Military Intelligence trumps political intelligence in Egypt

Military Intelligence trumps political intelligence in Egypt
Comment: The all-powerful intelligence apparatus in Egypt has manufactured a political scene that is anything but intelligent, writes Robert Springborg.
6 min read
24 May, 2016
Military Intelligence has come full circle, back to its role under Nasser [Getty]

Since 1952, Egypt's Military Intelligence division has been responsible not just for gathering and analysing information related to foreign military threats, but for spying on the Egyptian military itself - and indeed, the whole of society.

It has served as a primary coup-proofing tool for all of Egypt's officer-presidents. Several ministers of defence, including Ahmad Ismail and Kamal Hassan Aly under Sadat, served immediately prior to their promotion into the cabinet as heads of military intelligence, as indeed did General Sisi.

As for Nasser, immediately after leading the 1952 coup he placed his close confidante Zakarkiya Muhyi al-Din in charge of Military Intelligence, from which position he constructed an intelligence network loyal to the president intended to counterbalance the influence of then-Minister of War Abd al Hakim Amer.  

Over the following six decades the centrality of Military Intelligence to the control of the military and broader society has varied, but has always been substantial. Sadat and Mubarak both used State Security Investigations, under the Ministry of Interior, as well as General Intelligence, directly under the presidency, as counterweights to Military Intelligence - precisely because they were not from the heart of the military themselves.

Sadat served on active duty in the military less than five years, whereas Mubarak was an air force, not army officer. They could not, therefore, place all of their trust in Military Intelligence as it is potentially subjected to cross-cutting military loyalties.

Omar Sulaiman, who served Mubarak as an enforcer in much the same way as Zakariya Muhyi al-Din had been Nasser's tough guy, was plucked from Military Intelligence, where he had served as deputy director and then director from 1986 to 1993, to head up General Intelligence - a position from which he was promoted to Vice-President in the final 10 days of the Mubarak era.  

Sisi used Military Intelligence to overthrow President Mohamed Morsi and then to serve as the primary instrument of his regime, both as watchdog on the military and as ringmaster of the political arena.

While serving under Morsi as minister of defence from August 2012, he charged Military Intelligence with the task of recruiting a civilian opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was to be a grassroots movement modelled on that which had overthrown Mubarak a year earlier.

Supported by the Ministry of Interior, Military Intelligence organised the ostensible volunteer youth movement, Tamarod, which in turn coordinated the petition allegedly signed by 22 million Egyptians demanding Morsi's resignation, which became the focus of mass demonstrations at the end of June and beginning of July 2013.

Sisi's methods echo Nasser's in the handling of broader civilian political life

Sisi's control of Military Intelligence is highly personal. Two of his sons have served in the agency. He appointed as his successor there his daughter's father-in-law, to say nothing of sprinkling his friends and allies throughout key positions within that and other key commands. Muhammad Farid al-Tohamy, Sisi's old boss from Military Intelligence, was appointed to head the General Intelligence agency, for example.

Military Intelligence's role as coup-proofer was evidenced in the spring of 2015 when it claimed credit for sniffing out an Islamist coup attempt against Sisi.

Simultaneously, it has performed its duty of arranging civilian window-dressing to cover the military regime.

As Hossam Bahgat notes in Anatomy of an Election, in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in 2015, it organised two political parties which, combined, won a substantial majority and went on to form government in early 2016. It also appears that Military Intelligence has taken on a more direct role than previously in subduing real and imagined opposition, as suggested by allegations of its torturing detainees in its network of secret prisons.

Sisi's methods echo Nasser's in the handling of broader civilian political life. In early 1953, Nasser, profoundly contemptuous of political parties, issued a law dissolving existing ones, simultaneously ordering Military Intelligence to create the Liberation Rally, a proto-party designed by Nasser himself to occupy the civilian political vacuum his coup had created - and thereby deter independent political organisation.

Sisi has adopted a virtually identical strategy, with the one difference being that he created two equivalents to Nasser's Liberation Rally - one version for seniors and another for juniors.

The first, For the Love of Egypt, the name of which was subsequently changed to Support Egypt, was intended to attract the type of influential and opportunistic elements that had flocked to Nasser's Liberation Rally.

Sameh Seif al Yazal, ultimately charged by Sisi with organising the group, had served in Military Intelligence before being transferred to General Intelligence. After the removal of the Brotherhood, he and Murad Muwafi - a former head of Military Intelligence who had been removed from his position by Morsi in August 2012 - worked together to organise the contemporary equivalent of Nasser's Liberation Rally.

Seif al-Yazal soon replaced Muwafi, who lost Sisi's confidence - possibly because he potentially could have posed a challenge to him - and successfully steered Support Egypt to victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections, in which it won 120 seats to become the largest bloc, with him at the head.

Military Intelligence has thus come full circle, back to the role created for it by Nasser

Sisi also mandated a little-known 24-year-old, Muhamad Badran, who had, in April 2013, won election as president of the Egyptian student union - presumably with the backing of Military Intelligence - to organise the Nation's Future Party, a junior version of the Liberation Rally intended to draw youth into the regime's embrace and away from the opposition.

It won 53 seats in the 2015 parliamentary elections, forming the second-largest bloc. This convenient electoral outcome respecting the senior/junior division of political responsibility, was presumably arranged by Military Intelligence, which played the key role for the regime in orchestrating elections.

Kamal Amer, a former Military Intelligence officer and the leader of the Guardians of the Nation Party, a component of the Support Egypt bloc, was in April 2016, elected chair of parliament's Defence and National Security Committee, which has primary responsibility within parliament for overseeing the military.

Military Intelligence has thus come full circle, back to the role created for it by Nasser in defending his rule against his fellow army officers, and protecting the military's rule from civilian challenges and oversight.

Small wonder that politics in Republican Egypt have never really matured.

Confronted with the overwhelming coercive, informational and financial power of Military Intelligence, Egypt's representative bodies, political parties, media and civil society organisations are for good reason scarcely more developed than they were in 1952, when the struggle between them and Military Intelligence commenced.

Military Intelligence, in sum, creates dumb politics.


Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations.

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.