Democracy Lab

Cairo's Undercover Strongman

Meet Murad Muwafi, the most important man in Egypt you’ve never heard of.

CAIRO -- When Hosni Mubarak fell from power in February 2011, many elements of his regime remained in place -- at least at first. In the year since then, the Egyptian army, the police, and the business elite have struggled to cope with the tide of revolutionary change washing over the Arab world’s most populous country.

Not one of these institutions has made it through the process entirely intact. The deeply unpopular national police force has seen its authority relentlessly eroded by protestors and the press. Mubarak-era crony capitalists have landed in jail, their old deals under fire from rivals or the courts. And the military, which has ruled the country in the guise of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has become the focus of popular anger as it struggles to maintain its control. Now the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ridden recent electoral victories to a dominant position in the new parliament, is set to advance its own agenda, thus adding a fresh element of unpredictability to the struggle for power.

Yet one pillar of the old regime has survived the turmoil with its authority intact -- if not expanded. It is the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. As the elderly generals of the SCAF have only fanned the flames of discontent with their clumsy maneuverings in recent months, the GID, which reigns supreme among Egypt’s competing security services, has gradually emerged as something like the brain trust of the leadership. Unlike the ruling generals, its officers act outside of the limelight, their workings largely obscure to the media and the public. Its role has enabled the GID (commonly known in Arabic as the Mukhabarat) to capitalize on the uncertainty that plagues other reigning institutions. As a result, the man who runs it -- an inscrutable 61-year-old by the name of Murad Muwafi -- is now poised to assume a key role in the next phase of high-level intrigue.

It is understandable that historians of revolution tend to focus on the revolutionaries, the drivers of change. Yet every political upheaval also spawns its share of Muwafi-like figures, the backroom operators who use their command of bureaucratic intrigue to make the leap from the old regime to the new. To be sure, the Egyptian spymaster is no Talleyrand. In contrast with that shrewd defender of monarchy who went on to side with the French Revolution and ultimately served as Napoleon’s foreign minister, Muwafi is no silky intellectual. His rare appearances on Egyptian TV, for example, have tended to highlight his less-than-perfect command of Arabic -- befitting a long-time military officer who has risen through the ranks by virtue of a prodigious memory and a shrewd understanding of the realities of power. Yet there is no question that his long years as political troubleshooter have uniquely equipped him to maneuver through Egypt’s turbulent transition.

When, for example, the leaders of the military decided it was time to talk with human rights activists last fall, it was Muwafi who represented the SCAF at the meeting. One factor may have been his ample experience as Egypt’s chief mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. And when the SCAF dispatched emissaries to Washington last year, Muwafi figured in that delegation, too. (He even had his own private audience with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.) U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a point of including Muwafi among his interlocutors when he visited Egypt in the fall -- right after a session of cheesecake and bowling with SCAF supremo Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. And perhaps most revealingly of all, it was Muwafi -- rather than Tantawi or the Egyptian foreign minister – to whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned when a mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September.

Yet no one should make the mistake of assuming that the GID’s work is restricted to lofty strategic issues. Muwafi’s agency is uniquely equipped to navigate the everyday details of domestic politics by virtue of its position as the country’s top domestic security agency. To this day, no one can get a job in Egypt’s vast public bureaucracy without being vetted by the secret police -- and the GID has full access to the files, along with its lower-ranking sister agency, the State Security Service (rebranded in March last year as the “National Security Force"). Decades of tracking, interrogating, and blackmailing dissidents give the GID vast leverage over Egypt’s new generation of politicians.

Given its past involvement in matters that hardly fit the traditional Western definition of national security (such as management of the government crisis response during Nile flooding), the spy agency almost certainly has extensive knowledge of Egypt’s economic affairs as well. “Events since the fall of Mubarak demonstrate that SCAF’s plans to control Egyptian society were actually dominated by State Security and the GID, which served as the eyes and the memory of the regime,” wrote political analyst Amin Al-Mahdi in a column last year. Former army officer Ahmed Ezzat, who started a Facebook page that tracked allegations of corruption among Egypt’s military establishment, claims that the GID has used its budget funds to start private companies whose profits benefit high-ranking officers of the intelligence service. What’s more, says Ezzat, GID companies have no-bid access to government contracts. “The GID is a state within the state,” he writes. “There is no professional, financial, or legal oversight of its operations.”

Muwafi’s background remains something of a mystery. But what is clear is that he would not be where he is without Omar Suleiman, his predecessor as Egypt’s chief spymaster. During his 18-year reign as head of the GID starting in 1993, Suleiman, one of Mubarak’s key confidants, vastly extended the agency’s reach, broadening its more traditional intelligence portfolio to include sensitive national security issues ranging from relations with Iran and Israel to monitoring the Islamist opposition. At the same time, however, the GID continued to involve itself in the minutia of everyday Egyptian life. GID operatives have been known to intervene in a sectarian conflict involving a Coptic Christian priest, or to arbitrate a labor dispute between managers of a textile factory and their dismissed employees. Cairo human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad recounts a case when sociologists at a provincial university decided to conduct a survey on young people’s attitudes towards sex. Unsettled by the potentially sensitive nature of the study, a dean at the university called in a local GID officer for advice.

Muwafi’s talents made him a perfect fit for the peculiarly Egyptian national security establishment. Beginning his career as an army officer, he gradually rose to the head of Egyptian military intelligence. (A rare Arabic-language article on his career is shown here in a rough version provided by Google Translate.) That background served him well when he took on a job as governor of the strategically sensitive Northern Sinai District in 2010. Though he was able to take some credit for improving security in the border zone, he later came under fire for describing the area’s itinerant Bedouin tribes as “criminals” who earned profits from their smuggling business with Gaza.

In January 2011, Mubarak promoted Suleiman to the vice presidency in a desperate bid to bolster the foundering regime. But Suleiman, like his boss, failed to live up to the task, and he resigned soon after the dictator’s ouster. Meanwhile, State Security found itself facing the indignities of popular discontent. In early March, a mob attacked its offices in Cairo, seizing files documenting persecution of the government’s opponents. But unlike the seemingly comparable storming of Stasi headquarters in East Berlin in January 1990, this event didn’t mark the end of Egypt’s internal security services. If anything, it ended up shifting even more power to the elite GID, which, as part of the military establishment, maintains its most sensitive facilities on inaccessible army bases, out of the reach of the turmoil on the streets.

Muwafi, in any event, has only continued to thrive in the post-Mubarak era. Last spring he was one of the first Egyptian officials contacted by the U.S. after it emerged that the SCAF had freed the brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from jail as part of an amnesty for political prisoners. The brother, Muhamad al-Zawahiri, was re-arrested just a few days later. Around the same time Muwafi was mediating in "unity talks" between Hamas and Fatah, as well as participating in discussions with Hamas about a possible move of its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo. (So far, at least, the move has not materialized.) When Muwafi made an unprecedented trip to Syria last year in connection with those talks, the event was a source of considerable disquiet to both the Americans and the Israelis, who wondered whether Egypt was in the process of reorienting its policies away from the relatively pro-Israel line of the Mubarak era. Muwafi was also credited with helping to broker the prisoner exchange that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit from Hamas captivity.

But Muwafi -- though rarely figuring in Egyptian media coverage -- has continued to expand his domestic portfolio as well. As SCAF bosses continued to make misstep after misstep, it was Muwafi who engaged the regime’s opponents in two separate meetings in October 2011. Hamad, the human rights lawyer, who participated in one of the sessions, recalls Muwafi saying that he would report on the talks directly to Tantawi. The encounter was revealing for the insights it afforded into the Machiavellian mindset of the governing military elite. When some of the activists present suggested firing Prime Minister Esam Sharaf, at the time trying to negotiate a delicate course between the SCAF and the demands of protestors in the streets, Muwafi, according to Hamad, responded, “If we let him go now he will become a national hero.” And when the oppositionists demanded the government lift the state of emergency effective in the country since 1971, Muwafi declined on the grounds that “it will look like we succumbed to American pressure.”

There is scant indication that the GID or Egypt’s military rulers have changed their thinking in any substantial ways. Even today, many months after Mubarak’s downfall, activists tell of development projects that have been scotched by the intelligence service’s refusal to grant a “security approval.” It is widely rumored that the recent raids on 17 Egyptian and foreign NGOs, ostensibly triggered by funding irregularities, were based on reports supplied by the intelligence agency. “The SCAF places more trust in the intelligence service because it’s part of the military,” says Bahi El Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “Reports from the Interior Ministry”  -- which controls the police -- “don’t enjoy the same sort of credibility.”

The dialogue Muwafi started with the activists did not continue. “It seems that the mission was linked with its timing,” says Hassan. “That was a period when the SCAF was making lots of mistakes in its management of the transition period and criticism of its actions was rising.” It may be that the Muslim Brotherhood’s success at the polls has convinced the generals that they no longer need to take the secular opposition into account; many observers of the Egyptian political scene suspect that the SCAF and the Brotherhood may have already negotiated a covert power-sharing deal. But no matter what happens next, expect to see Murad Muwafi playing a pivotal role.


Is Putin's Fake Rival the Real Deal?

Everyone thought billionaire playboy Mikhail Prokhorov was just a patsy for Vladimir Putin to run against and crush. But what if he wins?

MOSCOW – From the crowd that gathered on Jan. 13 at Moscow's Central Telegraph building, just up the block from the Kremlin, you would think someone was handing out envelopes of cash. There were pensioners, housewives, college students, and school teachers packing into the entryway and spilling out onto the street, all craning to get a look at the narrow head that stuck up above the throng. Even from the back of the crowd you could see it -- the bobbing noggin of the 6 foot, 8 inch, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who was there to open a campaign office as part of his race for the Russian presidency.

The strange part was that he seemed to be having fun interacting with voters, listening to their lamentations, letting them pinch the fabric of his coat. But here's the really strange part: Everyone there, except for most of the journalists, really believed he could win.          

The narrative in the press so far (except in Russia's state-run media) has labeled Prokhorov a Kremlin puppet, an assumption based mostly on experience. Candidates in Russian presidential elections going back to 2000, when Vladimir Putin first became boss, have pretty much all belonged to the so-called "constructive" (read: token) opposition. These are men like the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the sideshow nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who have run and lost in almost every presidential race since the fall of the Soviet Union, each time with a little less heart. (They both sat out in 2004, when Putin's popularity peaked at well above 70 percent.) Now both in their late 60s, they don't campaign too hard anymore, at least not in the whistle-stop sense of the word, and the running joke about them has been the same among voters for a decade: "Comrade Zyuganov (or Herr Zhirinovsky), you have won the presidency! What is your first decree?"

"Um. Um. I decree that all presidential powers should immediately be transferred to Putin."

Candidates with a more independent pedigree, such as Grigory Yavlinksy, the head of the liberal Yabloko party, are usually kept out of the race. And sure enough, the Central Election Commission denied Yavlinsky registration last month, claiming he had forged a quarter of the 2 million signatures needed to get on the ballot. That left the dynamic duo of Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky running alongside the other leader of the constructive opposition, Sergei Mironov, who gets about as much traction claiming independence as does Putin's black Labrador. When he ran against Putin in 2004, Mironov openly supported the candidacy of his rival, and when Putin's second term in office was running out in 2008, Mironov helpfully proposed changing the constitution to allow his old friend to stay for four more years.

So what about Prokhorov? He is, at 46, by far the youngest candidate, lives the life of a jet-setting bachelor, does not belong to any political party, has never held office, and has an estimated fortune of $18 billion. He even owns an NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, making it hard to believe that he can be bought with a suitcase full of cash. As the cynic's wisdom goes these days, he could simply be after the good graces of Putin's Kremlin, which could grant him more nickel and gold mines -- the sources of most of his wealth. He could also be after a senior position in government that would allow him to lobby his interests. But whatever his motivations, Russia's opposition leaders, both constructive and unconstructive, are convinced that Prokhorov is a stooge. "He is in cahoots with Putin in these elections, there is no doubt about that," says Boris Nemtsov, one of Prokhorov's close personal friends and a leader of the popular opposition movement. "Prokhorov is tied in with the government at every stitch, like any big businessman in Russia. So Putin has every ability to grab him by the horns and twist."

The lanky bachelor, however, does not come off as a man acting under duress. At the opening of his campaign office in the Central Telegraph building, he spent hours talking to his supporters, hearing out their drab complaints about heating bills and kindergartens even as his advisors tried to drag him away. He had clearly been rehearsing, with every answer polished and precise, a little gem of rational populism. On foreign policy: integrate with Europe. On fiscal policy: tax the rich. On the economy: help small business. On Putin: He's served 12 years, it's time for him to retire.

At one point, a young businessman complained that federal aid to his region was not reaching the people in need. He asked Prokhorov to interfere. "First, what we need to do is change the entire system of power," Prokhorov said, looking down at the man, who was in a wheelchair. "Now officials depend only on their higher-ups, but they need to depend on the people, the voters. Without that shift, your problem will never get fixed." The remark contrasted sharply with Putin's style of manual control, which usually deals with petty complaints by promising to punish some guilty bureaucrat or other.

Prokhorov preaches instead that Russia's problems are systemic. As he spoke, a small chorus of grandmas murmured in agreement. "Good boy! That's the stuff! He'll do fine, that one. He'll be president," said one of them, Nina Koloskova, 74, who took pictures of Prokhorov on her cell phone. Afterward, she spent half an hour convincing me to love her candidate, too. "He speaks such beautiful Russian! All you hear from the others is slang!" One by one, a handful of other supporters walked up and joined the conversation -- a retired school teacher, a housewife, a university student. It was hard to resist their enthusiasm. "The reason we always vote for the Communists is not that we want to go back to the USSR," said Lidiya Yurina, the teacher. "We vote for them because there was no one else. But now there is Prokhorov." Perfectly earnest and in no rush, these people did not look like the hired goons who have packed pro-Putin rallies lately. These were your classic protest voters, idealistic and angry, and there are a hell of a lot of them in Russia these days.

In December's parliamentary elections, more than half of the popular vote went to the opposition parties -- a first since Putin came to power. Almost 20 percent went to Zyuganov's Communists, even though nowhere near that many people are nostalgic for Stalin's rule. Allegations of vote-rigging by Putin's party, United Russia, which struggled to win its 49 percent, stirred even more anger among the electorate. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have begun taking to the streets by the tens of thousands, with the next mass demonstration planned for Saturday, Feb. 4. This is the energy Prokhorov is trying to channel. And regardless of whether he is doing so at the Kremlin's behest, he is off to a fairly strong start.

He packed auditoriums in Kazan and Novosobirsk last month, and has a whistle-stop tour set for at least six other cities before the March 4 elections. The managers of his businesses in 30 of Russia's regions are helping him get out the vote, and although his campaign has refused to disclose spending figures, his pockets are deeper than any other candidate, perhaps including Putin. Last month, he also dipped into his Rolodex to form a "social council" of rock stars, famous athletes, TV presenters and celebrities like the pop diva Alla Pugacheva, all of whom are backing his campaign. And on a talk show in early February, he promised to give away $17 billion of his $18 billion fortune if he defeats Putin and wins the presidency.

But according to the latest survey, which was released by the independent Levada Center polling agency on Jan. 31, Prokhorov would get a measly 4 percent of the vote if the elections were held this Sunday, putting him neck-and-neck for third place with the veteran politicians Zhirinovsky and Mironov. Considering that polls taken last summer showed that only a few percent of the population even recognized Prokhorov's name, this doesn't seem all that bad. According to the same Levada poll, however, Zyuganov, the Communist, is well ahead of Prokhorov with a projected 8 percent of the vote, while Putin would get 37 percent, sending the two of them into a run-off.

On Feb. 1, Putin admitted for the first time that a run-off vote is even possible, if highly unpleasant to think about. "A second tour would cause a prolonged battle, and that would destabilize our political situation," the prime minister told a group of election monitors. But with his approval rating now below 50 percent even in the government's own surveys, a run-off looks likely, and the bureaucracy is getting prepared. Election officials in the region of Smolensk, for instance, placed an order in January for nearly a million leaflets inviting citizens to vote in a presidential run-off. The question now is whether anyone can beat the Communist to second place.

"Our strategy is simple," says Anton Krasovsky, Prokhorov's campaign manager. "Every day, we come up with some way to get on television. Let the people see his face." To this end, Prokhorov held a press conference on Wednesday for no apparent reason, and the room was packed with reporters. Channel One, Russia's leading state-run network, whose programming is tightly managed by the Kremlin, gave the press conference more than two minutes of air time at the top of its evening news broadcast, ahead of all the other candidates -- except, of course, Putin. "I'm in politics with serious intentions and for the long haul," Prokhorov assured the channel's viewers, an estimated 120 million people in Russia alone.

Confusingly, though, other state-run channels have made Prokhorov the subject of smears. Last week, the NTV network (one of the top three channels, owned by Gazprom, with an audience of 120 million worldwide) reminded its viewers of the time in 2007 when Prokhorov was detained by police in the French Alpine resort of Courchevel on suspicion of running a prostitution ring during a holiday party for Russia's super rich. Over a soundtrack that could have come from a Freddy Krueger movie, the broadcast went on to allege that the "oligarch" had purchased an island in the Seychelles. Prokhorov denies both allegations. 

What he has not always denied is that his candidacy is a fluke, practically impossible without the tacit say-so of the powers that be. "It's not easy to pass all the barriers," he told Reuters last month. "You need to have more or less a green light to pass to the ballot.... You need to have a green light from a majority of the Russian elite." When I asked him at Thursday's press conference what this meant -- who gave him the green light and why? -- he backpedaled.

"I never got any green light," he said. "I met all the humiliating demands for candidacy that are required by the law."

And so the question lingers, as it probably will throughout his campaign. In the end, however, it won't make much of a difference on the outcome. Regardless of whether Prokhorov secretly agreed to stand as Putin's sparring partner, his popularity is on the rise, and many Russians will be content to give their protest vote to him. He is at least a newcomer, unlike the tired trio from Russia's constructive opposition, and that alone might be enough to push Prokhorov into the run-off. "And then all bets are off," says Anton Nosik, a pundit and popular blogger. "If he gets his hand on that scepter, he's untouchable. He'll turn into a different animal as soon as he tastes blood. And then what? You think he'll just hand back the reins? I really wouldn't bet on it."

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images