February 01, 2011

Spy Agencies Failed to Predict Egypt Uprising



It is becoming increasingly clear that the ongoing popular uprising in Egypt represents the most important geopolitical development in the Middle East since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. In light of this, it is remarkable how unprepared foreign intelligence agencies have proven in forecasting the crisis. Even the Israelis were caught completely unaware: on January 25, the day when massive protests first erupted across Egypt, Major General Aviv Kochavi, newly appointed head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, told a Knesset committee that “there are no doubts about the stability of the regime in Egypt” and that “the Muslim Brotherhood is not organized enough to take over”. Instead, Kochavi focused on political volatility in Lebanon; ironically, the latter now seems like an oasis of tranquility compared to the explosive state of Egyptian politics.

If the Israelis, whose very concept of national security is inextricably linked with developments in Cairo, were so unsuspecting of the popular wave of anger against the thirty-year dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak, one can only imagine Washington’s surprise at the protests. After speaking to Mubarak on the phone last Friday, US President Barack Obama urgently summoned his advisors to the White House for a weekend security briefing, several days after the wave of popular discontent swept the Middle East’s most populous country. Similarly, stunned policy planners in Tel Aviv are reportedly “anxiously monitoring” the situation on the ground in Egypt, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued strict instructions to his Cabinet Ministers to “refrain from commenting on the issue”.

Like Netanyahu, Obama will find that there is little his advisers can tell him about developments in the streets of Egypt. For years, the US Central Intelligence Agency has worked closely with the Egyptian security establishment in the contentious context of Washington’s “war on terrorism”. But it is unlikely that the CIA has been as meticulous in developing trustworthy contacts inside Egypt’s fragmented but dynamic and energized Egyptian opposition. The latter, whether religious or secular, is naturally distrustful of American officials, whom it sees as longtime supporters of the dictatorial rule of President Mubarak, in the interests of what US Vice President Joe Biden hascalled “geopolitical interests in the region”.

Some US intelligence planners were pleased with the recent appointment of GeneralOmar Suleiman to Egypt’s Vice President. Few knowledgeable observers were surprised by the appointment of Suleiman, who has directed the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate for nearly 20 years. His strong candidacy had been publiclynoted even before the ongoing uprising, and undoubtedly represents a rare positive development for US State Department officials, who know Suleiman well. The General, who is often described as the Middle East’s most powerful intelligence chief, has “longtime friends” and “close working” personal relations with the CIA. These were significantly advanced during the Bill Clinton administration and solidified under the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program after 9/11. Egyptian officials have admittedreceiving up to 70 terrorism suspects under the CIA’s controversial secret detention program. Planners at Langley know and trust Suleiman, and will undoubtedly try to oversee a change of guard in Egypt in favor of the General, who is considered Washington’s horse in the race to replace Mubarak.

But Middle Eastern politics are always more complicated than they appear, and it is unlikely that the Egyptian opposition will allow Suleiman, who is considered a staunch Mubarak loyalist, lead the besieged government. Those in the know insist that the Egyptian armed forces have yet to speak, and that the military top brass is “still sorting out [...] whether to continue to back Mubarak”. It is worth remembering that, with the world’s 10th largest military, numbering nearly half a million armed men, many of whom are stationed on the border with Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Egypt is a totally different ball game than Tunisia.

A consensus is gradually developing among Egypt experts around the world that the Mubarak regime will indeed fall, a stunning scenario that seemed completely implausible even a week ago. The most cautious observers note that it is “hard to imagine Mubarak is president in a year”. If this were to happen, nobody would be able to foresee what Egypt, or the Middle East as a whole, would look like by the end of 2011. It would be equally impossible to predict the state of US foreign policy by that time. As one Israeli commentator noted recently, Obama may be remembered in American foreign policy annals as “the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America’s alliances in the Middle East crumbled”.

[Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been teaching and writing on the politics of espionage and intelligence for over ten years. He is Senior Editor of intelNews.]

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