Former Obama-era diplomat and National Security Council adviser Stuart Seldowitz, who was arrested for hate speech and racist taunts at a Muslim cart vendor in New York, was seen referring to Mukhabarat in Egypt, arrest his parents and torture them. The feared secret police have been used by successive Egyptian governments to police citizens and keep dissidents in check.
But the term is also used to describe state intelligence and security services elsewhere in the Arab world. This includes Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Arabic-speaking Israeli nationals, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In Libya they are known as Mukhabarat el-Jamahriya (Jamahriya Intelligence) and in Saudi Arabia as Al Mukhabarat A’amah.
In general and colloquial terms, it refers to a police force used to spy on citizens. But they are now more popularly associated with Egypt, given the country’s tumultuous political history, marked by repressive rulers. A look at modern history of the last two decades, during the War on Terror, would be a more relevant period to understand the role of Mukhabarat.
Tortured 9/11 Suspects
Journalist Sam Husseini, who declares himself anti-American, job on
“An underreported aspect of Seldowitz’s threats against the food vendor is that the US government is using the Mukhabarat in Egypt to torture people. Most notoriously, they tortured al-Libi into making false confessions about al-Qaeda’s collaboration with Iraq.
“Colin Powell would present this as ‘evidence’ to the UN to justify the invasion of Iraq. (Al-Libi was later transferred to Libya, and the US government then approached Gaddafi for a time to have him “suicide” al-Libi.) I asked Powell about this, and he continued to conceal the situation. American policy is a long-standing imperial policy orchestrated by many criminals (sic),” Husseini said.
Stuart Seldowitz, former deputy director of #WE State Department Office #Israel and Palestinian Affairs from 1999 to 2004, expressed Islamophobia towards this Muslim man. #Gaza pic.twitter.com/B2aWOHcdXL
– Quds Information Network (@QudsNen) November 21, 2023
Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, Husseini referred to Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, is a Libyan national captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. He was interrogated by American and Egyptian authorities, both of whom allegedly tortured him.
The administration of then-President George Bush cited the information he provided as evidence of ties between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government, which led to the invasion of Iraq.
However, media investigations, books, and Congress reports said his stunning claims about his links to al-Qaeda and his activities in Iraq were made “under duress” and to stop extreme torture and “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
These revelations implicated the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Egyptian Security and Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat). On a broader level, they also raised questions about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq: Saddam’s ties to Islamic fundamentalist groups and possession of weapons of mass destruction. These comments turned out to be false.
Seldowitz’s comment to the Muslim immigrant about “Mukhabarat in Egypt (taking his) parents back” and “(removing) their nails one by one” stems from this agency story.
Egypt’s secret police have long been known to be terrorized detainees of the United States, said The New Middle East Podcast, a sparsely subscribed war on terrorism” consultant.
“The largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel, Egypt was a key strategic ally, and its secret police, the Mukhabarat, had a reputation for brutality,” said a February 2005 New Yorker article. State officials frequently cited Egypt for torturing prisoners, according to the article.
May 9, 2005 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has addressed the US-Egypt network by conducting “extraordinary renditions” – questioning Islamists, terrorism suspects and “detainees” outside the United States. The program operated at its peak between 1994 and 2004.
He mentions the case of Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of senior al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was handed over to Egyptian authorities by the United States. “He spent four and a half years in an underground detention center run by the Mukhabarat, where he did not see sunlight and could not distinguish between day and night. Interrogation and torture went hand in hand,” the report said.
The HRW report cites a statement by former CIA officer Robert Baer in the investigative journal Stephen Gray famous article in The New Statesman, “The American Gulag:” “If you want serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.
A section of foreign policy and security observers has long criticized the US practice of turning a blind eye to repressive Arab governments, many of which are of orthodox Islamist and fundamentalist leanings, when doing so suits its political needs. Opposition within official political circles has only denounced and restricted this practice, but has not ended it.
Thus, Seldowitz’s precise reference, context, and pronunciation of the term “Mukhabarat” was not a vague usage of the word motivated by lost knowledge. Drawing from his professional experience as a diplomat, he represents the controversial anti-terrorism investigation mechanism set up by American and Egyptian officials.
Seldowitz served as deputy director and senior policy officer in the Bureau of Israel and Palestinian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 1999 to 2003. He also served as an advisor to the National Security Council during the Obama administration.
Current role in Egypt
Three periods in Egypt’s recent history have witnessed the predominant role of the Mukhabarat. First: The Arab Spring protests in the Middle East were marked by massive demonstrations against outgoing President Hosni Mubarak, triggering a repressive response against the demonstrations.
After Mubarak’s ouster, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi came to power by allegedly manipulating electoral and constitutional rules. His opponents accused him of usurping power and many of them were arrested and imprisoned.
It also led to protests against him when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed him in a coup. However, Sissi’s government has been accused of harsh repression of dissent and opposition, illegal detention of critics and deaths in custody.