U.S. Secretly Backed the Brotherhood’s Soft-Power Strategy in Egypt

President Barack Obama’s caution as protests rock Cairo is reminding Arabs of the proverbial chameleon “who doesn’t leave one tree until he is sure of another.” The difference between the timid lizard with its coat of many colors and the White House is that a chameleon would never cut down his own perch as the White House has done with its democracy campaign. From George Bush’s Freedom Strategy to Obama’s Islamic policy, Washington has pursued a dual approach in the turbulent region: supporting military-based alliances with authoritarian regimes; while urging popular agitation for free and fair elections.

The intention was to use democracy protests as a coercive tool to prod authoritarian regimes into cooperating with America’s strategic designs, but now the unimaginable has happened – democracy is winning. As millions of protesters edge closer to toppling America’s key ally in the Mideast, a leaked diplomatic cable indicates the State Department has been in league with opposition activists over the past three years to plot Mubarak’s downfall, including secret talks with the Muslim Brotherhood. The December 2008 cable titled “Meeting and Regime Change in Egypt” is shocking because Hosni Mubarak has never acted belligerently toward neighboring countries like Saddam Hussen did with the invasion of Kuwait and border wars with Iran. To the contrary, Mubarak hewed to the Camp David peace accords with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has violently opposed peace with Israel and spawned the militant Hamas group in Gaza. American counterterrorism experts have argued that human rights violations, including renditions, in the Mideast were necessary to the war on terror. A firm hand in Egypt was seen as especially important since more than half of the suspected 9/11 hijackers, including their leader Mohammed Atta, were Egyptians who according to U.S. federal law-enforcement agencies had links to the Brotherhood.This raises the question: If Washington is allied with the Brotherhood, why are American troops fighting the Taliban when none of the 9/11 attackers were Afghan? 

Over the 10 years since September 11, while other Mideast leaders expressed admiration for the World Trade Center attackers as “martyrs”, Mubarak expended his political capital and risked unpopularity at home to pursue and punish America’s sworn enemies. Yet the White House switched to backing a kinder, gentler Brotherhood to oust its closest ally and benefactor in the Middle East. As the Arab saying goes: “Words of praise from the mouth and a dagger in the hand.”

Planning the Days of Rage 

The White House claims of being “taken by surprise” in the Egyptian upheaval. Feigned shock and cries of innocence fly in the face of facts on the ground. At the first major Cairo protest on January 25, a former State Department staffer in charge of planning the Twitter revolution was physically present with his proteges in the American-sponsored April 6 Youth Movement, long allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Jared Cohen, an operative for State’s Policy Planning Office, has since switched to working as a Google executive. Google, in turn, provides free Twitter service to Egyptian protesters. Starting in 2006, Cohen frequently traveled to Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt to recruit students and young bloggers for social-media training programs run by the State Department. At the time, the U.S. government was in dire need of translators of Farsi and Arabic. 

Seen as one of the brightest staffers at State , he advocated social media not just for intelligence monitoring but as a weapon to build online networks of dissent and organize mobile street protests. His methods were tried in Twitter Revolution after Iran’s 2009 elections, a major story for the international news media. Cohen even attracted the attention of the Israeli government, which invited him to speak alongside Shimon Peres at a Tel Aviv tech conference.

To his idealist young charges, Cohen promoted the writings of Gene Sharp from the Boston-based Albert Einstein Institute. Called the “Clausewitz of nonviolent war” and the “Machiavelli of nonviolence”, Sharp’s organizing methods were promoted by U.S. intelligence agents to foment protests from Tiananmen Square to Belgrade, Kiev and Bishkek. The same blueprint is being applied to Cairo.

The Embassy Cable

A debriefing of one of those recruits from the April 6 Youth was described in the Cairo cable to the State Department. Although the name has been deleted, he was one of the Ahmeds – Maher and Saha – who founded the Facebook group to support a 2008 strike in Mahallah, near Alexandria. Both have since been detained for subversion by Egyptian state security.

Ahmed, who worked as a “fixer” for Western news media, had just returned from New York, where he had attended the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit in early December 2008. To the embassy staffers, he expressed satisfaction with the U.S. visit, which included meetings with government officials on Capitol Hill and think tanks.

The activist recalled how he had urged his U.S. interlocutors to freeze the offshore bank accounts of top Egyptian government officials. The Facebook activist then said: “Mubarak derives his legitimacy from U.S. support,” and charged the U.S. with “being responsible for Mubarak’s crimes.”

Ahmed disclosed that “several opposition parties and movements accepted an unwritten plan for democratic transition by 2011.” His interviewers were skeptical, adding “We are doubtful of this claim.” The opposition coalition included ” the Wafd, Nasserite,. Karam and Tagummu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya and Revolutionary Socialist movements.”

An embassy staffer inserted a comment: “We have no information to corroborate that these parties and movements have agreed to this unrealistic plan. (Another activist) previously told us that this plan was publicly available on the Internet.” A second comment, reiterated the doubts, saying Ahmed “offered no roadmap of concrete steps toward April 6’s highly unrealistic goal of replacing the current regime with a parliamentary democracy prior to the 2011 presidential elections.”

The Embassy was not a mere bystander but already engaged in supporting the April 6 Youth. “On December 28, we asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of Egypt to release three April 6 activists from police custody.”

The cable was dispatched under the name Scobey, indicating the American ambassador to Cairo Margeret Scobey had attended the Ahmed debriefing. She must have been converted, since her office was soon open to all and any dissidents, according to sources inside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. The irony is that, while America’s infantrymen were being blasted by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, its diplomats were having tea with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why was the cable leaked now, three years later? Presumably so that some embassy staffers can disclaim their involvement in the coming debacle for U.S. strategic interests across the Mideast.

State Department’s Activist Faction

In contrast to veteran diplomats in the Arab world, the pro-democracy supporters in the State Department received news of the anti-Mubarak alliance with glee. Within State, the Public Policy Office under successive directors Steve Krasner, David Gordon and Anne-Marie Slaughter took the lead in sponsoring activist-centered projects in Iran, Syria and Egypt. Current  director Slaughter is a key adviser to Hillary Clinton on democracy promotion and national security.

The Alliance of Youth Summit, mentioned in the Cairo cable, was organized by Jared Cohen and financed by the Public Policy Office with private-sector sponsorship from Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Access 360 Media and Howcast as well as Columbia Law School.

The stated objective of the 2008 bash was to produce a field manual for youth empowerment that would “stand in stark contrast to the Al Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism.” The role model for these Web activists was a Facebook warrior from Colombia who had organized “One Million Voices against the FARC”.

In short, the project goal was an Internet-based propaganda campaign to support counterinsurgency and regime change across the developing world. The annual $8 billion-dollar intelligence budget had to be spent somewhere, so why not on harassing Third World regimes? That’s more feasible than trying to take Osama bin Laden dead or alive.

The embassy’s rosy reports  to Hillary Clinton accounts for the White House support for Mohamed ElBaradei’s presidential candidacy and his National Alliance for Change. A serious problem for Cohen and Scobey was that April 6 Youth’s claim of having a network of 70,000 viewers proved not of same value as a thousand street fighters or a million protesters supplied by the Brotherhood. U.S. officials say the Brotherhood joined the protests “late in the game” That is pure fiction, as the 2008 cable proves. 

At prayer times, Tahrir Square is now the world’s largest mosque. 

The Palace Coup

The internal revolt against Hillary Clinton by diplomats who had been kept out of the loop sent the National Security Agency into an emergency huddle. The NSC elders realized that the Cairo ambassador and Hillary Clinton had lost the plot. In an intensifying crisis, the simple task at hand was to replace Mubarak, not demolish the entire state structure of America’s main Arab ally and certainly not to install a Caliphate straddling the Suez Canal. The purpose of the protests was  merely to nudge Mubarak into retirement and to warn the ruling National Democratic Party not to toy with nuclear ambitions.

Former Cairo ambassador Frank Wisner Jr., an intelligence expert whose father organized the CIA counterinsurgency program called Operation Gladio, landed in Egypt on January 31, pushing aside Ambassador Scobey. In closed-door meetings, he drew the roadmap with the newly appointed vice president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Within three days, the Tahrir Square rally was brutally attacked by undercover agents,. On the next evening, February 3, Suleiman gave a grandstand interview on state television. 

Suleiman’s charted the course ahead: those responsible for the anti-protest violence would be punished, the youth should go home knowing their calls for reform would be taken seriously, and none from the Mubarak family will be allowed to run in the presidential elections, including the second son Gamal who is the architect of Egypt’s nuclear plans.

With that 40-minute broadcast, the palace coup was accomplished. 

The new kingmaker saved his most scathing comments for the bungled “conspiracy” that resulted in the deadly circus that damaged Cairo’s image and  injured Egyptian pride. “Certain foreign countries are trying to impose their own agenda and interfere in our domestic matters. We listen to advice from foreign friends, but we cannot accept orders.. Infiltrators, foreign and Egyptian, have taken advantage of the enthusiasm of the youth for reform and tried to directly interfere in our political process. . . . We will investigate who’s been pulling the strings.”

Perhaps the tough language is meant to distance the ruling National Democratic Party from the impression that it is a handmaiden to American interests. Or maybe to lay to rest accusations of Suleiman’s collaboration with CIA renditions. Far likelier is that the NDP inner circle realizes it can no longer trust a dubious ally that came within a razor swipe of cutting their throats. 

Soft Power to Victory

The soft power strategy of the Brotherhood and its allies, modeled after the rise of Islamic parties in Turkey and Lebanon, exploits advantages in democratic procedures. Under a parliamentary system, a plurality – already ensured for the Brotherhood – is enough to build a coalition and form a government. Therefore the opposition rejects any power-sharing agreement with the ruling NDP, which now faces disintegration from defections and legal prosecution.

The U.S. hedged its bets by backing the democracy activists but is being dragged down by its long connections with the losing side. The repercussions are being felt from Morocco to Indonesia. The Brotherhood’s drive to power- with America’s own consent – has undone the very logic of the war on terror, undermining any rationale for continuing the intervention in Afghanistan. As the Arabs say: “He who plants thorns can’t expect roses.”


The author Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times Weekly, has extensively reported on North Africa and the Gulf States.

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One Reply to “U.S. Secretly Backed the Brotherhood’s Soft-Power Strategy in Egypt”

  1. Zgadzam sie z przedmowca…
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