister (1996-1999), as the new caretaker premier. After Sharaf’s firing, there had been hope that the military would share power with a civilian presidential council. The sit-in perdured through the first weeks of December with no problems aside from a dozen cases of food poisoning. The country was riveted by the elections and, in particular, by the success of the Muslim Brothers and the salafis, who respectively garnered some 40 percent and 20 percent of seats in the first round.

The second round of street fighting began early on the morning of December 17, by most accounts when a member of the cabinet sit-in kicked a football into the gardens of Parliament and climbed over the gate to fetch it. After being detained by military police for several hours, he was returned to the protesters bruised and beaten. By the next morning, a makeshift barricade blocked People’s Assembly Street from the major artery of Qasr al-‘Ayni Street, which leads to Tahrir Square. On one side, protesters threw rocks, and on the other, men in civilian clothes and uniformed soldiers did the same. The authorities described the plainclothes combatants as irate residents, though there is no housing on that particular street; activists retorted that they were undercover police officers. Groups of soldiers and other men also stood on the roofs of nearby buildings, hurling rocks, makeshift Motolov cocktails, office furniture and debris down upon the protesters’ heads. Occasionally, each side stopped to shout insults and give their opponents the finger.

Their detractors, and many sympathizers, accused the protesters of throwing rocks for thrills or to get revenge. Most astonishing to Egyptians, however, was the behavior of military police and other soldiers. Never, they shook their heads, had men in khaki uniforms been allowed to behave so wantonly. Snipers were apparently used to kill protesters, including a prominent al-Azhar sheikh, ‘Imad ‘Iffat, who had come to broker a truce. Soldiers were captured on camera urinating on protesters from atop buildings and assaulting women, such as the “girl with the blue bra,” a volunteer doctor at the Tahrir Square field hospital whose brutal stomping is now gasped at worldwide. For most of this time, riot control troops and other regular police were absent. There is no information as to why the Ministry of Interior did not handle the protests, as it normally does. The soldiers were not only ready to treat Egyptians as poorly as the police do, but also to forgo the discipline one might expect of military men, and certainly of those so fulsomely praised for declining to fire on protesters in January and February.

The battle in front of the cabinet office petered out over the next few days, with deadly army raids pushing protesters back toward Tahrir Square. Two major streets near the plaza, Sheikh Rihan and Qasr al-‘Ayni, have joined Muhammad Mahmoud in being walled off by 12 feet of concrete, further scrambling Cairo’s already messy traffic. To the government and much of the pro-SCAF media, the protesters are hooligans far removed from the “true revolutionaries” of January. This line may retain some credence with the public, which is weary of disturbances. But it is undeniable that the credibility and legitimacy of the SCAF, and indeed the military institution as a whole, have suffered severe damage.

Below the Surface

Coming as they did in the middle of the elections, the protests had the potential to divert the road back to civilian rule. Among Islamists, in particular, the protests were deeply worrying. Most disquieted of all were the Muslim Brothers, who feared that prolonged unrest could lead to cancellation of the elections. Having lifted their moratorium on participation in large protests on November 18, the Brothers refused to support any subsequent ones. Their publications -- the Arabic- and English-language websites and the daily newspaper of their new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) -- adopted a deliberate ambiguity on the subject. Leading Brothers who had been prominent in the January uprising, like the former MP Mahmoud al-Baltagi, were visibly distressed by the organization’s reticence toward mass politics, but eventually acquiesced.

Many spoke of a trap set by the SCAF, particularly during the second wave of protests near the cabinet building, when the military appeared to provoke and perpetuate the street battles. These observers noted the proximity of the People’s Assembly Street incidents to the Islamists’ gains in the first round of elections. If the Brothers had joined in the melee, they said, the SCAF would have had the excuse it was seeking to scotch the remainder of the balloting. The killing of the highly respected scholar Sheikh ‘Iffat, a member of Dar al-Ifta’, the authority empowered to issue fatwas on behalf of the Egyptian state, was particularly traumatic for Islamists. Abu al-‘Ila Madi, head of the Wasat Party, an offshoot of the Brothers since 1995, was booed away from ‘Iffat’s funeral at al-Azhar mosque because he was serving on a body appointed after the Muhammad Mahmoud Street protests to advise the SCAF. Madi resigned the next day.

The Brothers’ decision to stay out of the streets, their insistence on elections being paramount, their disdain for the protest movement, which at times echoes SCAF talking points -- all this has earned them the opprobrium of many activists. In the view of many, the Brothers are overly concerned with elections that they have, in essence, already won. They are suspected of preparing, as the incoming legislature’s largest party and probable kingmaker in the presidential election, for coming negotiations with the army over Parliament’s powers and the writing of a new constitution. It is likely that the Brothers are thus preoccupied, and indeed some of them may tacitly approve of crackdowns on mostly secular protesters, but the Islamist factor does not explain why events have taken such a grim turn. If the SCAF and the Brothers were in cahoots, the army would not need to flex its muscles as it did on People’s Assembly Street. If, instead, the SCAF intended to assert its monopoly of violence as a message to the Brothers, as well as other political forces, it did so at the tremendous cost of shattering the reputation of its leader, Field Marshal Muhammad Husayn Tantawi, and sullying the image of the army both at home and abroad.

Apart from gross incompetence, the army’s actions have another explanation: reassertion of a “deep state” that was badly bruised during the January uprising and took some time to regain its footing. While the army may be the bedrock of the post-1952 Egyptian state, the country’s array of security agencies crosses the boundaries between civilian and military. The Ministry of Interior’s agencies were particularly battered by the uprising and the fall of the ex-minister, Habib al-‘Adli, who had amassed unmatched clout in his long years on the job. It is not clear who controls the Ministry today, but it is almost certain that the police veteran in charge when the wintertime clashes broke out, Mansour al-‘Isawi, was not master of his own house.

The strongest security agency in Egypt today is the General Intelligence Services (GIS), which gleans its senior staff from the military and whose only loss in January was its head, ‘Umar Sulayman, who briefly served as Mubarak’s first and last vice president. Sulayman was heir apparent from his appointment as vice president on January 29 until February 5, when an assassination attempt (most likely carried out by elements of the military) against him failed. He has not been seen since Mubarak’s departure (which he announced), aside from a visit to Mecca when he met Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Nayif.

Sulayman’s successor at the GIS is one of his former deputies, Murad Muwafi, a veteran of Egypt’s mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Muwafi has been made a full member of the SCAF and plays a key role there alongside the “big three” generals believed to run the body: Tantawi, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sami ‘Inan and Commander of the Army’s Central Command Hasan Ruwayni. Muwafi tends to lead negotiations with political figures, while the GIS is the SCAF’s main source of information -- including, according to foreign officials who have met with SCAF members, the reports the generals frequently cite hinting at a foreign conspiracy against Egypt. The GIS, in other words, is the SCAF’s eyes and ears. Egypt’s ruling clique is unusually dependent on a single source of intelligence, one that appears to have taken over the Interior Ministry’s demoralized and sometimes vengeance-bent assets. Muhammad Ibrahim, the new minister of interior in the Ganzouri cabinet, is rumored to be close to the GIS.

It is worth recalling what the SCAF is, or rather, what it is not: The SCAF is not modeled on the chain of command in the armed forces, and its members have widely different degrees of interaction with, and influence upon, civilian affairs. Only half of the body is composed of military officers who occupy top billets in the army’s organogram, such as commander of the air force or navy. The rest are political officers, mainly lieutenants of Tantawi who held senior positions at the Ministry of Defense (and who often appear on television as spokesmen), or officers drawn from the GIS or the military’s own intelligence service (often a career precursor to a GIS assignment). The method by which the SCAF makes decisions, its frequent slowness in doing so, and the confusion that prevails (or is allowed to linger) over the manner in which it handles security issues, in particular -- all these things are a mystery, even by the army’s customary standard of opacity.

In elite Egyptian circles, among the Muslim Brothers and amid an increasing number of activists, concern is growing that the SCAF’s right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. A bumbling SCAF would help to provide some explanation for the army’s spectacular mishandling of protests after months of building its popularity on declining to fire on protesters to defend the Mubarak regime. While incompetence is a tempting explanation -- it is easy to picture the generals as a coterie of out-of-touch old men -- it is no longer sufficient or convincing. For many activists, the leading interpretation of recent events is that SCAF has always been intent on restoring the practices of the Mubarak regime. But this theory, too, falls short, as the inner mechanisms of the SCAF’s decision-making, its dependence on intelligence agencies that have their own agenda and the likelihood that the generals are not all on the same wavelength must be factored in. As the SCAF inevitably recedes from the scene in 2012 -- the election of a new president will oblige it to -- it is the hybrid military-civilian deep state and its manipulations that could be the greatest cause for worry.

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