x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Egypt voter fear: Big Brotherhood is watching you

Some suspect Muslim Brotherhood might be eager to use the security apparatus that tormented its members during Mubarak era.

A poster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi strewn across a crowded street in Cairo's Al Hussein district. Analysts say if Mr Morsi becomes president, control of Egypt's feared intelligence and security services could boost the Brotherhood's transnational aims.
A poster of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi strewn across a crowded street in Cairo's Al Hussein district. Analysts say if Mr Morsi becomes president, control of Egypt's feared intelligence and security services could boost the Brotherhood's transnational aims.

CAIRO // What happens when the spied upon become the spies? That is one question being asked by Egyptians who fear the consequences of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi winning the presidency in run-off elections scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

If Mr Morsi becomes president, control of Egypt's feared intelligence and security services could boost the Brotherhood's transnational aims, according to some analysts. The mukhabarat, which spent the last 60 years fighting political Islam, encompasses the General Intelligence Services (GIS), State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) and Military Intelligence Department (MID).

"I think they will have great difficulty in gaining control of the mukhabarat, but they have ideas for how to use power for their aims in the region," said Kamal El Helbawi, who once served as the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman in Europe but left the group this year because he disagreed with the leadership's plan to run a candidate in the presidential elections. "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will not yield easily though. It will take time for them to gain control."

Supporters of Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force commander who opposes Mr Morsi in the elections, say they fear a more powerful Muslim Brotherhood in control of the government because of the group's belief in exporting political Islam beyond Egypt's borders.

"They believe that Islamists are rising up to their peak in the region and that governments will unify under religion," said Retired Lieutenant General Hossam Khairallah, a failed presidential candidate and former deputy to intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in the GIS. "They have global ambitions."

The Muslim Brotherhood refutes the claims it has a secret plan for the intelligence sector, insisting that it only wants to make the security sector just, after years of violating human rights.

"We don't even know how the mukhabarat works yet," said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. "Our policy is that it should work for the benefit of the people, not the ruler's interests."

Mr Ghozlan also said that the intelligence and security services should be open for Islamists to join as a matter of equality.

It is not yet clear whether the Muslim Brotherhood has struck a deal with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and leaders of the mukhabarat to give the security services a degree of autonomy if Mr Morsi becomes president.

One possibility is that Egypt follows a similar transition to Pakistan, where a civilian president was elected in 2008 but the Inter-Services Intelligence agency stayed under military supervision.

"The new government immediately started talking about taking over ISI, but they were stifled quickly by the Pakistani army," said Owen Sirrs, a former Egypt analyst at the Defence Intelligence Agency in the US and professor at the University of Montana. "I can see something similar happening in Egypt."

If a Muslim Brotherhood executive branch tried to take over the GIS in Egypt, it could face a "revolt from the middle ranks" of the mukhabarat or the military quietly blocking their attempts, said Prof Sirrs, who is the author of a history of Egyptian intelligence agencies.

"There are probably a lot of people who don't want to be answering to the very people that they hunted and tortured," he said.

Some fears about a Muslim Brotherhood presidency are rooted in a wider question about how the secretive group works. Established in 1928 by Hassan Al Banna, a schoolteacher, the group began as a social organisation that focused on improving life for Egyptians and increasing religiosity.

It was driven underground by British-controlled government because of its opposition to colonial rule and later banned outright by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who believed the Muslim Brotherhood's "secret apparatus" wing had tried to assassinate him in 1954.

Presidents Anwar Sadat and Mubarak continued to repress the Muslim Brotherhood although, in the later years of Mubarak's rule, its members were able to win some seats in parliament running as independents.

To implement its plans to extend its reach beyond Egypt's borders, Muslim Brotherhood chapters have opened across the world. Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, controls the Gaza Strip.

While the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups operated in the shadows for much of their history, Egypt's mukhabarat forged a close relationship with western powers in their fight against global terrorism, especially from the 1990s.

Egypt struck a deal with the US where the Central Intelligence Agency could bring back terror suspects to Egypt in what are called "extraordinary renditions". Once in Egypt, intelligence officers would imprison, interrogate and torture the suspects. Dozens of men were brought to Egypt under this arrangement, adding fuel to Islamists' opposition to the Mubarak regime.

The GIS also took some of Egypt's most sensitive foreign policy responsibilities away from the ministry of foreign affairs. It oversees the country's relationship with Israel, the Palestinian territories and, to some extent, Sudan.

That might be the reason why increasing control over the mukhabarat is appealing to the Muslim Brotherhood, said Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, DC.

"Their ambitions are not limited to Egypt," he said. "Egypt is the first stage for a wider Islamist project. Without these important tools, such as the General Intelligence Services, they cannot fulfil their long-term ambitions."

After the uprising last year that forced Mubarak to resign, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly organised its members and created the Freedom and Justice Party as its political arm. The party won nearly half of the seats in parliamentary elections and then reversed a previous decision not to run a presidential candidate in a bid to enlarge its powers.

The decision to run a presidential candidate was a sign that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership wanted greater control over security and intelligence, said Barbara Zollner, a professor at Birkbeck College in the United Kingdom.

"Beyond their rhetoric of national unity is their agenda to reshape national and foreign policy and push the Muslim Brotherhood ideological agenda of Islamicising society," she said.

bhope@thenational.ae