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.”