CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s top intelligence agency, long a secretive power behind the country’s ruling system, is taking a small but unprecedented step out of the shadows in an apparent attempt to win the public’s support in the face of potential challenges from the new Islamist president.
In an unusual move, the General Intelligence Service — known as the “Mukhabarat” in Arabic — released a 41-minute-long documentary boasting of its achievements, presenting itself as the defender of the nation and vowing to continue to protect the country.
“The eye of the Egyptian intelligence does not sleep,” the narrator says. In one of the film’s many dramatic images, it shows footage of a falcon — the agency’s symbol — circling in the sky and swooping down to snatch up a snake.
“Behind the curtains, the men of Egypt’s intelligence services continue to monitor issues, analyze facts, confront offenses, carry out operations and succeed in achievements without us knowing what they look like or who they are,” the narrator says.
The documentary, aired late last week on private and state-run Egyptian TV stations, also plays heavily on widespread anti-Israel sentiment among Egyptians, saying the agency has protected Egypt from plots by Israel and its Western allies. It shows footage from World War II, including images of Jews interned in Nazi camps, and says that Jews plotted for “a nation created on the land of Palestine.”
The film, titled “The Word of a Nation,” was a highly unusual public relations move for an agency which traditionally stays hidden, has an opaque but pervasive role and is described by experts as “a state within a state.” The agency oversees espionage efforts abroad but also plays a significant role domestically. It was a crucial underpinning of Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule, working to suppress his opponents and ensure the loyalty of institutions nationwide.
Former intelligence officer Gen. Sameh Seif al-Yazal told The Associated Press that the film was made to raise awareness about the importance of the agency after it came under attack by some for not doing its job and was criticized as serving remnants of Mubarak’s regime.
But it comes at a time when the agency and other key parts of the old system are looking to defend their turf and their sway over the country after the election victory of the new president, Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group was the chief nemesis of Mubarak’s regime and was repressed by his widely-hated state security services and the Mukhabarat itself.
In theory, the intelligence agency and other security services would now report to Mursi — but they and the military are believed to be pushing back to ensure that does not happen and that Mursi does not get to name the government ministers who would oversee them.
“For many years, the (agency) saw the Brotherhood as their prime enemy,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt. “And because of the treatment the Brotherhood saw for many years, there is a fundamental mistrust and an inherent power struggle that is yet to be addressed.”
Eventually, the Brotherhood may try to reshape the security agencies. “If restructuring doesn’t happen immediately, it will sooner or later,” Morayef said. “The battle hasn’t started yet.”
Already, the Brotherhood is in a power struggle with the military, which has ruled since Mubarak’s fall. It has formally handed over power to Mursi, but before doing so it seized overwhelming authorities for itself that retain a large degree of control and restrain the new president. The military’s head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, vowed that the army would never allow the Brotherhood to dominate the country.
The Mukhabarat and the military are in “complete cooperation and understanding” with one another, Gen. al-Yazal said. The intelligence agency’s building is located behind the walls of the Defense Ministry in Cairo. Intelligence chiefs are often from the military. Throughout most of its history, the intelligence agency’s chief was never named, until the last decade when its head Omar Suleiman emerged in a public role as Mubarak’s right-hand man.
Suleiman was one of the most powerful figures in Mubarak’s inner circle, serving as his intelligence chief since 1993 and then as his vice president during the 2011 uprising. He was dubbed “Mubarak’s black box” because of his reputation as the regime’s holder of secrets. When Mubarak fell, he was replaced as intelligence chief by Murad Muwafi.
Suleiman briefly tried to run for president — provoking a furious outcry from those who launched the revolution against Mubarak — but failed to qualify on technical grounds.
Now the Mukhabarat have faced sharp criticism from Mursi’s Brotherhood as well as pro-democracy activists who fear it will keep its grip on the state. Some have been calling for the prosecution of Suleiman for his connections to Mubarak’s regime, notorious for its political repression and corruption.
“Suleiman’s papers should not have been submitted to the elections commission, but to the courts,” said Mohammed el-Beltagy, a leading Brotherhood member and former lawmaker, during a recent interview on the privately-owned ONTV. “This (the agency) is at the heart of Mubarak’s regime, which used to rely on the intelligence services and state security.”
During Mubarak’s trial, in which he was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of hundreds of protesters during the revolt against him, prosecutors and lawyers for the victims’ families accused the intelligence agency of being uncooperative in the investigation and of destroying tapes and other vital documents incriminating police of targeting unarmed protesters.
This month, Mursi issued a presidential decree to re-open all the investigations. The investigative committee, though, will likely not have authority to investigate the military’s involvement in deadly protests since Mubarak’s toppling.