Blind Allies

‘Western intelligence agencies missed Egypt’s Facebook Revolution. What on earth are they paid for?’

Michael Burleigh

Project Fat Fucker was the CIA codename for a 1951 mission led by Kermit Roosevelt to salvage Egypt’s sybaritic King Farouk. It was doomed since the king’s attention span was poor — even when his own regime was at stake — whenever he caught sight of a nubile teenage girl.

Instead, Roosevelt and his colleague Miles Copeland used other means to stem the march of communism into the Middle East. Copeland was deputed to find a “Muslim Billy Graham” among the dervishes in Milo’s Den, a “religious speakeasy” in Cairo’s Old City. Drawing a blank with the “crazies”, the CIA turned to the group of young army colonels around Gamal Nasser, with whom Roosevelt established cordial relations. Off went Farouk to an extended debauch in Paris and Rome. In came a military regime fronted by the amiable Sudanese General Mohammed Naguib, until he was ousted by Nasser, the first native Egyptian to rule since the ancient Pharoahs. America had found its “strong man”, a quest also pursued with Ramon Magsaysay in Manila and Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon. Even when Nasser decided to play both ends against the middle by taking arms and aid from the Soviets after the US refused to bankroll the Aswan High Dam, the CIA recognised that his neutralist stance was better than nothing, and refused to play ball when a deranged Anthony Eden tried to murder him. 

The allure of the strong man who can order apparent chaos has beguiled US policy-makers towards Egypt ever since. The reign of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) was part of that trend. He seems to have embezzled funds equivalent to Egypt’s entire national debt. Even when ordinary Egyptians baulked at attempts to create a ruling dynasty through his son Gamal, sections of the US security apparatus shifted their chips onto Mubarak’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. This was a non-starter since the uncharismatic spy is widely held responsible by Egyptians for the Mukhabarat’s torture chambers, and for murky dealings with his colleagues in the CIA and Mossad.  There is no love lost between the army and the Central Security Forces. Most of the Mukhabarat are from Upper Egypt, while the army consists of conscripts from across the nation. Moreover, when the leather-jacketed goons went on strike in 1986 and 2008 it was the army which gleefully crushed them. The same US security agencies will be rapidly acquainting themselves with the likes of Field Marshal Tantawi or General Sami Annan on the same principle which led them to support Mubarak. The more venturesome Western spooks will already have feelers out to “moderate” elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. The major lacuna in all of this will be the liberal, socialist and moderate conservative human rights activists, feminists and pressure groups, dealings with whom have long been palmed off on a minor subdivision of the State Department.

Sundry alarmists have been busy painting the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if Mubarak kept a lid on it rather than used it for his own purposes. The ease with which Suleiman called its leaders into a televised tea suggests how far the banned Brotherhood leadership was already “transformed” (in the Italian sense) into a wing of the National Democratic Party, with its own business and property interests and representation, as “independents” in parliament. In return, Mubarak intermittently pursued their socially conservative moral agenda against homosexuals, Christians and witches. Not only does the Brotherhood lack a single leader, but it is rife with inter-generational tensions; it is not evenly present in the major cities, where ironically, many young people are nostalgic for the good old louche times they see in Farouk-era films.

In the last decade a major rift was developing between the crony-globalisers and messianic privatisers around Gamal Mubarak, and businessmen with a more modest focus, including an army with its own ramified commercial interests. Into this burst angry jobless graduates, in a society where wasta or “clout” rules. Even tourists are not immune to the corruption: I’ve been asked for a bribe by Cairo airport customs officers. It is to all of this that the Tahrir Square crowds said “Enough”, and for which 300 people gave their lives. Since Western intelligence agencies failed to detect this, tantalised as they are by terrorism, one might ask what on earth they are paid for.

In 1953, Kermit Roosevelt organised the “democratic” monarchical coup against Mossadeq in Iran. It took about three months with the CIA’s then primitive technologies. Let’s see what can be done, openly, by the West to assist the heterogeneous elements of the Egyptian Facebook Revolution to become functioning mass political parties, a genuine democracy.

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